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’

‘too unstable’

‘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.

2 thoughts on “The Emergence of Strength through Struggle – A series of 4 articles. Part 1, Vulnerability

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful piece of work. In the eighties a friend lent me a book that inspired me and still does. It was The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. His poem on love and so many more I think would agree with what you are saying. I think religions in their deepest and esoteric sense also try to explain these concepts, but unfortunately have been corrupted and the essence lost.
    I still struggle to understand why pain and suffering is necessary, but it is the human condition and needs addressing I think the most. It can cause wars, and so much damage, or turning towards understanding, and compassion.
    It seems to me that the latest research in psychology is also following this subject in a more scientific way, and using the knowledge of ancient wisdom with MRI scanning of the brain, genetics, etc…to develop new therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness to help us when we struggle to cope. Interestingly these therapies now as a preventative measure in coping when problems arise.
    May be the worlds struggle , is also adding extra stressors to our daily lives as we see wars and suffering, global warming, inequality etc…and feel helpless to do anything about such problems.
    New thinking is needed for ourselves and the planet, if suffering is to be alleviated. So thank you for this piece of work. Hope I have not said too much

    • Irene, its wonderful to read your reflections – very potent indeed and very true!

      The Prophet is such a unique and deep tale of spirituality, love and human vulnerability. I have observed that deep truths like these as exemplified in Gibran’s work, can be found across the more ‘mystical’ spiritual traditions of the world. When dogma and ignorance get hold of truths, then as you point out they get distorted in the name of ‘dominion & control’ (the Religion).

      The question you ask is a very important question: ‘why pain and suffering is necessary?’ And its a question that I find very often ignites the seeker within, who seeks ‘something else’, ‘peace’, ‘what is worthwhile’, ‘to know who one is’. And it becomes a quest. To find the Truth. I appreciate the question and the seeker in us all!

      Yes, its very interesting to define what Struggle means for us. There are many layers. The Buddha talked about how in life there is suffering. Like the suffering of physical pain, injury, the suffering of death and birth. And there is the additional suffering or struggle of the mental reactivity/conditioning (ignorance, greed, aversion), which is as you pointed out the cause of all the wars and violence in the world. In our inner world and the outer world too – I see these being interdependent. Yes, one can feel really helpless in the face of inequality, climate change globally, famine, exploitation and the killing of sentient beings on our doorstep and so many more! Im with you. And at the same time, every single of these events is an invitation to look within and meet what is there for us (Mindfulness helps) with as much openness and softness as possible. Then a clear, loving deep voice within will emerge and Right Action will follow – From a place of Wholeheartfulness. That’s the ‘Strength’. And it arises through meeting the Struggle within. This is the new thinking, the new paradigm that I see emerging from our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits as a whole integrated organism!

      Thank you so much for your sharing, so important to share our voices far and wide – we do lift each other up and we all have a role to play in the collective – the question is what role will we ‘choose’ to play. 🙂

      With love

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