by Bob Wentworth
NVC trainers sometime talk about how connecting, empowering and healing it can be to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. And social psychologist Brené Brown says her research shows that being vulnerable is an important key to happiness and well-being. Yet, the dictionary defines vulnerable as "susceptible to attack or harm." Is that really what is being advocated? Are we being advised to indiscriminately open ourselves to being attacked or hurt? I don't think so. It might be more accurate to say that being open about one's inner experience, in ways that from a war-mentatlity mindset might be interpreted as creating vulnerability, can often offer major benefits. But, the point of this openness is not to make one unsafe or to invite attack. In fact, it makes sense to develop discernment around when such openness is likely to beneficial and safe, and to develop alternative strategies for keeping oneself safe that do not rely on hiding our inner truths. Safety is a desirable goal. Yet concealment is limited in its ability to create safety. Human connection through openness is often a powerful strategy for achieving safety, and has additional benefits.
Often, we conceal aspects of our inner experience because we are ashamed of them. We fear that they render us unworthy and unlovable, make it likely that others will reject us. When we hide these aspects of ourselves, we are affirming we believe the story that we are defective and unworthy, and this intensifies our suffering. When we choose to reveal these aspects of ourselves, we are endorsing (or at least checking out) a different story, a story that we are human and lovable exactly the way we are. If we are judicious about where we share our wounding, we are likely to be received in a way that offers external support to this story of acceptability and lovability. If our inner commitment to this alternative story is shaky, the actual experience of offering up "shameful" parts of ourselves and having it be received with acceptance can be deeply healing. Concealment intended to protect us from attack may be revealed as also having blocked the possibility of experiencing healing. But achieving healing does depend on discernment about what contexts offer some likelihood for this outcome.
While being open about our inner experience plays an important role in healing, it can also serve other purposes:
- It models the possibility that others might choose to be open.
- It can help shift an assumption that a war metaphor is the appropriate model for understanding what is happening in an interpersonal exchange.
- It can offer others a basis for understanding us, seeing our humanity, and feeling sympathetic to our desires.
- It can surface the information people need to find strategies that will really address everyone's needs.
- It can touch wounded places in others, bringing what was hidden into awareness, in a way that offers them companionship and healing.
To me, openness is not about increasing the likelihood of attack or hurt. Rather, it's a powerful tool for empowerment, for creating connection with others, for shifting the tenor of a conversation to address what really matters, and for countering the shaming stories that cause so much suffering. Yet, whether openness will have beneficial effects does depend on the context and the way we express ourselves. It takes discernment to know when and how to use openness to achieve these beneficial ends.
I invite you to experiment with being more open. And to do so judiciously, so that you have alternate strategies for safety (e.g., an empathy buddy on call) so that you can take care of yourself if things don't go as you hope. With practice, you're likely to feel less and less need for concealment, and more and more liberation, having found ways of being safe in the world while expressing what matters to you.
(If this essay moves or nurtures you in some way, I'd love to receive your feedback. - Bob - Nov. 27, 2011)
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