“…The heart itself cannot actually break, for its very nature is soft and open. What breaks open when we see things as they are is the protective shell of ego-identity we have built around ourselves to avoid feeling pain. When the heart breaks out of this shell, we feel quite raw and vulnerable. Yet this is also the beginning of feeling real compassion for ourselves and others.” – John Welwood
Finding my ground again after an incredibly intense week of CranioSacral training, and vulnerability is bouncing around in my head today. Apropos given the way my last week went. But I’m considering this new space around vulnerability I find myself in now, so I figured I’d take this opportunity to share my ruminations.
What is it we’re afraid of with vulnerability? Is it a fear of being judged? A fear of losing ourselves? A fear of being seen? As a bodyworker, I am acutely aware of the position I am asking people to put themselves in. Most people I work with have no relationship with me outside of the confines of my orange-walled office. Within minutes of meeting me, I am asking someone who has no connection to me to undress and get on the table and be seen in a way that most of us aren’t seen on a day-to-day basis. And not only that, but by getting on the table, one is essentially surrendering control, giving me permission to touch and manipulate their body. There is a level of exposure in massage and bodywork that I have a deep amount of respect and reverence for. Getting on the table, no matter how good a massage feels, is not often an easy task. It can feel incredibly vulnerable. I have so much gratitude for people’s willingness to step into that vulnerability and show up in the way they do.
And that happens in trainings as well, as the past week made painfully clear to me. The vulnerability blind-sided me, in fact, in its intensity, complete with triggers, lots of emotions, and a fair amount of physical pain. On the last day I was sitting in the circle while we were doing a check-in, and I’d shared the space that I found myself in and the difficulty that I’d been having during the week. I listened to others talking about their experiences and I marveled at our ability, mine and others, to step into vulnerability. To open and share and finds words, or actions, to express the places (dark and light and everywhere in between) we’d found ourselves in during the course of the week. Not everyone talked, but everyone was there and held space for those who wanted to share. And I found myself feeling perhaps more intensely than ever before the enormous presence of a group of people showing up for each other and themselves. In that moment, vulnerability was not something to fear, but rather to celebrate and honor. I recognized our ability as humans to connect with each other, to share our hearts with one another, and to hold each other with compassion and grace.
The other piece that I recognized in that circle was the universality of the human experience. Peers were sharing their stories of the week and I found myself resonating with so much of what was being said, connecting to pieces that felt true for me – maybe not in that module, but that I could at least recognize as having felt at some point in my life – and I saw that while experience manifests differently for everyone, the underlying emotions are the same. There is a universality and a connectivity in the shared experience of being human. Underneath the layers, anger is anger; sadness is sadness; loneliness is loneliness; joy is joy. And that commonality is really only accessed when there is a willingness to lean into vulnerability.
Seeing the commonality between us, in that moment, had a profound effect on me. I felt held and seen and supported because something in me began to trust that while my specific experience might not be something that anyone in that room could relate to, they were able to contact the underlying feelings. And it began to melt away any shame that was there for the experience that I was having. And finally, in a very sweet moment, I felt seen. Not for my issues or the things that I was pathologizing in my head, but for being human. For experiencing the complex range of emotions that goes along with the territory of being human. And by acknowledging my experience, I was opening up to that and stepping into a place of authenticity. Yes, I am happy a lot of the time. But I am also sad sometimes, and sometimes I’m even angry, and sometimes I’m tired, and sometimes I’m needy, and sometimes I’m insecure, and sometimes I am, well, you get the point. I’m human.
It is a gift we give one another, I think, to show up in authenticity and to be vulnerable in that, because it allows us to be more present with ourselves and others. And it gives others permission to connect to themselves. Their vulnerability, yes, but also their authenticity.
And then I read over this and cynical me takes over and says, “Alicia, sometimes you’re too quick to look at the bright side, the learning opportunity or positive thing to come out of darkness and it minimizes how hard this is. Sometimes it sucks to feel vulnerable and exposed and seen and you’re making it sound too easy to just think about what a great learning opportunity you’re having when you’re feeling blown open and exposed.” So, it seems important to listen to that part of my brain and acknowledge that it hurts. That it sucks. That naming our dark places is uncomfortable. And sometimes, just naming something doesn’t make it go away, sometimes it magnifies it. And then what? Then we have to sit with it, be uncomfortable and wait it out? Just because we’re human. I can tell you that most often when I’m in that space, I say to hell with this. If this is the human experience, you can take it and shove it, because this hurts too much. But guess what? That’s a valid response to being uncomfortable. It’s a pretty human response. So, there’s room for that too.
All of this is to say, this doesn’t wrap up neatly. It’s not as simple as leaning into vulnerability and trusting that you’ll be held, or even that it will feel good to be seen in your vulnerability. Maybe it’s been your experience that you won’t be and it sure as hell won’t feel good. But, in this training this past week, I realized that part of the healing work that I do (both with others and with myself) is to step into that vulnerable place, over and over again. To take care of myself in that vulnerability. To answer someone genuinely and with integrity when they ask me how I’m doing. To open and soften here and there so I can connect with my own humanness and in doing so, connect with yours too. And through that we can provide enough space for each other to hold that whole big beautiful spectrum of emotions – what it means to be human. And in doing so, actually see each other.
And if we can acknowledge those moments when the world brings us to our knees and we feel our vulnerability, maybe sometimes that vulnerability won’t feel so scary and we will be able to recognize (even if only for a fleeting second) that those moments aren’t the ones that destroy us, but rather make us more human.