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That Thing Called Vulnerability

Most of us will have habitual responses to vulnerability, particular when it arrives in large doses. Often the bigger the potential for loss or gain, the more vulnerable we will feel.

I have been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately. It’s been making rather frequent appearances in my life in both personal circumstances and my business endeavors. If you’re a small business owner, you’ll be surprised at my naivety- that I didn’t expect to feel vulnerable creating Sunflower and Ivy.  I know-Crazy! But it is this unexpected experience of vulnerability, amongst others, that has led me to write this blog post and to hold a magnifying glass to vulnerability itself.

I will begin with a description of vulnerability; bear with me if you find it a bit dry. The dear old dictionary defines vulnerability as the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. Basically Vulnerability is the feeling that emotional or physical harm/attack is possible. What comes immediately after this experience is anticipatory anxiety of the “harm” part of this equation. Basically you begin to feel anxious because you’re exposed and could be harmed.  Most people react in a whole range of ways to this exposure and anxiety. They become defensive or protective; they disassociate, over compensate or deny the situation or experience. This successfully dilutes or distinguishes our vulnerability and the possibility of harm or hurt that it represents. One of the most recognisable examples is in relationships. We all know a commitment-phobe, weather it’s ourselves or someone else. The potential to be harmed in a relationship triggers in these people protective behaviors of the never live together, share money or get married type.

So if we think of vulnerability as the (perceived) possibility of rejection, failure or another harm or hurt, then vulnerability can easily be labelled as a negative experience. From a biological and survival perspective; vulnerability is dangerous. Our primitive response is to eliminate it from our lives. Yippee, I hear my heart say; I hate feeling vulnerable.  But there is a rather large catch. Vulnerability is interwoven with many of life’s richest experiences and possibilities, especially that magical one we call love.

But what I am learning, slowly, is to remember that vulnerability is the perceived POSSIBILITY of harm or attack not the possibility itself. So in actual fact we can flip the last bit. Vulnerability can mark the possibility of gain. That sounds less threatening doesn’t it? So why when we hear vulnerability do our pessimistic brains start shouting and demanding precautionary and top speed action? When we can gain as well as lose from the situation? I am not entirely sure, something to do with survival and biological conditioning most likely as well as our own personal experiences and associations. Vulnerability is a gateway experience, uncomfortable because it is uncertain.

“I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few” Brene Brown

It’s interesting isn’t it then to think of what we are struggling with and how this might relate to vulnerability. Most of us will have habitual responses to vulnerability, particular when it arrives in large doses. Often the bigger the potential for loss or gain, the more vulnerable we will feel. Being vulnerable is being exposed to an uncertain outcome, if alternative outcomes appear more black and white, then it’s all too tempting to take them; forfeiting possibility for comfort and security.

So by now you will be wondering why I was so surprised when vulnerability arrived on my emotional doorstep after launching Sunflower and Ivy. I was surprised because I was used to witnessing vulnerability in other people as courage. I expected to feel courageous stepping outside of my comfort zone. I was so underprepared to feel vulnerable, that I didn’t even recognise it at first.

Let me explain. Sunflower and Ivy launched earlier this year-you can read about its beginning’s here, and following the craziness of preparation I had some time to recover and to think. For those who are prone to a little thing called anxiety, you will agree that thinking is not always a good thing.  Soon I began to worry about my lack of business skills. So I employed my go-to tool: organisation. I felt that the least I could do to prepare myself for future failure (hello vulnerability) was to organise myself and calculate my finances -properly. A few hours later and I realised how many thousands of dollars of savings had gone into my small business. Despite it not being vastly more than my estimates, seeing the calculations of paper was a different experience.  I realised that that my business could fail financially (oh hi vulnerability). So I reacted to my anticipated anxiety and stopped working on Sunflower and Ivy, no blog posts, no Instagram pictures, nothing for weeks. I used the excuse that I wasn’t skilled enough for small business, that the market was too tough or even that I didn’t want to do it anymore!  I thought about closing down and I cried in self pity more than I would like to admit.

Thankfully I didn’t do anything rash, and in a relatively short space of time, I was able to re-frame my thinking. I was quitting before I had really started, because I was afraid. I felt weak because I was vulnerable. I was vulnerable not just because of my financial naivety and investment but because I had a dream that I had poured creativity and love into. And now it was in the big wide world.

I have tossed up for a while about whether to type and publish this article (oh hey again vulnerability), but then I read this quote:

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness. -Brene Brown

I expect what I see in others to be mirrored back in how I see myself. Which wasn’t happening; instead of recognising my courage; I felt weak and like a fraud. Where I would look for the relatable human-side of a small business, I was trying to bury imperfections and quirks under a polished and perfect veneer. When I couldn’t hide my imperfections; I seriously contemplated quitting.

The interesting thing is that Sunflower and Ivy is founded on acts of vulnerability. Gift giving requires both the giver and receiver to feel vulnerable. The giver is vulnerable because their gift may be rejected and the receiver is vulnerable in that they must accept an emotional offering and therefore be “needy”. As for the art therapy side of the business- All therapies have a significant exchange of vulnerability; it is a catalyst for therapeutic change. In art therapy this is amplified further because the client is making a physical gesture of their experience. The physicality of art in therapy is what adds such richness. This is because the person’s emotion and narrative becomes tangible, alterable and visible. It challenges all those responses I spoke about earlier.

So while I would love to finish this article with some handy tips for overcoming vulnerability, the reality is there is none. I am beginning to understand that it is one of those important emotions. As I said earlier it’s a gateway emotion and I think the whole point of a gate is to go through it and not around it or over it. Brene Brown has a fascinating TED talk called The Power of Vulnerability and she has written a great book, Daring Greatly, for those of you who want to look into vulnerability a little further.

Brown, B. (2015).  Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead  Penguin Putnam: New York