Vulnerability and the pathway to Wisdom

I keep returning to a TED talk I watched early last year by Brene Brown, called The Power of Vulnerability. It is one of the most personally profound and insightful TED talks I have ever watched, and continues to reward me time and time again.

By way of context, Brene is a qualitative social sciences researcher – so, basically, she captures people’s stories (lots of them!) and then extracts the key themes, commonalities and points of difference to identify the patterns on how we are collectively experiencing a phenomenon. In Brene’s case, this phenomenon she was exploring was the psychological construct of shame. What a topic!

According to Brene, the experience of shame occurs when a person perceives that they are not worthy of connection with others. For whatever reason, a person feels that they are ‘not enough’ – not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not appealing enough, not … you know what I mean, you have your own ‘not enough’ story! And this feeling of being not enough’ leads to fear of being rejected by the very people the person wants to connect with. We have all experienced the feeling of shame – of believing that we are not good enough for another’s acceptance and connection.

At the very core of Brene’s research findings is that radical vulnerability is an antidote to shame.

To meet one’s own shame of not being enough head on; to decide to expose one’s soft underbelly to those we seek to connect with and move through the fear of rejection; to put one’s own perceived inadequacy to the test and disprove its validity, is at the very core of being fully available for the world.

In her talk, Brene shared the key pattern emerging from six years of research into shame and how people overcame their shame and fear of rejection. The core thread underpinning a person’s capacity to step into radical vulnerability is believing that he or she is worthy – worthy of love, attention, affection, and connection. People who are vulnerable have a strong sense of loving and belonging and believe that they are worthy of love and belonging. People who embrace radical vulnerability are whole-hearted.

So, why be vulnerable? At one level, it appears ‘easier’ to protect oneself and to not put one’s very essence on display for others to experience, to judge and critique, and to accept or reject. it appears ‘easier’ to try and control both sides of the connection. But it is the illusion of control. From my own personal experience, the more I have sought to control the experience others have of me the less of me becomes available for others to experience. For me, the more I release myself from the needing to be in control of how others experience of me, the more I gain a connection to how my True Self shows up in that moment.

Brene shares the findings of her research into why being radically vulnerable is the only real pathway towards wholeheartedness. She states that by ceasing trying to control others experiences of us we release our soul towards joy, creativity, belonging, love, truth.

And I think there is another key outcome of being vulnerable and choosing to live and lead a wholehearted life. There is Buddhist saying, “a closed mind cannot learn” which comes to mind as I watch Brene’s talk for the nth time. Radical vulnerability  is necessary for us to become wise. Vulnerability is the doorway to wisdom.

And if vulnerability is the doorway to wisdom, what are the hinges of that door? Once again, Brene identifies three hinges of the Vulnerability Doorway:

  1. Courage – to tell the story of who you really are with your whole heart;
  2. Compassion – to choose to be kind to oneself and to others; and
  3. Connection – to establish a real and authentic relationship with others that you can rely upon in times of self-doubt.

1. Courage

At its heart, courage means being open with one’s imperfections and being willing to embrace and share your incompleteness with others. It is only by sharing with others your “I don’t knows” that they can offer you a new or fresh perspective that might just be the spark that lights the pathway from the darkness into your light.

2. Compassion

Compassion allows you to be kind to yourself as you share your frailties with others. It also allows you to listen to the frailties others share with you. In his book, Power and Love, Adam Kahane shares a definition of Love that I think aligns well with how compassion acts as hinge on the doorway of vulnerability. Adam defines love as, “the drive towards the unity of the separated.” In other words, love is the impulse to reconnect or make whole that which has become separated.

In this way, to love oneself and to be kind and compassion with one’s own imperfections will provide the inner energy to reunite oneself with his/her True Self that wants to show up in that moment.

3. Connection

Real connection comes as a result of being authentic with others. Authenticity involvesbeing true to oneself, being the author of one’s own life story, and being an agent of one’s destiny. In fact, authenticity is about simply being - no strings attached, no expectations, no filters, no masks, no agendas … just real: Self laid bare. Letting go of who you feel you should be in order to be who they truly are is what leads to real connection.

And from my own research into the antecedents and enables of living a wholehearted life, I will add a fourth hinge to this Door Of vulnerability:

4. Purpose (or in keeping with the ‘C’ theme – Contribution) – a strong awareness of who you are and your contribution for the world.

4. Purpose

I have spoken briefly about Purpose within the context of Cultivating Hope and Purposeful Leadership in two previous posts, but as it relates to the Pathway To Wisdom I want to explore Purpose from a slightly different angle. A person’s Purpose (big ‘P’ Purpose) rests outside of physical time and space – it is one’s True Nature or Essence. As a result, a person’s Purpose is unencumbered by the expectations of the physical world. At its very core, our Purpose is wholehearted and cannot be separated or fragmented. It is pure wisdom – it is our  Knowing beyond rational knowing.

So two questions emerge for me as I write:

  1. How do we cultivate deeper levels of courage, compassion, connection and contribution to become even more intentional in our radical vulnerability?
  2. And in being radically vulnerable with ourselves and others in our life, work and leadership, what inner wisdom are we able to release for the world?