I wonder what you’re thinking when you read the title of this blog. That I care too much about whether or not you like my blog? That I am too obviously seeking approval? Or, possibly, that you understand me because you’ve written things before and have also hoped that people would like them?
I believe there is a universal vulnerability that is part and parcel of the human condition. We all struggle sometimes with feeling nervous, insecure, approval seeking, angry, depressed, hopeless, etc. And yet, what’s ironic, is that we often don’t share those aspects of our experience with others. They’re too vulnerable. We tend to share what we’re good at, what we’re confident about, the things that make us happy, that make us proud, our successes. These are all fine things to share and can often help connect is with others. But then, it’s no wonder why so many people come in to therapy with a very one-sided view of how their life should look or how they should feel. This view is often expressed by statements like, “Why am I the only one who feels this way?” “My neighbor never gets overwhelmed or yells at her kids like I do.” “I’m so horrible; I get angry.” “I get nervous in social situations and then get even more nervous that people will notice I’m nervous.” These statements speak to beliefs that vulnerabilities are not a normal part of the human condition and that they are shameful.
Now, just to be clear, I am not proposing that all discussion we have on an interpersonal level should be about our deficiencies. Nor am I suggesting that we introduce ourselves to others through our weaknesses. (“Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Adam. I yell at my wife at least once a week. And how about you?”) What I am considering though is what the world would look like if we were a bit more open about our struggles and the humanity in them instead of being ashamed and trying to hide them. Of course the level of sharing is often dependent on the kind of relationship we have with the other person; keeping the need for appropriate boundaries in mind, but to some degree I believe it can be present in most relationships.
A big part of being able to share vulnerable aspects of ourselves with others, without shame, is being able to accept and embrace these aspects of ourselves. If I can see my own vulnerabilities as what they are- human struggles that everyone deals with on one level or another- then I know there is no shame in having them and then that attitude will come across in the way I may choose to discuss them with others or the way those vulnerabilities impact my life.
In his book, “The Happiness Trap; A Guide to Act,” Dr. Russ Harris describes his efforts to implement a similar idea. He describes that as an MD he would often feel anxious when he had to stitch a wound on a little child, which would lead his hands to shake, which would then make him more anxious that people would know he was anxious. At some point he decided to accept the anxiety and would tell patients, “you may notice my hand shake a little when I start stitching. This happens to me sometimes but I don’t want you to worry. I know what I’m doing and the shaking will stop after a few minutes.” He found that the more worked on his own acceptance of his shaking hands by putting it out there instead of trying to hide it, the more his patients were able to accept it, and eventually the duration of the shaking lessened because he wasn’t so anxious about it.
In the Internal Family Systems Model of therapy a distinction is made between “speaking from a part” and “speaking for a part.” The basic difference is that when I speak “from” a vulnerable part of me, I am blended with that part and not able to really share the experience of that part in an observing state. On the contrary, when I speak “for” a part, my observing self is able to share with others the experience of that part, without that part taking over my whole system. For example, Dr. Harris can speak for his nervous part and in so doing will come across not as a nervous person who can’t be trusted, but as a calm person noting his anxiety and sharing it in a way that enables his patients to feel confident in his ability to help them. I believe this is a key aspect in being able to share vulnerable aspects of ourselves.
I’ve heard many arguments against accepting our vulnerabilities, some more popular than others. One of the most common ones is “We can’t just accept our struggles and not be ashamed of them; then we will never be motivated to change!” This is a “black and white” perspective which assumes that shame is a motivating factor for change.” In fact, Carl Rogers is noted to have said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Acceptance and change are not mutually exclusive.
Another common argument is, “people won’t respect us or want to connect with us if they know our vulnerabilities.” Well, that depends partly on how we are relating to those aspects of ourselves ad partly on the type of people we want to connect with. There certainly may be people who look down on us for being human, but are those the people we want to connect with? As for myself, I know I’m far quicker to connect with the woman in the park who comes over to borrow baby wipes while wryly commenting on how she always forgets something, then the woman with the perfectly cut up melon squares for her immaculately dressed kids who are of course not running in the sprinkler with muddy feet like my own imperfect offspring. Call it a preference if you will.
So we need to find the balance. Would you want your college professor to acknowledge being nervous on the first day of the semester? Possibly not. (Although I think most of us would agree that this would be a relatively normal way to feel going in to a new semester). What about a speaker in front of 1000 people? Would it make him lose credibility if he acknowledged feeling nervous? If yes, then I want to consider that. Is the belief then that a person who is nervous to speak in front of 1000 people can’t be good at what they do if they are nervous about it? And if that is a belief that I have then what am I modeling for others in my life? If I can’t accept my own imperfections, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses as normal parts of the human experience that don’t detract from my worth; then how can I help my children/spouse/students/clients with that process? And on the flip side, if I can relate to both my own vulnerabilities and those of others with acceptance and understanding, how might that change the world?
Just some food for thought. As for me, I’m still hoping you liked this post.
Tzipora Shub, LCSW works as a supervisor at the JBFCS adolescent clinic in Flatbush and in private practice.