I love math. Formulas and theorems make me feel safe and secure because I can depend on a correct answer. One plus one always equals two. But when it comes to friendship or any meaningful relationship, arithmetic falls short. Sure, math is good for lots of things (what I’ll keep telling my kids when they complain about algebra), but what is really important to us at the end of the day is a question with a very unreliable answer: Where do I belong? How do I find meaning and connection? And when it comes to these things, we enter tenuous territory. We all have broken hearts, fears and private worries. We have past hurts we do not care to relive, yet, in order to appear strong, we try to hide our pain from each other. We paint on a happy face, muscle through and pretend everything is okay. The problem is that while we long for deep connection, it is hindered by our resistance to be real, honest and ultimately vulnerable. That formula doesn’t add up to wholehearted living and we wonder is vulnerability weakness?
Researcher and author, Brenè Brown has begun a conversation about a non-formulaic idea: vulnerability and its role in what she calls “wholehearted living.” And, here is where things get slightly uncomfortable. The secret, she says, to deep and meaningful connections with others is being vulnerable.
By definition, vulnerability is perplexing. The word, vulnerable, means open to attack and being exposed. It comes from a Latin word that means “to wound.” It seems like something to avoid at all costs, but according to Dr. Brown, “…vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity and love.” (The Gifts of Imperfection).
The bottom line is that in order to feel connection, live wholeheartedly and be real, we absolutely must be vulnerable. But, it implies a great deal of risk. This is inconvenient and challenging for those of us who like being perceived as strong, wise and unflawed. It means wading through shame, fear and uncertainty in order to grow.
In the unpredictable economy of human relationships, it turns out that to be weak, to muster up enough courage to face our fears and to be willing to fail is the way we actually grow deeper and more meaningful bonds of belonging. It is the only way we find true friendship.
And, most frightening of all, just because you are willing to be vulnerable doesn’t mean that you will immediately find wholeness. It is not a tried and true addition problem, of course. It is a process of stops and starts. Not everyone or everything can help you on your journey. You have to be willing to take a chance and some stabs in the dark. You must have a willingness to see failure and rejection as part of the process.
Related: How To Love Yourself and Your Flaws
I stood on a chair the other day in the kitchen, reached up and squashed a spider that was making its hasty crawl across the ceiling. I climbed down, holding the napkin encasing the spider and brought it to the garbage.
“Mom,” my ten-year-old daughter said, “You’re the bravest one in the family.” I wish it were that easy.
Dr. Brown says that what really takes guts, is being real. “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” (Daring Greatly).
It is no accident that some of the bravest statements I know are both the hardest to say and the ones that open doors to deeper relationships:
I am sorry.
I was wrong.
I don’t know.
I need help.
I dare you to try them. You may lose sleep over uttering them or shake in your boots. Your heart may flutter with anxiety or perhaps you’d even rather squash a little (or big!) spider. Say them out loud and you will know innately that this is courage.
Say similar phrases to a spouse, friend, your child—whomever—and it is actually possible they could use them against you. Here is where the formula may fail: you may put in your part and find that whomever else is in the equation will not put in theirs. Of course, it is possible that you plus them will create healing.
But, maybe not.
That’s the risk. In our worst nightmares, perhaps, they could never let you forget, laugh in your face or just stare silently at your willingness to be honest. But, without the fortitude to speak from your weakest place, you will never move forward, never grow. Additionally, you will learn pretty quickly who is on your team, who will support you and from whom you may need to walk away.
Our wounds may weaken us, but they also make us real when we are willing to confront our problems and take ownership for our job—becoming whole. One thing I know for sure: I am only capable of fixing one person: me. That’s it. To become as healthy as we can, we must start with honesty about how we got where we are and find the ways to start moving forward.
It is not a formula; not a simple math problem with one clear answer. Wholehearted living takes grit, perseverance and bravery in varying and undetermined amounts. It takes a lot of authenticity to become and it starts with believing that you are worthy of growth, love and belonging. Change is hard, but not changing is harder. Do the math—whatever the cost—wholeness is worth it.