“My ineptitude makes me good at what I do.” This was the astonishing claim made in 2005 by author Studs Terkel in an interview with Nightline’s Ted Kopple. He went on to explain that he really couldn’t do much of anything very well like fix things, sing, dance, or play sports. All he was really good at he said was listening, making him the great interviewer and storyteller that he was. Here, on national television, was a 93-year-old icon comfortable enough in his own skin to admit that he was not good at very much. Sharing his vulnerability not only made him lovable, it showed strength of character.
Some of us hide our vulnerability behind our skills and competencies, our achievements and our talents. We do this because we equate being vulnerable with being weak. We fear that if we are open and authentic enough to admit to a personal lack or limitation that we’ve opened ourselves to attack from others.
Vulnerability is not for the weak hearted. It requires deep inner strength to admit what you don’t know, what you can’t do well, what scares you, and what hurts you. It was clear that Studs Terkel inhabited his vulnerability from an awareness of his own strengths even though he started out by describing himself as inept.
How do we develop the strength to stand in our vulnerability? On our yoga mats we learn to honor it. When we embrace vulnerability wholeheartedly we discover a strength we did not know we had. As we attempt to do a posture that seems impossible or scary, once we set aside our ego, and stop struggling to get it right, we surprise ourselves and nail a pose we’ve never done before. We discover that accepting our vulnerability helps us create a boundary. We don’t push too hard, or go too far, which keeps us safe.
In our lives off the yoga mat we fear being vulnerable because we fear being hurt, let down, disappointed, rejected, or even killed. An aversion to unpleasant feelings can cause us to defend ourselves against feeling physical or emotional pain. Sometimes we distract ourselves from unwanted feelings by trying to be certain of the uncertain, trying to be perfect, or by acting as if we don’t care. We might dull our senses with comfort food, alcohol, gambling, drugs (illegal and prescription), television, work, video games, computers, and smart phones.
But numbing yourself to the discomfort of your vulnerability does more than dull the sting of unpleasant emotions. You actually put your self at a disadvantage by robbing yourself of the ability to ask for and receive the support you need. Ironically, by avoiding our vulnerability, we actually make ourselves weak.
Cynthia had a boss intent on setting her up to fail at a job she loved, needed, and was good at. As long as she pretended she could overcome his mistreatment by trying harder, asking him for feedback, or when that didn’t work, feigning indifference, she was helpless to do anything about her predicament. The first thing she had to do was recognize that she was under attack through no fault of her own. She was doing nothing wrong. Next she had to stop looking to her boss for approval and instead identify her strengths. Once she became more self-confident her boss’s attempts to undermine her became ineffective. She started asking for help from those who were willing and able to give it. Eventually she left the job, but on her own terms. She quickly found a work environment that appreciated her for her gifts and talents.
Ultimately, nothing can protect you from the vulnerability of human life. When you stop avoiding your own vulnerability you risk hurt and disappointment, but you receive the gifts that flow forth from a place of open heartedness: Kindness, forgiveness, love, generosity, empathy, and support.
Approach the joys, challenges, and disappointments of life with a full heart. Be first to say, “I love you.” Invest in a relationship even if there’s no guarantee of reciprocation. Ask for help when you’re ill, out of money, or need a place to live. Apologize when you’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Cry when you’re sad. Initiate getting together with friends. Or, like Studs Terkel, admit your ineptitude.
Challenge yourself to step more fully into your vulnerability.
• Ask your husband to take you to your doctor’s appointment if you’re afraid to go by yourself.
• Invite friends over for dinner instead of waiting for one of them to invite you.
• Apologize instead of defending yourself when you know you’ve hurt someone’s feeings.
• Return that phone call you’ve been putting off for fear you might get bad news.
• Offer your gifts and talents freely. Share them publicly.
Accepting your vulnerability can be scary, but when you find the courage to go deep into your vulnerability you’ll realize how safe it can actually. But no explaining can trump the experience. Take a leap of faith. Take the first step.