I’ve avoided writing this blog post on vulnerability for a month or so now. I’ve had these thoughts simmering in the back of my head, but ironically enough, couldn’t bring myself to write about shame and vulnerability for fear of actually having to be vulnerable. I feared that I would actually have to look it in the face and embrace it myself. I’m still not sure if I’m willing to do so in the way that I think would be most transformative, but it’s about time to at least begin the long, slow work of becoming vulnerable.
For transparency’s sake, most of the inspiration for this post comes from Brene Brown’s TED talk about vulnerability and subsequent talk about listening to shame. They are worth the watch, if you haven’t already seen them.*
So, does vulnerability matter to us, as feminists? In short, yes, because the system we are resisting thrives on people rejecting vulnerability. White capitalist heteropatriarchy wants us to be ashamed of being too queer, too feminine, not feminine enough, too poor, too fat, too weak, too androgynous, too ambiguous, too black, too brown, too complicated, too honest, too open, too angry, too hurt, too emotional, too messy, too much.
The heteropatriarchy wants us to be ashamed of who we are and it wants us to hide. Vulnerability is the opposite of that. Vulnerability means allowing others to see parts of you that were previously hidden. Vulnerability is to risk being wrong, making a mistake, and possibly losing whatever you were trying to protect.
Vulnerability is often used as a synonym for weak in the primary story of the heteropatriarchy. The message that is constantly being sent to those with the power is to maintain it by never showing weakness. Being a man means hiding, or suppressing, your emotions – so you’ll maintain control. Being a white person means being successful, being the exemplary citizen, mother, student, whatever – so you’ll always be on top. Being able-bodied means you’ll be independent and not have to ask for help from other people – so you’ll be seen as strong.
In response to the story of the heteropatriarchy, we need to create, and constantly are creating, counter stories. We must be able to tell our own stories about vulnerability being the key to strength. That vulnerability could be the key, or at least a key, to community building, to movement building, to organizing.
Can we tell stories about calling people out for their mistakes when they hurt us with their ignorance or their privilege; not because we owe it to them, but instead because we deserve to be safe and heard, we deserve a spot at the table? Can we tell stories about forgiving ourselves for making mistakes because of our own privilege? Can we tell stories about not being what the dominant culture mandates from us, but resisting through being our truest selves? When we embrace vulnerability, when we tell stories about being flawed and broken we’ll be telling a story about honesty. When we stop running away and lean into what we’re afraid of maybe we’ll be able to connect. Then we can tell stories about dismantling together, strategizing together, being real together.
If we’re going to talk about transforming society, this culture we live in we have to talk about transforming ourselves. There is no cultural shift, no real beloved community, and no full connection to one another without a whole-hearted collective shift towards being vulnerable. Meaning we allow ourselves to make mistakes. Meaning we allow ourselves to commit to something and mess it up and come back again and again to work at it.
I’ve personally spent a long time running away from vulnerability. So much that I used to never edit papers that I wrote because I couldn’t stand reviewing something of my own that was potentially mediocre. All of this avoidance is, at the end of the day, about shame. Shame keeps me away from becoming my best self, my truest self. Giving in to shame means I won’t write poetry every day (like I love to do) because I’m afraid I’ll write something bad and that will define me as a writer. That’s why I’m not the most authentic version of myself all of the time – because I’m afraid others won’t like what they see and I’ll lose the acceptance I crave.
I’m even afraid writing this right now that someone will find it trite or uninspired or derivative. That fear comes from wanting to protect myself. I want to protect myself from criticism. I don’t want to show all of my cards because that might mean that I might lose something in the moment of realness and honesty. Well, this blog is a practice shot at a counter story for myself. This is a move away from shame, into the arena, and towards the light that vulnerability casts upon my strengths and weaknesses alike.
Vulnerability is about embracing yourself. It’s loving yourself. It’s being radically compassionate towards those parts of yourself that you hate and have convinced yourself make you less worthy of love and acceptance. I think if we all did more of that work, the work that involves confronting our deepest shame we would find our movements expanding and deepening in ways that we’d never expect. Our work would be engaging with each other as whole persons instead of just the neat and clean aspects that make good resumes and brochures.
It’s tempting to hide behind theory and fancy words in activism and put up a façade of having all your shit together (or maybe that’s just me?) but that too can be a way of shielding ourselves from being honest about how we struggle. And I can’t help but think that the struggling is the common bond between us. So, why do we hide the parts that make us most relatable? Instead of reaching out and admitting that we don’t know, we pretend and “fake it ‘til we make it”? We avoid asking questions lest we betray our ignorance and our communities are less for it.
Don’t get me wrong, though, some of us hide ourselves for very, very real reasons. We hide parts of ourselves because there are still raw, open wounds. We hide ourselves because sometimes it is actually dangerous to be exposed. I’m not asking anyone to take risks that they would compromise emotional (or physical, for that matter) safety. You know you best so lean into what is healthy and safe.
So I ask: can we open ourselves up, even just a little bit, to the possibilities that being vulnerable creates? Can we stop running from pain and discomfort and lean into them instead? Can we wholeheartedly commit ourselves to what we love in spite of the fear of being annihilated, in spite of the fear of loss and separation?
*During the talk on vulnerability she does mention “obesity” as being a result of the avoidance of pain and vulnerability which is fatphobic and I do not endorse by any means.