Let’s Talk Vulnerability


Vulnerability is kind of a big deal these days.

We’re encouraged to be vulnerable in order to live more authentically. We’re exhorted to show our messy side on Instagram, admit our failings on Facebook and Tweet out our pain. This honesty, this authenticity will lead to happiness and, we hope, tidier selves and more successes, which is why whenever you see vulnerability being discussed there’s always some idiot trying to morph that into being vulnerable in order to get more sales and advance your career plans, cuz, damn! why wouldn’t you????


Stepping back from that kind of nonsense, there are a lot of people  who do actually want to be more sincerely, gently and authentically vulnerable and that is an impulse that I applaud.

But there are two parts to vulnerability and if you skip the second one, you miss most of the experience.

The vulnerability we’re used to, the vulnerability that I see most of us doing (and spend a fair bit of my time here doing, too) is of the ‘here I am and goodness knows it ain’t pretty so don’t ever feel like you’re alone’ variety.

We share the times we have no idea what we’re supposed to be doing.  We share our woundedness and imperfection. And that’s good. Our society spends way too much time covering up and faking. If we were all able to admit that we haven’t got a clue, we might actually stand a chance of moving closer to solutions to things like climate change and bigotry. Because it’s when we admit that we don’t know that we can begin to learn.

And it does feel really vulnerable to sit here with with my finger hovering sweatily over the ‘publish’ button after writing about my depression or my childhood or my basic confusion in life.

But it’s what happens after that that reveals the other, much harder portion of vulnerability.

People respond.

They share with me in whispers and private comments their own struggles, woundedness and imperfection. And my task is to take that in. Bear witness to their pain. Stand before an unprotected moment. And do….. nothing. Maybe a hug. Maybe a quiet thank you. Often not even that.

It’s hard. Really, really hard and painful and my first impulse, always is to fill that space with meeeeee! With help, with anything to lessen the pain. The time something similar happened and, look! I’m still here to tell the tale, so buck up, soldier, you’re going to be great.

Except, of course, when you’re not.

The first draft of this post is being written after my weekly shift at the local cancer support centre, where I give Reiki treatments on Thursday afternoons. There’s a lot of laughter there, a lot of hope. And there is also sadness and dying, because cancer’s like that.

I started volunteering because I am built to help and I know Reiki helps. It’s good for pain relief, helps with stress and often helps to mitigate the effects of chemo.

But it doesn’t fix anything. And sometimes I’m OK with that. Especially when the person being helped is through the worst of it and getting a little better every time and if all I do is allow them the space to relax for 45 minutes, well, yay us!

But if they’re not through the worst of it, if they’re not healing, if things are, in fact, getting worse by the day and all I do is allow them the space to relax for 45 minutes, well, crap. It’s not enough. Even though it has to be.

So how do we do it? How do we be vulnerable? I haven’t got all the answers (look at me! being imperfect!) but I’m starting to learn something and it comes down to this: we stand still. We stand still and allow that other person, the one we want so much to help or fix or heal to be exactly who and where they are in this moment. We stand still and allow it not to fix anything. We stand still and allow it to hurt like hell. We allow it to break us. To break our hearts wide open. For I’ve come to learn that it’s the broken hearts that can love most whole-heartedly.

This is not about claiming compassion fatigue and turning away from the suffering of others. It’s about finding that space between ignoring someone’s pain and trying to obliterate it by fixing it. It’s standing open, my vulnerability to yours.

I’m not always good at this. I still rush in with the cheering word, the non-specific offer of help, whatever random weirdness my panicked brain throws out. Because “I hate to see you suffer” so often translates to “Please stop suffering in front of me”. Because your suffering in front of me makes me feel so much more vulnerable than my own suffering ever could. But bit by broken bit, I’m learning.


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5 Responses to Let’s Talk Vulnerability

  1. Douglass says:

    Oh, my dear sweet Barb. What a loving thought.

    It reminds of what a character in Jayber Crow says:

    “I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure.”

    We never get better at it. It never gets any easier, really. But vulnerability, in the beautiful way you express it here, helps us grow into our time and our places and our ability to love.

  2. ann says:

    Dear Barb

    So wish I had read this before a meeting yesterday with a single parent mom.

    Coupled with Douglass’ closing sentence…”But vulnerability, in the beautiful way you express it here, helps us grow into our time and our places and our ability to love”, makes me have to continue my conversation with this mom.

    walk in de corner wid plenty love

  3. Sarah says:

    Wow, thank you for writing this, I find so much wisdom here. You have written what vulnerability means in real terms- and how to practice it in a way which actually creates true connection. I wonder if the desire to do too much fixing of things and hiding from the messy (in my own life) is why I find myself so tired today. All week I’ve been thinking- I need to address this ‘tiredness’. This is so much a part of it, I don’t want others to see my mess…and if I’m really honest about that it comes from a fear of rejection and of not belonging. Our brains are wired to ensure belonging, it’s no wonder we try to please and smooth; it’s our survival instincts kicking in. I resonate with your talk about cancer..and just give a knowing nod in your direction.

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