Kindness and vulnerability
DONNA CAMERON explores the beauty that vulnerability brings and its connection with kindness. She also shares her own personal experience of vulnerability and how it has changed her life for the better.
A gift is like a seed; it is not an impressive thing.
It is what can grow from the seed that is impressive.
If we wait until our seed becomes a tree before we offer it,
we will wait and wait, and the seed will die from lack of planting. …
The miracle is not just the gift; the miracle is in the offering,
for if we do not offer, who will?
In high-tech parlance, vulnerability refers to a weakness or flaw that allows an attacker to access a computer without the owner’s permission. In human terms, vulnerability describes our susceptibility to being wounded or injured, and also the state of being exposed – to danger, illness, or criticism. For many of us, vulnerability implies weakness. It is something to be avoided.
But is it? Vulnerability may be our way of opening ourselves to the world, and trusting that it is not against us. It may be our way of embracing mystery and not pushing the unknown or the unseen away from us. It may be the truest way of saying “yes” to our lives.
In a relationship, we may be vulnerable when we are first to say “I love you,” or when we admit we don’t know something, or that we need help. Our comfort and security are threatened by the “power” we believe we have given the other person. Will he say he loves me back? Will she take advantage of my weakness if I ask for help? Yes, those fears are real. But another way to look at them is to recognize the strength they reveal and to take ownership of that strength. There is no shame in loving, even if the other person doesn’t love me back. There is no shame in asking for help, even if it isn’t given. The weakness is in burying our feelings or denying our need.
Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, describes how vulnerability is a trait that wholehearted people share. As she explains in a remarkable TED Talk and in her audiobook, The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage, vulnerability is the courage to be imperfect, to do something where there are no guarantees, and to let go of who we think we should be in order to be what we really are. With this willingness, we “allow ourselves to be seen,” with all our imperfections, in order to fully embrace our lives. Dr. Brown further explains that many of us erroneously believe that we can selectively numb our emotions; that we can stifle grief, shame, fear, and disappointment while fully retaining our joy, gratitude, and happiness. It doesn’t work that way. If we suppress the negative emotions, we do the same to the positive ones. Accepting our vulnerability and living wholeheartedly means understanding that the good, the bad, and even the ugly are what make us authentic and beautiful. That place of vulnerability, she says, is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.
Whether we’re committing to love, or art, or business, or kindness, we must have the courage to do it wholeheartedly, in spite of the fact that we know there will always be those who find us lacking. Knowing this is incredibly freeing! We can’t please everyone. Not ever. So we need to stop trying and focus instead on being who we are meant to be.
The more I think about it, the more deeply I see the connection between kindness and vulnerability. I’ve talked before about the difference between being kind and being nice. Nice does not require me to be vulnerable. I can be nice without risk, and without exposing too much of myself. I can be nice without making a connection, or without really caring whether or not you benefit from the encounter. Nice, while pleasant, doesn’t require sincerity or commitment. When I’m nice, I remain safe, guarded from exposure.
Kind is very different. Kind means connecting; it means being aware and intentional about the impact my words and actions have; it means expending energy and effort, and caring about the outcome. It means exposing my truest self in all my imperfections. It also means suspending judgments and accepting people as they are. Kind can be messy, and it may take me to places where I am awkward, clumsy, and tongue-tied. Kindness requires me to take risks. In short, kindness requires me to be vulnerable.
Since making a commitment to living kindly, I have tried to replace nice with kind. The distinction may not have been noticeable to anyone but me. But my noticing it is really all that matters. Whether acknowledging someone’s assistance, explaining a new process, or giving a couple of dollars to someone in need, I try to make a connection, even if it’s only fleeting. Taking the time to make eye contact, exchange a few words, and convey that I see a person and recognize their value – these small actions convey our shared humanity and our shared vulnerability. It feels good.
My upbringing – and I suspect I am not alone in this – was one where I was encouraged to be smart. Grades were important to my parents, and I was rewarded for good ones. Poor grades (that is, anything less than an A) were a disappointment, and I dreaded the thought of disappointing my parents. Being smart and being right became important to my identity. School and career generally reinforced the importance of those qualities. There came a point, though, when I started to see that I wasn’t always smart, and I certainly wasn’t always right. At first, this felt threatening. If I admit how little I know about this subject or this new technology, will people assume I’m ignorant? Will I be giving up some imaginary advantage I have? It took both courage and a willingness to be vulnerable to start saying, “I don’t understand,” or “Please show me how this works.” It took even more to ask to be shown again when the first lesson didn’t “take.”
Rather than judging me harshly, I saw that people welcomed my questions. They appreciated the opportunity to share knowledge in areas where they excelled. I learned to ask questions that deepened my understanding. I breathed a sigh of relief that I was not expected to know everything, understand everything, or always be right. I didn’t have to fake knowledge I didn’t have. I was surrounded by smart people and, in aggregate, we were very, very smart. The other thing I saw when I was willing to show my vulnerability and admit my ignorance or inexperience was that others seemed more comfortable coming to me to either ask my help or admit when they needed help.
I think it must be very lonely to feel you must always have the answers or be the smartest person in the room.
To make that deep connection,
we have to allow ourselves to be seen.
That means having the courage to be imperfect,
to expose our flaws,
and the willingness to be vulnerable.
There is even a vulnerability to writing or speaking about kindness, and inviting people to read or hear my thoughts. Sharing my deepest thoughts – what matters most to me – opens me to their judgment, perhaps to criticism. Beyond that, am I saying too much about myself? Too little? Am I pontificating (oh, I hope not!)? Has it all been said before and said better? Am I missing the point entirely?
If I allow myself to be vulnerable, the answer is that it doesn’t matter. As Brené Brown eloquently explains, connection is why we’re all here, sharing this planet, and it’s what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
You may feel awkward, exposed, or uncomfortable when you first start heeding the call to kindness. Good! That means you’ve tapped into your vulnerability. Embrace it, and keep allowing your kindness to grow.
Living our most authentic life, whatever that means to each of us, requires that we let go of our shield and lower our guard, and that we embrace our flaws and our vulnerability. For me – and perhaps for you – it’s choosing kindness. It’s scary, but the rewards of living an authentic life are beyond measure.
Kindness in Action
Did you back away to “safety”? Or did you forge ahead?
Either way, try to imagine the outcome of the situation had you done the opposite of what you did. Maybe it feels better, or maybe worse, but can you feel the strength of your response when you accept your vulnerability?
Think about the you that most people see: Is that person authentic and real, or are you projecting only what you think they want to see, or what you feel safe allowing to be seen?
What is your relationship to perfection? Do you strive for it, or do you recognize that perfection is a myth that keeps us from being the interesting, contradictory, and often messy human beings that we all are at our core?
Are there messages you received as a child that no longer serve you but that you continue to hold onto?
If you’re a parent, do the messages your children receive encourage them to be authentic and vulnerable, or to strive for impossible perfection?
If you haven’t seen Brené Brown’s TED Talk, make yourself a cup of tea and google it. It will be a very worthwhile twenty minutes!
Reprinted with permission from the author, from her book, A Year of Living Kindly.
Article by DONNA CAMERON
Illustrations by JASMEE RATHOD
April 04, 2020
April 04, 2020
April 03, 2020