The Courage to Be Vulnerable
Chris White, M.D.
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“There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.”
One of the most powerful aspects of the attachment relationship is that parents can help their children discover the invincible vulnerability of the human heart. Too often in our culture, we are taught that vulnerability equals weakness — that we must always be strong and never give up the fight. But this flies in the face of the deepest wisdom of our collective humanity. We can’t always get what we want, nor have everything go our way. And in fact, the times that we are most profoundly changed and “grown-up” are the times when Life pins us down and says — “This is the lesson you need to learn.” Without the ability to “down-shift” into accepting reality and surrendering to the intelligent and loving guidance of Life, we will remain narcissistic, become more frustrated and defended, and not mature into our full potential. Acceptance is a key capacity on the way to maturity, and it is through loving connection that we first learn this essential skill.
“We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history…
We numb vulnerability.”
Our nervous systems are built so that we are alarmed by the more vulnerable emotions. When feelings such as disappointment, sadness, fear, and powerlessness are evoked, our alarm bells go off and we react in ways to restore a more pleasant equilibrium. We first get busy trying to change the circumstances, pushing to get our way and hoping to avoid the feelings of disappointment or fear that are alarming us. If that doesn’t work we might “up the ante” by getting more belligerent and aggressive with others. Or alternatively, we may begin a campaign of numbing-out. We go right to the freezer and get out our favorite ice cream, we turn on the TV, we shop, or we pour ourselves a stiff drink. We each have a hundred ways of avoiding vulnerable feelings.
But down in the vulnerability is where are the goods are.
Mixed down in that caldron of very unpleasant feelings is where true happiness lies, where our desire and capacity for intimacy sleeps, and where qualities such as kindness and compassion and sweetness are sourced. Our joy can only be as deep as our capacity to feel sadness. The depth of our compassion is directly proportional to our ability to feel hurt and rejection. And our satisfaction in life depends on our ability to feel disappointed when things in our life don’t go according to plan or work out the way we had hoped. It’s as if the depth of our human heart needs to be carved and hollowed out over time, like the way water pours and swirls over bedrock creating a deep, calm, and nourishing pool in the middle of mountain creek.
“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Serenity Prayer
I believe it is up to us as loving and attuned caregivers to teach our children this lost art form — the art of acceptance. There will of course be plenty of times to help them to affect change — to “up-shift” and use their resources and talents to work toward the vision of a better future. But for a truly fulfilling life, our children also need to be taught how to “down-shift” into the allowing of their vulnerability. They need to know they are made of the earth — not of glass — and can survive all manner of difficult feelings. For the development of a calm and steady nervous system that can confidently face an uncertain world that does not meet our every whim, we all occasionally need to be lovingly guided from the hot fires of misplaced desire and aggression into the cool waters of acceptance and transformation.
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief… and of unspeakable love.”
This is our task as parents: to bring enough love and presence to our children’s vulnerability so that they can not only survive these experiences, but remain conscious during the difficulty and begin to develop a relationship with vulnerable feelings. We should not be afraid of tears; we should feel blessed by their arrival. With each passing through of winter, the bloom of spring will teach them everything they need to know about resilience and the invincible vulnerability of their own human heart.
Go to www.earlymomentsmatter.org to learn about attachment and to get an award-winning toolkit that introduces ways in which parents and caregivers can help their children build secure attachments.
Chris White, M.D. Bio
Chris White, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, parent educator, and life coach.Learn More