It is true in our interpersonal relationships, as it is true in religion, science, politics, business, education, technology, and the arts – that those who take the greatest risks, who act from love and not fear, who challenge the limits of current thinking and think outside the box, who meld their self-interests with the common good, who act on behalf of justice, compassion and peace, that these are the people who not only evolve and grow as individuals, but effect progress in society and the world as a whole.
I have pondered for years why some people are uncommonly courageous, willing to step outside the mainstream to create something new, to fight for justice and peace, despite the inherent risks.
I ponder as well why other people resist positive change, hold tenaciously to their truths regardless of the evidence that disproves their veracity, are risk adverse, and seek certainty even if it means ignoring innovations that will improve their quality of life and the quality of life of others.
Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston in the Graduate College of Social Work, has studied such differences in people and come to the conclusion that the determining factor in the way people think and behave is how they cope with vulnerability, for it is vulnerability that underpins our feelings about ourselves, our relationships to others and to the world around us.
At the heart of vulnerability, she says, is the fear of losing connection with others due to a sense of inherent unworthiness. The most frightened among us fear especially the shame that comes with disconnection. These people assume that because they themselves feel unworthy they will be rejected when others discover the truth about them, that they are not smart enough, desirable enough, lovable enough, talented enough, competent enough, promotable enough, or wealthy enough. Whatever the deficiency they feel, they fear being revealed as flawed and vulnerable.
Those who do not fear their vulnerability are what Dr. Brown calls “whole-hearted” because they feel worthy of love and connection, despite their flaws, and so they allow their vulnerabilities to be known and seen and do not worry about rejection. Such people tend to have greater empathy and tenderness, and rather than fear the shame that comes with disconnection, they feel courage in connection. It is that courage born in a sense of self-worthiness that enables them to muster their abilities, insights and talents and take risks, create, innovate, and change.
Those who fear disconnection the most not only become numb to their vulnerabilities, they numb other emotions including empathy, compassion, gratitude, and joy. Disconnected, they feel miserable and seek means to discharge their misery. Is it any wonder, Dr. Brown asks, that this generation of Americans is the most addicted and medicated cohort of any we have seen before in American history?
Those numb to vulnerability tend to crave certainty and black/white answers to life’s most difficult challenges. They regard intolerance as virtue, openness as destabilizing, nuanced thinking as elitist, and creativity as subversion.
To acknowledge vulnerability is to accept our humanity, for none of us is perfect. Recognizing our vulnerability means that we are alive, and being courageous in connection we invest in relationships that may or may not work out. We start something new that may or may not bear fruit. Vulnerability understood this way is hardly negative, it is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.
As I have thought about the role that vulnerability plays in the way people, communities and nations respond to creativity, innovation, and change, I believe that Dr. Brown has identified a key emotional reality that we ignore at our own peril.