Humans have a fundamental need to connect with other humans. Our survival and well-being depend on it. But most members of modern civilization are starving for human connection for one simple reason – we’re terrified to be vulnerable.
The dictionary defines vulnerability as helplessness, powerlessness, weakness and susceptibility to attack, so it is not surprising most of us aren’t lining up to put ourselves in vulnerable positions, but, in her famous Ted Talk, social scientist Brene Brown says doing so is absolutely essential to forming intimate human relationships:
In her years of research, Brown has interviewed hundreds of people about whether or not they have a strong sense of love, belonging and connection. She found the one thing the people who answered “yes” had in common was the courage to be vulnerable.
“They had the courage to be imperfect,” Brown said. “They believed what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.”
“They talked about the willingness to say I love you first, to do something where there are no guarantees, to breathe through waiting for the doctor’s call after your mammogram, to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.”
But these people were the exception to the rule. When she asked about love, the majority of people talked about heartbreak. When she asked about their sense of belonging, they told her about their most excruciating experiences of exclusion.
The thing this “disconnected” group of people had in common was a sense of shame.
“Shame is the fear of disconnection,” Brown said. “‘Is there something about me that if people know, or see, will make me unworthy of connection?'”
There is only one variable separating the two groups of people, Brown said – “The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy. The one thing that keeps us out of connection is our fear that we’re not worthy of connection.”
What are we so afraid of?
In her quest to determine why our culture struggles so much with vulnerability, Brown first asked people what made people feel vulnerable.
Here are some of their answers:
Having to ask my husband for help, because I’m sick, and we’re newly married.
Initiating sex with my husband.
Initiating sex with my wife.
Being turned down.
Asking someone out.
Waiting for the doctor to call back.
Getting laid off.
Laying people off.
“This is the world we live in,” Brown said. “We live in a vulnerable world.”
We no longer have the economic and social security of a tribe or a village. In our culture of rugged individualism and independence, we’ve learned we have to fend for ourselves, which often has left us in extremely vulnerable positions, both physically and emotionally.
We live in a culture of manufactured scarcity, Brown says – “a culture that tells us there is never enough – we are not enough, we are not safe enough, we can never be certain enough, we are not perfect enough, not extraordinary enough.”
To cope with the stress of forced vulnerability, we avoid voluntarily placing ourselves in vulnerable positions and numb all feelings of vulnerability.
Here are some of the ways we numb vulnerability:
1. Addiction. Alcohol, drugs, food, TV, shopping – you name it.
2. Making uncertainty certain. Afraid someone’s going to break up with you? Break up with them first! At least you’re in control.
3. Perfectionism. We think being perfect makes us invulnerable.
4. Pretending. “We pretend that what we do doesn’t have an effect on people, in our personal and corporate lives.”
5. Staying busy. “We stay so busy that the truth of our lives can’t catch up.”
The problem is you cannot selectively numb emotion, she says. You can’t numb vulnerability without numbing joy. As a result, we are the most indebted, obese, addicted and medicated generation in U.S. history, Brown said.
But there’s another way, Brown says:
- To let ourselves be seen – deeply seen, vulnerably seen.
- To love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee.
- To practice gratitude and joy. In those moments of terror – when we’re wondering ‘Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately?’ – to stop and say ‘I’m so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.’
- To believe we are enough.
“Vulnerability is not weakness,” Brown says. “It’s our most accurate measure of courage.”