By Kate Kripke, LCSW
What comes to mind when you hear the word “vulnerability?” Really, what are the images, words, and reactions that invite themselves along with that word? My guess is that it is something like this: weakness, fear, shame, powerlessness, and insecurity. I imagine that, for most of you, the word vulnerability sends with it a warning sign and a very deafening message of “Be Tough!” I imagine that all of you reading this know what it feels like to be vulnerable and that most of you are working very, very hard to run in the opposite direction. To prove to others that you are anything but.
My post today comes after being reminded, again, of Brene Brown’s phenomenal research on vulnerability. Her message is that in order to feel strong, empowered, and connected we must face vulnerability head on. Not run from it or resist it. Her decade of research tells us that the people who run from vulnerability are the ones who continue to feel shame, a lack of worthiness, and fear; that the people who embrace vulnerability are the ones who feel worthy, connected, and strong. It is somewhat counter-intuitive, isn’t it? This conclusion may confuse many of us who have been taught, from an early age, that admitting to vulnerability is failure. But this conclusion may, when all is said and done, provide postpartum moms some freedom.
For the majority of women who walk into my office, vulnerability is assumed to be a dirty word. For the first-time therapy client, the brand new mom, or the woman who exists in a place of shame and unworthiness, the idea of vulnerability is one to be avoided at all costs. This idea is terrifying. For many people, it equates failure. It suggests lack of competence. This resistance takes charge of the mom who is suffering in silence and is terrified to ask for help because she assumes this means that she is weak. This gets expressed in my office as, “I feel so much shame for having to be here. I feel like I should be able to do this without any help.”
But yet that mom is there, in my office. That mom is vulnerable. Not because she is weak, but because she is a mom. And she is human.
Lets, just for a moment, name all of the times in early motherhood that we are vulnerable:
When we try to get pregnant; when we learn that we are pregnant; during the first trimester; when we experience miscarriage; when we become pregnant again; when our bodies change before our eyes; when we give birth; when we adopt a child; when we attempt to breast feed our babies; when we choose to bottle feed our babies; when we wean; when we bring our babies home from the hospital, when our midwives leave, or when we bring our adopted babies home for the first time; when our babies cry; when we don’t have the answers; when we make mistakes; when we experience our partners’ struggle; when we are tired; when we are hungry; when we forget to change a diaper and our babies get a rash; when we lose our temper; when our feelings are hurt; when we realize we have hurt someone else’s feelings; when we are trying to cook dinner, tend to a newborn, and manage our toddler’s tantrums or endless chatter all at once; when we burn the toast; when we don’t recognize our bodies; when we have sex with our partners; when we are cold; when we are hot; when we are lonely; when we are sad; when our hormones are shifting; when we are surprised by something; when we are disappointed by something; when our expectations aren’t met…. Get it?
WE FEEL VULNERABLE ALL THE TIME.
What many of us do is this: Panic. We assume that if we are vulnerable there must be something wrong with us. And so we pretend to feel invincible when we aren’t. We say that we are fine when we’re not. We refuse help when we need it. And we attempt to be who we aren’t in that moment- we pretend to be moms who are super-human and impenetrable.
What would it mean if being “strong” meant knowing our limits and asking for help when we need it? What if being worthy meant understanding our own individual challenges and working with them rather than against them? What if being competent meant being super duper authentic with where we are emotionally, physically, and spiritually in each and every moment? What if being okay meant being willing to not be okay? What if the ability to acknowledge vulnerability was strength and not a weakness?
Well, what Brene Brown’s research says is this: We would be happier. It says that we would feel more connected to others. It says that we would report more feelings of worthiness and less shame. It says that we would feel more competent, more capable, and more in control. It says that by simply “leaning in” to discomfort we will be freed of the burden or it. Imagine that!
Postpartum mood and anxiety Disorders like PPD have many layers to them. Moms who struggle with depression and anxiety often are dealing with a double whammy of vulnerability- they are both vulnerable because they are moms and because the symptoms associated with depression and anxiety are making it hard for them to think with clarity and confidence. These moms may want nothing more than to wish their vulnerabilities away because they feel awful. But the more they try to NOT be vulnerable, they more they feel that they are. And they feel shame, and guilt, and worthlessness. And they resist these feelings of vulnerability. And around, and around, and around.
If Brene Brown’s 10 years of research is accurate, we know with a fair amount of certainty that this resistance to vulnerability and this assumption that being vulnerable is a character flaw only causes more distress and creates a deeper sense of isolation and lack of needed connection. And if we understand this, then we all may want to try something new: we may want to take a deep breath, find our inner courage and strength, and let someone in on our little secret. Reach out for help. We may want to give ourselves permission to be vulnerable simply because we are. And my guess is that by doing this, we actually get what we need to feel better.