Vulnerability and Personal Growth: A Power Couple

Our society gives us conflicting messages about vulnerability and strength. Lately, I have been struggling to hold the balance between the two.

What prompted me to reflect on the topic of vulnerability was a voicemail left by my internship supervisor at 1:33 PM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. She called to let me know that she forgot to tell me something in supervision yesterday. It was about one of my recorded sessions with a client. She said in the message that it was not urgent, but she wanted to let me know about something she heard. Fear immediately took over my mind. What did I say? Was I too unprofessional? I was I encouraging the clients bad behavior? She called me instead of emailed. It must be serious.

These thoughts flooded through my brain. I quickly noticed that my self-doubt was revving up and told myself to calm down. I counteracted with the following thoughts: “She is just being a good communicator and prefers to help me in person, that’s why she called. I probably missed a step during the procedure I was doing, no big deal. I’m an intern. I’m supposed to make mistakes. I can blame being an intern for the reason for my mistakes. I can apologize and learn from this.”

As I reflect, I realize that no one besides me, the client, and the supervisor knew what happened during that session. It will not be shared with my friends, family, or co-workers. My face is totally spared. Except with my supervisor. Despite knowing this, I was shook the moment I got the message.

I’ve also experienced those around me balancing their vulnerability. After a class last week, one of the professors hung around and was speaking casually with a group of students. The professor asked why everyone was so shy during the class. She was obviously frustrated that no one was talking, but as soon as class ended the room erupted into chatter. A few peers of mine shared that they are self-conscious about speaking during class because they do not want to say something wrong. They also do not want everyone hear them in their incorrectness. I can relate to their responses. I will purposely give general answers to avoid being “inflammatory” or “off-base”. The professor said that it was a female thing. She said that we think we are inferior and are afraid to make mistakes.

I distinctly remember being coached on balancing the vulnerability at my last job. I remember making a hard decision about a case I was working on. I worked, I listened, I consulted, I learned and inquired for numerous days before I made my decision. I held power, and I did not take it lightly. I lost sleep over it. That did not prevent those clients from complaining about me. When I was told of the complaints, a feeling of worthlessness came over me. I knew those clients were going to be upset, but knowing they complained about me made it worse. The people around me knew that they were complaining. About me.

I received a response from one of my co-workers that I was not expecting. They witnessed me hearing about the complaint. They saw me deflate. They saw my walls raising and my brain trying to explain away the hurt. They knew how much time and energy I spent struggling to make the correct decision. That day I knew I made the correct decision, and today I believe I made the correct decision. This co-worker told me “It’s okay to feel insulted, because you were insulted”. That sentence validated my feelings, and taught me so quickly that real emotions are real. It was okay for me in that moment to be a human being, not just a worker who had to do a task. I realized the complexity of the walls that had slowly started to surround me. I had to step outside of the walls to make the decision, and I needed to experience the aftermath without the walls too. I needed to practice vulnerability or I would have shut down, rejected the feelings of worthlessness, and sat in that situation alone.

Another worker who was party to the decision responded to me later with a different response that equally shocked me. They said “This job requires thick skin, so start practicing now.” I believed them for a moment, maybe even a day, or a week. This person functioned with their walls up. I wondered how long it had been since the walls had down.

Now let’s be clear, there are internal walls that protect me from unneeded and unwarranted negativity. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to deconstruct an insult or an uncomfortable situation, and that’s a part of being human. There are walls that need to come down or open a window to allow feedback from the world. Without this feedback, I would not be able to learn and grow. The correct balance is where I am challenged and uncomfortable, but not self-destructive. Simplified point — “Don’t let the haters in, but allow some intentional moments for growth.”

Here are a few interventions that help me get through those “shattering” moments.

It gets me to calm down at the end of a long and stressful day. It makes my mornings brighter. It helps me be a world citizen. I a little human being living in a little box on a little dot on the map. My basic needs are met. I have enormous privilege and have tools to navigate this world.

I’m a Jesus follower. Jesus is love. If I am acting out true love by treating people the way I want to be treated and ethically and honestly joining with the people around me, there’s not much more I can be doing at the end of the day. If you don’t know Jesus or have a different spiritual guide, figure out what your purpose is, and remind yourself of that motive when you’re debating on letting a wall down, or holding strong.

I tell myself that I can do it. I imagine myself succeeding. I imagine myself failing and learning from it. I am a pretty confident person, so this comes moderately easy for me. If it doesn’t come naturally, that is okay. Start small and be consistent. See what happens.

Does this person really dislike me, or are they just full of darkness towards everyone? What is their purpose and how am I getting in the way? Why do they think like that? Why do I think like that? What does this experience actually mean to me? Have I experienced anything like it before? How did I get through it? Usually my conclusion = I am strong and I can handle this. Sometimes my conclusion = I need to take a step back and reconsider or stop this madness. Everyone’s reality testing will have different results, because each one of us have different thought patterns.

Being vulnerable is a skill, not a trait. For me it’s a skill that will be worked at more than others. Contemplation of shattering situations has made me realize that in order to grow, I need to shatter in some aspects of my life. The ability to manage those shattering experiences helps me decide if situations are worth keeping the protective wall up, or letting some parts crumble.

Foodie, Traveler, Social Worker, Child and Family Therapist, Future LICSW

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