For as long as I can remember, I tend to tear up at unexpected moments. It might happen in the midst of a seemingly prosaic conversation, or while I am reading aloud to my kids. It happens sometimes if a line from a song on the radio breaks into my thoughts. This tendency used to frustrate me to no end, because such a display of emotion (especially one I don’t understand) makes me feel vulnerable.
Do you experience positive or negative connotations with the concept of vulnerability? For many of us, our answer depends on who we are talking about. We want others to be vulnerable with us, but we don’t want to be vulnerable in front of them! In Daring Greatly, researcher Brené Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.”1 Vulnerability, defined by Brown as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” is scary and often uncomfortable, but essential for strong, supportive relationships.
To varying degrees and in different ways, we all adopt ways of being and acting which protect us from the potential pain of vulnerability. According to Brown, “Whether we’re fourteen or fifty-four, our armor and our masks are as individualized and unique as the personal vulnerability, discomfort and pain we’re trying to minimize.”2 But as individual as our armor can be, the ways we protect ourselves have some common threads. Brown continues, “…I was surprised to discover that we all share a small array of common protection mechanisms… My hope is that a peek inside the armory will help us to look inside ourselves. How do we protect ourselves? When and how did we start using these defense mechanisms? What would it take to make us put the armor away?”3
A few common items from the armory, as described by Brown, are the following:
- Perfectionism, which Brown describes as “the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame.”4 Perfectionism is different from aiming for excellent work or from a commitment to personal growth. Perfectionism, driven by trying to earn others’ approval, stems from a fear of failure.
- Numbing, or attempting to deaden feelings of pain and/or discomfort. We all do this at times—but some of us numb in ways that are more socially acceptable than others. Drinking and drugs are obviously destructive ways to numb feelings; more socially-acceptable ways include keeping too busy, overspending, and overeating. Dr. Brown writes that most people numb to avoid feelings of shame, anxiety and disconnection. But, when we numb uncomfortable or painful feelings, we also numb our ability to experience positive emotions.
- Not letting ourselves feel joy. This seems totally counterintuitive. Who doesn’t want to experience joy? But, joy is an extremely vulnerable emotion, which can make us feel uncomfortably exposed.
Over time, these pieces of armor can grow quite heavy, but there is a way out. For each of these problematic ways that we try to protect ourselves, Brown writes, “…it appears that believing that we’re ‘enough’ is the way out of the armor—it gives us permission to take off the mask. With that sense of ‘enough’ comes an embrace of worthiness, boundaries, and engagement.”5 Toward that end, consider the following:
- Self-compassion combats perfectionism. Brown comments, “…if we want freedom from perfectionism, we have to make the long journey from ‘What will people think?’ to ‘I am enough.’”6 One way to do this is to cultivate self-compassion: be kind to yourself; recognize that others struggle, too, and be mindful—acknowledge painful feelings without letting them take over. Accepting that we are enough can help break the hold of perfectionism.
- Boundaries. Anxiety and disconnection are two uncomfortable feelings we often try to avoid. Instead of numbing, healthy people lean into those uncomfortable feelings, to explore where they come from. Then, they try to change the behaviors that cause those feelings, rather than just trying to manage the bad feelings. Often doing something about the problem (rather than just addressing symptoms) involves setting realistic boundaries, which includes recognizing when to say “Enough!”
- Gratitude helps us experience joy. In Brown’s research, “every participant who spoke about the ability to stay open to joy also talked about the importance of practicing gratitude.”7 Gratitude acknowledges that we are living with enough, allowing us to accept joy.
So, how does one come to believe “I am enough”? For Christians, the answer rests in our identity in Christ. We are sinful people; the Bible is clear about that. It also reveals that we are loved and accepted despite our sin. We are enough because Christ is enough. We do not need to perform to earn approval from others. Our sense of identity rests in Christ, not in our abilities or in relationships with other people.
This article is an invitation to take off the armor with which we protect ourselves. Instead, let’s clothe ourselves in softer garments—those of compassion (toward ourselves, too!), kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness, topped with a greatcoat of love.8 In fact, let’s “clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.”9
My unexpected tears bother me less nowadays than they used to. A friend commented once that the Holy Spirit can work through tears. Now, tears remind me to soften and accept uncomfortable emotions. They remind me that vulnerability is good, and necessary.
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly. 2012, Gotham Books. Page 113. Most of the quotes in this article are from Daring Greatly. If you’re intrigued, give it a read. It’s a book that can change your life! ↩
Daring Greatly, pages 114-115. ↩
Daring Greatly, page 115. ↩
Daring Greatly, page 129. ↩
Daring Greatly, page 116. ↩
Daring Greatly, page 131. ↩
Daring Greatly, page 123. ↩
Colossians 3:12-14 ↩
Romans 13:14 ↩