The Emergence of Strength through Struggle – A series of 4 articles. Part 1, Vulnerability
Recently, I finished a Mindfulness-based course on Turning Struggle into Strength where a map was co-created with the group and my support co-tutor, exploring the process of Emergence of Strength through Struggle. The purpose of this map was a) to support people in integrating ‘hard’/’challenging’ experiences into their lives and b) to offer the perspective that ‘Struggle’ is an opportunity to hone one’s Soul – that deep sense of fullness of aligned expression – which I call Wholeheartfulness. I would like to offer this map here as a series of 4 articles and under the following structure:
Part 1. Vulnerability
Part 2. The Habitual Blaming Pattern (Inner Critic)
Part 3. Gratitude and Loving Kindness
Part 4. Wholeheartfulness
Part 1. Vulnerability
Vulnerability typically seen as ‘weakness’
Life is not in our control. It’s not a journey that we can predict its twists and turns in hope that we maintain experiences that feel only pleasant and avoid all unpleasantness. Life is an experiential landscape that invites us to loosen the grip of ego consciousness and identification, and Uncover the felt sense of Strength: that deep sense of fullness of aligned expression of the Soul through ALL events and ALL experiences – no matter how they feel.
We do encounter challenging events arising in life – ‘hard times’ – and we feel pain. We feel ‘hurt’: grief, sadness, anger, rejection, isolation, frustration and guilt – the full emotional spectrum of what Struggle might feel like. Feeling that one is struggling or being in pain or feeling hurt – in other words experiencing what is often ignorantly termed as ‘negative’ emotions – is commonly perceived to be ‘weakness’. Being Vulnerable is seen as ‘weakness’.
Typically, the judgmental reactions towards seeing ‘weakness’ in oneself or others may include (testimonies taken from the Mindfulness group):
‘too weak to cope’
‘not strong enough’
‘not spiritual or mindful enough’
‘Doom and Gloom’
‘Why are you so negative?’
‘This is typical of you’
These projected reactions define the person (oneself or another), stigmatise them and compare them to a golden standard that rejects their pain and humanity rather than supports the natural process of Soul emergence.
If one has internalized and felt victimized by judgmental reactions to showing vulnerability, then the tendency is to avoid being vulnerable. One may think that if I show how I feel to others, they may take advantage of me, manipulate me, reject me or dismiss me. They may not like me anymore and I will be labeled and boxed in. There is the feeling of being stigmatized. One may also not want to be seen as having less power or not being able to meet others’ high expectations and standards, hence being tangled up into trying to maintain a particular self-image. In all scenarios the pain of Struggle is intensified!
‘Being not enough’ and Feeling Shame
There are plenty of academic qualitative research projects that track peoples experiences with vulnerability and the most well known work on this subject within the mainstream media is the social research conducted by Brene Brown. Her first TED talk attracted millions of viewers and her books have been best sellers. Brene Brown, amongst other less well-known researchers, reports that Vulnerability is at the core of our humanity. I would personally say vulnerability is at the core of our ‘Sentiency’, which we share with all living beings, including animals. Vulnerability is also the catalyst for a full, meaningful, connected life, and feeling a deep sense of belonging.
When I asked the Mindfulness group “What feels vulnerable in your lives?”, the answers were powerful:
- To initiate connection with a friend who I fell out with years ago
- To ask for help without expectation
- To be myself
- To explore and unpack safely experiences that are ‘distressing’ to me and others
- To discuss relationship issues with my partner
- Just going out of the house walking the dog
- To be honest and speak my mind
- To reveal to people you ‘have mental health problems’
- To be with others, to socialize, to go to gatherings and conferences
What really spiked for me is that people often felt that just being themselves in their authenticity felt risky and made them prone to low self-esteem. When we perceive ourselves as being ‘weak’ in our vulnerability and internalise the judgments of others within our family, school, peer groups and societies of Scarcity, we feel Shame. We acquire the belief that we are ‘Not Enough’ and that there is some flaw and deficiency in our being – in ‘who we are’. It gets so deeply ingrained in us, so as to believe that we are Unworthy by totally identifying ourselves with the ‘negative’ feelings we are experiencing that ‘tell us’ – they are evidence! – ‘we’ are ‘negative’, a ‘failure’ and a ‘flaw’. Some people can feel so unworthy to the extend that they believe they are (or another is) ‘responsible/to blame’ for the way they feel and that they – themselves – are not worthy of anything good that happens in their lives.
The feeling of Shame and believing one is ‘not enough’ incapacitates the willingness to be vulnerable and blocks one from experiencing the emergence of courage, strength and connection arising from being vulnerable. The interesting observation is that when one is in this shutting down, incapacitating mode of feeling shame what one really longs for IS to feel the fullness of courage and connection that vulnerability offers in the first place. A paradox! Interestingly, some of the benefits reported by Brene Brown to being vulnerable include:
- Building intimacy, trust, acceptance, receptivity to love
- Feelings of worthiness, less need to compare, deeper connections with oneself and others
- Opening of the heart empathically, listening to another, being more creative and motivated
Defending against the feeling of Shame for ‘being not enough’
The shutting down mode of incapacitation means that one goes on DEFENSE (fight, flight), which is all those learnt ways that we tend to armor ourselves with. The armor is a protective mechanism against ‘being hurt’, feeling the pain of judgment (self and other), feeling ridiculed and feeling the pain of Shame and Unworthiness. The armor is an accumulation of behaviours, belief systems and habitual emotional complexes that protect one from the pain of vulnerability and the perceived consequences. With reference to Brene Brown’s work and in combination with the Mindfulness group’s sharings, there is a variety of protective mechanisms one has learnt to use; these are summarized below:
Cynicism: Self-righteous aggression towards others
Intellectualizing: Analysis of the event/feelings/emotions that avoids actually feeling and embracing the emotion
Numbing: Food, Alcohol, Crap TN, Running, Drugs, Self-harming
Controlling: Demanding, High expectations, Rigidity, Hypervigilant of situations that feel uncertain
Pleasing: Not being able to say ‘no’, always agreeing and going along with things (passive)
Perfectionism: If I am to be accepted, loved, change my life etc I got to be and do more. Driven through Comparison.
It is not uncommon for a person to have a tendency to play out one, two or more types of protective mechanisms depending on context. What I find interesting is that ALL these patterns have one underlying function in common: the Inner Critic. I prefer to use a more process-oriented term for the Inner Critic, which is ‘Habitual pattern of Blaming’. This manifests in thinking, believing, feeling and behaving in relation to ourselves and others.
Part 2 of this article will map out the learnt Blaming patterns people act out, which sustain the shutting down mode to vulnerability and cause additional Suffering particularly when one goes through a ‘hard’ time in life.