The Vulnerability Paradox

I’m currently in Byron Bay experiencing incredible music at the annual five day BluesFest Festival. I’ve invited my friend and fellow yogi, Michael Hollingworth, to write a guest post for today on a topic that’s at the heart of yoga for me. I’ll be back next week.



For the first time ever, it occurs to me that Winston Churchill may not have been completely right when he urged “Never, never, never give in”, meaning presumably win at all costs. But is winning the war always worth it? And what would Churchill have made of the vulnerability movement?

imageWe are being urged to be “vulnerable” – particularly those among us who are males, especially old male warriors like Churchill. On the face of it, this appears ridiculous. Soldiers going back to the Roman legions know what it means to be vulnerable. It’s from their language, Latin, and means “able to be wounded”, therefore open to pain, maybe death. Why would anyone want to be vulnerable?

Well, it turns out that the latest research – as we are told with such annoying frequency – demonstrates that, paradoxically, being willing to be vulnerable may give us more of what we actually want.

Leading the charge is a tough, funny Texan called Dr Brené Brown, who might be called the Queen of Vulnerability. An academic researcher and speaker, in Houston in 2010 she delivered a TED talk called ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. To date it has had 14 million internet hits. (To make it 14 million and one, go to the link below.)

After 10 years’ study of vulnerability, or rather its source, which she says is shame, Brené Brown suffered a self-confessed breakdown (though her therapist called it a spiritual awakening). But she found that we need to confront and acknowledge our personal shame – the fear of being inadequate, not belonging, or not being loved – in order to “find our way back to each other”.  The biggest, most dangerous myth about vulnerability, particularly for men, is that it is weakness. On the contrary, says Brown, vulnerability – emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty – is “our most accurate measure of courage”. It is also the key to being loved, to “finding our way back to each other”. Her mission is now helping people to connect.

Having listened to Brené Brown – and tested her theory – here is a two-word confession from an old male warrior: it works. In conversation with my partner of many years, I discover that sore points, which for decades have needed defending with grim Churchillian fervour, may soften and even disappear. Drop the armour and there’s more amour!

Perhaps another Roman tradition helps explain this need for pain. When Cupid wounds us with his arrow, we fall in love – long identified by rationalists (read: men) as a form of madness. Why then do our poems and songs constantly proclaim our yearning for love? And why do those same rationalists, struck by the arrow, succumb so willingly?

“Make love, not war” was the song of a generation, protesting against the Vietnam war 50 years ago. But a necessary step to make space for love is to admit our vulnerability and shame – and without doing that we will never put an end to war.

Here’s Brené Brown’s speech on vulnerability. And, here’s her speech on shame.

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