On controlled vulnerability, panic cleaning, and gorillas

I’ve had so many conversations lately around vulnerability and I’m curious what comes up for you when you read that word?

Is it something you want to avoid?

Do your palms get a little sweaty or do you feel a little nauseous?

Do you remember that one time it didn’t go so well?

Or do you see it as a bridge to deeper connection and joy?

Do you feel proud of how far you’ve come opening up to others?

Or do you wish someone would give you some baby steps so you can ease your way into vulnerability the way you inch your way into a cool lake for the first swim of the season?

Vulnerability challenges us all.

We feel vulnerable when there’s “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. In other words, we’re not sure how others will respond, it feels risky because if we’re judged, rejected, ridiculed, shamed, or dismissed it’s gonna make us feel even worse. And we’re allowing the tender parts of ourselves to be seen by someone else. 🙈

Why is vulnerability so hard?

Society tells us we “should” be able to figure out everything on our own.

It also dictates “appropriate” times to fall apart for example after death, diagnosis, or divorce.  It’s acceptable to cry at weddings and funerals. If your loss doesn’t fit that narrow scope (you were disappointed you didn’t get the promotion, your pet died, you were angry at the way your partner dismissed your concerns) then you’re just sort of supposed to suck it up.

And what society deems “appropriate” has layers to it. Gender is a layer. For example, men can get angry but not cry. However, women who get angry risk being labelled hysterical. Race is another layer. For example, the trope of “the strong black woman” is used by white supremacy to dehumanize her. It’s a form of othering when we insist she weathers every storm without showing emotion.

And of course, we’re worried about being judged, ridiculed, shamed, dismissed, or rejected for having “inappropriate” emotions.

We’re also afraid of being perceived as a burden. We compare our mess to our friend’s mess and choose to stay silent. For example, I got passed over for a promotion but they got diagnosed with cancer therefore I can’t share this anger and disappointment with them because they’ve got enough going on.

So we attempt to CONTROL our vulnerable shares.

Have you ever thought about the concept of ‘controlled vulnerability’? It’s a way for us to minimize the risks and present our messy-emotional-I-haven’t-got-it-all-figured-out selves in just the right light so people will respond positively.

Controlled vulnerability is like panic-cleaning your apartment before your friend arrives. Then apologizing for the mess as they step through the door (even though you just cleaned). As if anything less than a space worthy of the cover of “Better Homes and Gardens” is something to apologize for.

We’re hoping our friend will tell us not to worry, say that their house is messier and everything looks gorgeous to them.

This polite little dance might make us feel better about inviting others into our homes but it doesn’t build connection does it?  (And don’t we secretly love the friends who you don’t have to clean up for because you know they won’t judge you?)

Controlled vulnerability takes our messy, uncomfortable losses, disappointments, anger, and hurt and packs it into a neat little box with a bow. It says this happened and it really upset me but I’ve journaled, processed, figured out what I needed to learn so NOW IT’S OKAY to share it with you (and feels way more comfortable for me to share since I’ve broken it down into bite-sized palatable pieces that hopefully won’t be up for much judgement or discussion).

To be clear, controlled vulnerability isn’t always a bad thing. It’s helpful when we’re sharing on social media or talking to someone who hasn’t earned the right to hear our story yet because the relationship is new or you haven’t spoken in years. In situations like those, controlled vulnerability can be a good choice.

But with our closest friends, family, and partners controlled vulnerability gets in the way of connection and trust.

What does it look like when we DON’T control our vulnerability?

We let loved ones see our ugly cry. We show our deep confusion and admit we haven’t figured out what to do or have no idea what we’re supposed to “learn” from it. We express our bitterness, resentment, anger, hurt, and devastation without censoring ourselves.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” – Brené Brown

Messy moments can build connection

In 2004 I planned a two-month trip to Africa with two of my friends. I was in full perfectionist, professional event planner mode, and first on our agenda was a hike through the Ugandan jungle to see the Gorillas. I had all the permits we needed – ordered and paid for months in advance.

But as I stood at the local tour company counter, slightly sweaty from the heat of the day, I was told our permits couldn’t be found.

I showed her my receipts and politely asked her to look again.

This time they were found but they were the wrong permits. For a price, she could make them the “right” permits after all.

This was my first time being so blatantly hustled as a tourist. And you must understand that lying is one of my biggest triggers.

I was LIVID. I stormed out to explain to my friends what had happened. I was yelling/ cursing/ kicking rocks in the dusty parking lot kind of angry. Never in my life had I been pushed to that level of rage and was honestly kinda surprised at my reaction.

And one of my friends looked at me and said, “Oh wowww! You’re human, this is amazing!”

I was a little lot taken aback. What the F did that mean?! But she quickly explained to me that all she’s ever known me as is the ‘cool, calm, and in control’ Tammy, and seeing this other side of me, well, she thought was kinda beautiful. It soon dawned on me that while perfectionist Tammy was trying to control every situation and perception she had inadvertently been building walls in her relationships.

It’s hard to connect with someone who appears to be perfect all the time. It’s hard to admit our angry feelings or fears or grief to someone who always seems to have everything under control. It’s easy to imagine they might judge us. It’s easy to imagine there might be something defective about us because we don’t know what we’re doing when they always seem to.

That uncomfortable and confusing moment of vulnerable anger in a Ugandan parking lot ended with a beautiful opportunity to bond and it deepened our friendship just as we were about to spend two months together.

p.s. We ended up heading to an ATM and pulling out our daily limit so that the “right” permits would magically appear. And in the end…seeing the ‘gorillas in the mist’ made it worth the aggravation and added cost. I wish I had a photo to share with y’all, but those photos, unfortunately, got lost in transit but ohhh, the memories. Simply amazing.

“This mess is your mess, now your mess is mine.”  Vance Joy

Baby steps towards vulnerability

If you’re like my friend and I who both felt nauseous when our therapists suggested we try to be more vulnerable, you’re not alone. I’ve got some ideas on how to ease yourself into these waters.

Start with one person you trust. A friend or partner and begin to allow them to see all aspects of you. When you build up some confidence (aka notice the world didn’t end when you were vulnerable) let that vulnerability ripple out into other close relationships.

Build trust by sharing small things first. For example…

  • I’m worried about a presentation for work.
  • The kids are testing my very last frayed nerve today!
  • I’m freaking out about the video I need to make for social media
  • Share your confusion – I don’t know what I’m going to do and I just need to talk it out
  • Talk about the bittersweet emotions of caring for aging parents

Small moments allow us to “test the waters” and get an idea of who’s receptive/ responsive vs dismissive/reactive. Practicing with small shares not only builds trust but makes it slightly less terrifying to share those moments that bring you to your knees.

If you’re worried about being a burden check in with your friend first. Ask if they have the capacity to hold space for you. And if someone asks to share something vulnerable with you and you DO have the capacity to listen, ask if they would like you to just listen or offer advice or help them brainstorm what to do.

The more we share our uncomfortable emotions and normalize conversations around loss the less isolated we feel when things go wrong because we know that there are places and people who love us, accept us, and make us feel like we belong even when we’re a little messy. And the more we courageously embrace vulnerable moments the more it helps us open the door to deeper connections, sweeter joy, and more encompassing empathy in all our relationships.

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