“Most of us are afraid of being human, afraid of being vulnerable, afraid of exposing our own beauty, afraid of being naked, afraid of shedding our masks off, afraid of relinquishing our defenses, afraid of the only thing that can set us free.” – Daniel Saint
It hit me like a ton of bricks…well actually, it was more like a big red ball. Standing in the yard I hadn’t even seen it coming, a big red blur moving through the yard headed straight at me. That’s when I felt it smack against the side of my head, my hand immediately reaching up to feel the spot where the rubber hit. Momentarily stunned by the bump to my head I looked down to see E’s eyes looking back up at me, her small hand clenching mine a little tighter. With concern in her eyes she asked me, “Are you okay with that?”
That’s when it really hit me, not another ball but the realization that I never had asked myself that question before. It’s something we ask the children at my work all the time. Five simple words that usually act as the foundation through which our children begin to advocate for themselves. Five simple words that allow them to express how they feel, acknowledge their struggles, and move forward with whatever boundaries or changes might help them and those around them grow. Just five simple words.
But for me those words didn’t feel so simple. In fact, when E first asked me this I didn’t really know what to say. For a few seconds I remember standing there looking at her before spitting out an almost robotic “I’m fine” and moving on. Of course E saw right through that and turning away gave me one more small reassurance saying, “That looked like it hurt.”
And you know what, it really did hurt. In fact the more I thought about E’s question the more I wondered why I didn’t just say that, why I couldn’t seem to acknowledge something as simple as being hurt. Every day I watch children share these feelings verbally and non-verbally with each other. Every day I watch them open up, let others in and allow themselves to be seen even when it’s hard and even when it requires our guidance. Almost every day I guide children through this process; so why in that moment couldn’t I advocate for my own feelings?
Something I’ve realized the more I’ve reflected on my own personal journey, is that as adults we don’t always feel safe to share what’s really going on inside. Instead of being open and honest about our feelings in the way that we encourage children to be, we tend to bottle them up or brush them to the side, avoiding any opportunities for other peoples input and the judgement and criticism that may invite.
What’s sad is that these feelings are often based on the true reality how vulnerability is viewed for adults. As we get older I think we are trained to see struggle (both internal and external) as a lack of capability. If we are struggling emotionally we are stigmatized as being weak or defective, making things like therapy or any form of seeking help difficult and terrifying. And if we are struggling with things outside of ourselves like our work we are seen as not being “good enough,” making us work harder for that outside validation instead of actually focusing on the things we need.
With this being the primary input that is received each time we are challenged, it’s no wonder we often shy away from any sort of vulnerability. Think about how much harder it must be to admit you are struggling, let alone ask for help, when you don’t trust that your vulnerability will be met with the empathy and understanding it deserves.
The problem with this is that by avoiding that vulnerability and closing ourselves off from the input and support of anyone else, we are actually stunting our own growth. When we build walls around our feelings we isolate ourselves, not allowing all of who we are to seen by anyone including us. It’s not until we break down those walls and start to invite others in that our struggles really become clear.
Instead of just seeing things from our own perspective we start to see who we are and what we are experiencing reflected back to us through the eyes of the people supporting us. This is what helps us acknowledge our feelings and accept our imperfections. It is what helps us start to set boundaries and make moves to push ourselves forward into true honest growth.
But how do we take that leap into vulnerability? How do we find the courage to allow ourselves to truly be seen?
The answer to this I think was best said by author and speaker Brene Brown who shared that “courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
One of the biggest worries when we consider leaning in to that vulnerability is that it puts the spotlight on us. It highlights for everyone not just on the things that are joyful or pleasant but the things that are hard. It separates us, puts us in the hot seat, and leaves us open to so many things that are entirely out of our control. But when we lean in and put our true selves out there (even just a little bit), it is that very spotlight that also gives us courage. The courage to acknowledge our feelings even when its hard, to speak up for ourselves and advocate for our needs, to say we are not okay and ask for help, and to open ourselves up to connection, understanding and growth.
And while this may look different for each person, it is essential to all of us. It can be putting yourself out there by sharing more with friends or co-workers, being more open and honest about your feelings, or simply saying “that was hard” from time to time. What’s important to remember is that however you take the leap, and whatever support you need to get there, you are helping yourself grow.
So as hard as it may be to take that first step try not to be afraid, because that vulnerability is what keeps moving us forward. It is what reminds all of us that we are in this together and that struggling is part of the human experience. It is what grounds us and what helps us develop empathy and compassion for other people’s challenges. It is through leaning in to that vulnerability that we change how people see struggle and model for others that it’s perfectly normal to say “i’m not okay” sometimes.