The Superpower of Vulnerability
My journey from being obsessed with my image to being able to stop bullets with my chest — sort of.
Not long ago, I read Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, and it changed the way I thought about how I present myself to others. Specifically, the book contains a great quote in it that made me look at vulnerability — something I had never entertained as a possibility — much differently.
“Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.”
For a long time, I operated under the assumption that in order to be respected, I couldn’t be vulnerable — I had to be unassailable. I had to do work that was perfect. I had to know about everything. I had to have all the answers. My decisions had to be perfectly rational. I could not make mistakes.
And of course, this was an absurd assumption. My work was not (and still isn’t) perfect. There are plenty of things that I don’t know about. I make irrational decisions on a daily basis (as a matter of fact, we all do — and that’s actually a good thing). In short, I am not unassailable; I am not invulnerable. But why was it that I thought I had to be?
I’m No Superman
Growing up, I was infatuated with superheroes. I read the comic book adventures of Batman, Superman, Spider-man, and various others. And my infatuation with them consisted of more than just the action, the over-the-top art, and the complex supernatural stories. My infatuation was with just how these heroes were able to always come through and prove to be the best — no matter what.
Superman, among his various other super abilities, is invulnerable — meaning he can’t be hurt. There are exceptions to this, of course, with a convoluted special case involving Kryptonite — an element from his home world that negates the empowering effects of Earth’s yellow sun, thus making him basically human when exposed to it. I’ll stop the explanation there, to avoid revealing myself as even nerdier than I already have.
Batman, on the other hand, is just a human being, like me. But what made him special was a vast fortune left to him by his deceased parents (whose death when he was a child he lives the life of a vigilante in order to avenge), and a seemingly limitless mental strength. Batman, to me, was infinitely more interesting than any other superheroes because unlike them, he had no super powers, and he had to use this mental fortitude he had to overcome his lack of superpowers.
Through his mental fortitude, he was able to gain a towering intellect, push himself into peak physical condition, and outwit and outthink every villain he faced. No one got the drop on the Caped Crusader¹. And though it took me a while to realize it, that was precisely the problem.
The Subtle Art of Evasion
Little did I know, my idolization of Batman set me up for an even harder realization down the road. I had come to believe that by working hard enough and having an iron will, I could make up for any deficits I had, and thus end up becoming invulnerable.
You see, because Batman wasn’t naturally invulnerable like Superman, he had to work 10 times as hard to ensure that he still couldn’t be hurt. Instead of being invulnerable, he became evasive — no one could touch him. As I grew out of adolescence (at least in years), I found myself coming to mimic the hero of my youth; while I was also not naturally invulnerable, I too became untouchable — which is something completely different — and infinitely worse.
I had friendships, sure — and a few relationships, but they were always colored with fear that at some point, I would be called into question. And I wasn’t ever able to articulate what it was that would be called into question — it was just something, anything having to do with who I was as a person. All I knew was that when it did happen, and I was unable to prove invulnerable, I would have to feel something other than pleasure and confidence. To me, that was a fear greater than most others.
This caused me to — much like my childhood idol, Batman— act defensive and withdrawn. I practiced all kinds of social jiu jitsu in order to avoid the possibility of being open and vulnerable. I used humor, brought up random facts to switch the topic of conversation, and steered clear of one-on-one time with others. Whenever my choices or actions were questioned, I would become exaggeratedly defensive. I would use whatever weaponry I could to avoid having to come clean and admit that I might be imperfect.
My work life — at least in the beginning — followed much the same pattern. I had to be more civil about it (to avoid making things weird), but I found ways to divert any criticism, and blame mistakes on various things or people other than myself. It was always the fault of a lack of clarity, an abundance of constraints, or the classic “I actually meant to do that, and here’s a long, convoluted explanation of why though you think it’s wrong, it’s actually not”.
Quite simply, I avoided being wrong or vulnerable at all costs.
The Turning Point: I am More than All This
Coincidentally, it was when I began writing about self-improvement that I really came to grips with this albatross of invulnerability hanging around my neck. Initially, I started writing online about productivity — obsessed with trying to squeeze more out work and life, and trying to show others how to do the same. My approach was that of an expert — speaking to an audience from on high, and pretending to have much more information and insight than anyone else. But I certainly was not an expert; I was merely one practitioner and enthusiast among many.
It didn’t take long for me to begin reading the work of others in the field — writers who took a similar tone of expertise and unassailability. So many of them turned me off within the first few paragraphs of their pieces. Initially, I couldn’t figure out why, and then it hit me — like the ton of bricks that I had been trying to outmaneuver for so long: the very invulnerability that made me disconnect from the writing of others was the same kind of invulnerability that I was displaying in my writing.
From there, I came to realize that my posture of invulnerability sure kept others from criticizing me, but it wasn’t because there was nothing to criticize — it was because no one wants to confront someone obsessed with being invulnerable, so they give up. When people don’t see it as worth it to engage you with criticism, your relationship with them is (at best) half of what it could be.
Being “invulnerable” fosters a series of relationships that is barely more than superficial. And that is no way to live. When you take a posture of invulnerability, you remove the possibility that others can help you (because, after all, you’re fine on your own!). When you do that, people get turned off quickly. While they may still maintain a relationship of sorts with you, chances are, it won’t be very fulfilling for either of you.
Being Invulnerable by Being Vulnerable
So here’s where I get into a bit of semantics. I ended up finding a way to achieve my goal of being invulnerable.
It is possible to be invulnerable, but paradoxically, it can only be done when you choose to be vulnerable — to open yourself up. The definition of vulnerability is simply the inability to be hurt or harmed. Yes, choosing to be vulnerable with others leaves you open to smaller, short-term harms. But the disposition of being open and accepting — which comes with vulnerability — actually makes it much less likely that you’ll suffer severe long-term harm. Let me explain.
My journey to become more vulnerable has been guided by my willingness to simply admit that I mad a mistake — which is something I have always had a hard time doing. In order to do that, I needed to dissociate my actions and decisions from my concept of self and self-worth. Simply put, I am not my actions or decisions. They are things I do, but they do not define me or my value as a person. When I began to truly and deeply believe that, it became easier for me to be vulnerable and admit when I was wrong or didn’t quite know what I was doing (which it turns out, is a lot of the time).
The habit of disconnecting from my actions, thoughts, emotions, and decisions fostered a calmness and self-compassion that I had not experienced before. It has also allowed me to grow personally more than I ever had before I made that disconnecting a habit.
Just a note on this disconnecting. Not identifying with my thoughts and actions is not me shirking responsibility for them. If I do something that has bad consequences, I do all I can to try to correct it. And the funny thing is, it’s actually easier to do that if I don’t identify with the action. Think about it. If I identify with my actions, and someone tells me that I did something wrong, my first interpretation of that will be that I — as a person — am wrong. That’s much worse than just realizing that, though I’m a good person, I just took an action that was misguided. It becomes easier to be responsible for the action, because you’re less likely to see it as a personal indictment.
The surest way to stay vulnerable is to stay open. Openness means being willing to listen to others and really think about the possibility of them being right. Not only that, but consider that perhaps you are right much less of the time than you think.
At worst, you’ll find out you’re still right quite a bit, but be more humble about it. At best, people will sense that you’re a good person to talk to — and that’s never a bad thing.
¹ Yes, I know, there are various times when, technically, Batman has been defeated. In fact, my favorite story arc of all time, Knightfall, revolves around his back getting broken by super-yoked villain Bane.