For almost 3 years, Dinner Confidential has been exploring how women relate to some of our most sensitive and taboo topics: self-love, grief, ambition, pleasure and the list goes on.
Last month, we dove into the heart of human connection and explored the topic of VULNERABILITY in 9 cities around the world. From Lisbon to Vietnam, Edinburgh to Nairobi — women spoke with courage and listened to one another with compassion, as we each shared some of our most vulnerable stories.
What is vulnerability anyway?
Researcher and author, Brene Brown, defines it as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Many of us know that vulnerability leads to a more honest, courageous and authentic life. YET, there’s still an underlying belief that being vulnerable = being weak.
So perhaps the real question is, how can we feel both grounded and empowered in our vulnerabilities?
And now, our key takeaways…
Family and culture play a huge role in how we relate to our vulnerability — and that of others.
Some of us come from families who never talked about emotions. Perhaps our caretakers were raised in homes where the tendency was to shut down and therefore didn’t learn how to connect and express their own emotions. Maybe the stress of making ends meet was such that there was no room for feelings — those were for the privileged.
Some of us grew up in families that always openly expressed their vast range of emotions — without any sort of boundary. There was a lot of drama and we had to become the caretakers of our family members’ emotional fragility.
And some of us, only a few of us perhaps, grew up in homes where there was a healthy relationship to emotions, and talking about feelings felt right and safe.
Culture also influences how we relate to our emotions. In our patriarchal dominated world, feelings are synonymous with weakness. Actions and hard work is what’s mostly praised / celebrated. So many of us overextend our “masculine wing” in order to fit in and find our own sense of worth — primarily in the workspace. This is an important tension point for women, especially for those of us who have been discriminated against based on their race, ethnicity, social status, etc. In those cases, shutting down is a matter of survival.
Regardless of your background or where you come from — the truth is — we can all do better at connecting and expressing our emotions, ideas, and beliefs with more openness.
Relating with vulnerability is a dance, an exchange
Vulnerability is not a one-sided experience, it is a dance between ourselves and other people. It invites us to slow down, notice and stay present with our physical, mental and emotional discomfort and let go of our need to know the outcome.
There are two sides in this exchange: sharing with vulnerability and witnessing the vulnerability of others.
Sharing with vulnerability
Most of us have a real desire to be authentic and let other people see us and love us for who we are. But there can be a lot of fear associated with speaking “our truths” — we’ve been judged or misunderstood too many times before and we want to protect ourselves. We also don’t want to be a burden for other people.
We crave connection, but sometimes we share “too little” and end up believing others “don’t get us”; other times we share “too much” and wake up to a “vulnerability hangover” the next day. How can we create the connection we are looking for? The bond that we really desire?
There are two questions that can help us understand what could be a“right” amount of sharing: 1) Am I “dumping” my emotions into the wrong space or onto a person that may not be equipped to deal with them? 2) Am I “over-editing” my words and therefore suppressing the emotions and desires that are burning inside me?
Receiving other people’s vulnerability
Sometimes when we are witnessing other people’s vulnerability, our own vulnerability gets triggered. This can feel uncomfortable so we jump (too quickly) into fixing mode, looking for ways to “solve” the problem. Yet many times all we need to do is “be” present with that person. Sometimes the simple act of really listening without judgement, is the most loving and caring thing we can offer.
How can we learn to sit with our discomfort, without distracting ourselves or trying to dismiss that feeling. What could happen to our relationships if we deeply embraced our vulnerability and the vulnerability of others?
A note on social media: social media can be a dangerous space to share and witness vulnerability. As we are browsing we can easily move from a joyful post to a very triggering one. Instead of being a dance, it can quickly become a dumping ground without boundaries or support (it also invites a lot of “performative” rather than authentic vulnerability).
Being intentional leads to more grounded, embodied and purposeful vulnerability
There are three key elements that can help us be more intentional and feel more grounded in our vulnerability.
What is the CONTEXT?
First, look at the context surrounding this action or conversation
WHO’s the receiver — What’s our history together? What’s that person’s own history (if known to you)? Sometimes it can be harder to be vulnerable with a close friend than with someone we don’t know because their opinion matters more or/and we have already put too many labels on top of each other.
WHAT’s the topic — How triggering is it? How much trauma do I have around it? How much discomfort can I handle?
WHEN is this taking place — Is this the right moment? Is the other person open to receiving my emotions or am I imposing them onto them?
WHY am I sharing — What’s really driving my desire to open up or take this action? What is my deepest intention?
Being mindful of the context, can help us discern with whom, when and how we want to have a certain level of conversation or take action.
What is the CONTAINER?
These are some of the boundaries that can “contain” your vulnerability so it doesn’t leak into places you don’t want it to.
Clear Agreements: For instance, in our dinners, we create a container with very clear agreements: confidentiality, no-judgement or advice allowed, etc. Even when friends come, they are reassured that we won’t be talking about what they shared outside of this container unless there’s consent from both parts. Having clear agreements can create a more inviting or even “safer” container.
Limited time: The container can also be created by external circumstances. For instance, sometimes we tell our deepest secrets to a stranger on a flight because we know we won’t see them again. Or sometimes we meet someone who is moving abroad in a month, and we fall in love quickly because we had limited time.
Trusting relationships: Other times the container is a person we fully trust, like our therapist.
What are the containers that can support and hold you?
What are the CONSEQUENCES?
There can be consequences when we choose to open up. Some are very positive and nourishing, like a deeper sense of connection and feeling supported. Others are more challenging, like potentially feeling judged, dismissed or ignored. Or hurting people we care about.
Are you willing to deal with the consequences? Can you handle the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen?
The journey can feel bumpy, but ultimately vulnerability leads to something very powerful: INTIMACY
Embodied, grounded vulnerability is the ongoing practice of choosing, over and over again, to stay curious about the unknown– without clinging into certainty.
Many times it requires that we go through a deep internal battle between the part of us that wants to protect us from failure or judgement (the part that seeks certainty) and the part of us that wants to take risks, love deeply, and be more honest. Going through that battle can stir a lot of physical, mental and emotional discomfort*, but if we can handle it, we get to the door that invites deeper connection and more intimacy. And when we choose to live a truly vulnerable life, we invite others to do the same.
We all deserve to feel loved. We all deserve to have authentic relationships. We all deserve to feel supported in our most vulnerable moments (why go to a mammogram alone when we can ask a dear friend to join?).
We have the power to transform ourselves, our relationships, and our cultures by embracing this practice. This is how we find strength in our vulnerability.
* For those who have experienced deep trauma, this discomfort can take a big toll on your nervous system. Be gentle, ask for support from someone you can trust and try to be as loving as possible towards yourself.
Reflect on some of the relationships across the different areas of your life — family, romantic, friendship, work, other communities — notice where you are open (or “over-open”) and where you are shut down. Are you relating in ways that you truly desire?
Journal: What is embodied and grounded vulnerability for you? How can you open up without feeling weak? How do you know you’ve crossed the line?
Written by Veronica in Miami, Julie in Rome and Roxanne in Edinburg, in collaboration with Dinner Confidential hosts Caroline in Nairobi, Vanina and Mariasu in Buenos Aires, Alana in Lisbon, Sage in Vietnam / Miami, and Dee in Toronto.