On Vulnerability and Safety

I have been creating, leading and participating in men’s circles for over a dozen years now and learned the hard way that the single most important ingredient of an effective circle is psychic or emotional safety. In this post, I explore the relationship between emotional safety and vulnerability.

Brene Brown, in her wonderful TED talk on vulnerability asserts that vulnerability is the pathway to deeper connection with others, but there is a catch.

Brene Brown on Vulnerability

To demonstrate vulnerability, one must feel safe. Imagine walking into a job interview and saying, “I am afraid that I am not good enough for this job.” It may be a true statement, but speaking your truth will most likely not improve your chances of getting the job. Now imagine a bunch of men sitting in a circle who have the stated purpose of becoming more authentic and deeply connected. They are accustomed to becoming vulnerable with each other because they feel safe with each other. Imagine that a new man joins the group and can only talk about his hot new car. Do you feel safe becoming vulnerable with a man who can only talk about the superficial aspects of his life? I don’t.

Vulnerability has its time and place. There are times where demonstrating vulnerability is clearly not a good idea; and then there are times where becoming vulnerable is the most effective way to engage.

Becoming vulnerable requires feeling emotionally safe enough to disclose parts of myself that I may not want flashed across the headlines of Fox News. So the question I pose is, “How do I create emotional safety for myself?”

What is Emotional Safety?

Emotional safety means feeling accepted; it is the sense that one is safe from emotional attack. One of the most common forms of perceived attack is being judged by others. Imagine sharing with someone that you had cheated on your partner. For many of us, this would be a highly vulnerable act. Now imagine that this person says, “That’s terrible! How could you do that?” How do you feel about this person? Closer or more distant? My personal take is that I have just been slimed by his judgments and my connection gateway just slammed shut. What would have worked instead was, “Well, brother, you want to take a look at that?” This response doesn’t let me off the hook but it doesn’t judge or patronize me either. I know that I have a friend who can help me examine my behavior in a healthy way.

If I experience your judgments of me, I will be less inclined to feel emotionally safe around you and hence I will be reluctant to demonstrate vulnerability. The consequence is that the connection between us will be weaker and shallower.

Emotional safety requires a degree of trust. The men in my men’s circle are men that I have grown to trust deeply. I will share and bare my deepest fears with them. I trust them because I know they won’t judge me and they won’t repeat what I have shared outside our circle.

Emotional Safety is an Inside Job

Ultimately, creating emotional safety is not someone else’s job. It is my job. And for some of us, this can be very difficult. In the many years of doing men’s work, the single most common theme I come up against is, “I’m not good enough” which is a clear statement of shame.

Brene Brown describes shame as the swampland of the soul. She draws the distinction between shame and guilt. Shame is not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.

Guilt: “I am sorry. I made a mistake.

Shame: “I am sorry. I am a mistake.

Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide and eating disorders. Guilt has an inverse correlation with those things.

She also believes that shame is organized by gender. For women, “Shame is do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat. Unattainable conflicting expectations about who we are.” For men, shame is do not be perceived as weak. She has learned that when men reach out and become vulnerable we get the shit beat out of us. “Show me a woman who can sit with a man in his vulnerability and fear and I will show you a woman who has done incredible work… Show me a man who can can sit with a woman who has just had it and just listen and I will show you a man who has done his work.

Secrecy, silence and judgment are the ingredients that grow shame. Empathy is the antidote to shame. To be able to experience that empathy, we must come out of our shells and be willing to be vulnerable.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “It is not the critics who count. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust, blood and sweat. When he is in the arena at best he wins and at worst, he loses; but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.

And who is the critic? My biggest critic used to be me. I was constantly beating myself up for one failing or another. It wasn’t until I heard a traveling Buddhist monk describe love as “acceptance” that I was able to accept myself for exactly who and what I am. As I found compassion for myself and my humanity, my sense of shame simply faded away. The thoughts, “I am not good enough” and “I accept myself as I am” cannot co-exist.

The act of finding compassion for myself trumps shame. I can still feel guilt when I mess up (which I inevitably do), but shame is no longer a part of my life. Oh, I can feel embarrassment about who I was many years ago, but nowadays, those memories make me both cringe and laugh.

The consequence of letting go of shame is that my sense of personal emotional safety has become so strong that I can become vulnerable very easily. And I have learned to do the dance: “Let’s be vulnerable. I’ll go first.” I can open with a piece of self-disclosure and wait to see what the other person does. If they respond with something vulnerable, I can go a little deeper. When they stop, I stop. We have established some level of connection that is both authentic and respectful.

Brene Brown on Shame


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