“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. … To be alive is to be vulnerable.” —Madeleine L’Engle
As a practicing attorney, I might be the last person you’d expect to write about vulnerability, especially in the work setting. Law training breeds a tough demeanor designed for intimidation and argument. And yet, within that masculine model of the win-lose game, I’ve found a way to be myself and keep my heart open. Perhaps this makes me a radical in my profession, but I’m continually shown that a loving approach works best for me and the people I work with, and it tends to frustrate those who want to do battle in the traditional way.
At the heart of it, for me, is the question of whether you are willing to be vulnerable in what can seem like a scary world. This is a popular topic these days, though often we relate it more to our intimate relationships than our work life. Is vulnerability something to guard against at work, or can we learn to embrace it and dance with it? For me personally, I’ve discovered that if I can stay with it and choose to risk vulnerability, there’s the potential to develop a deep inner strength, which, paradoxically, decreases the fear of exposure.
This is not an easy path, as I’ve learned time and time again. For example, in my first job as a newbie lawyer, I worked for a judge in district court. On a daily basis we managed a steady stream of people accused of low-level felonies, mostly stealing money. The sheer volume of cases was overwhelming. And not unlike the emergency room at a hospital, the people who found themselves in this courtroom were facing chronic hardships and challenges.
The setting was harsh and unforgiving, and one day the stress got to me. I made a series of rookie mistakes, and due to the nature of a courtroom, those mistakes were very public. I was clearly slowing down the rigid and mechanical process taking place, and I was aware that all eyes were on me. The judge did not hide his disapproval, scolding me in front of everyone. It was the perfect storm for turning a vulnerable moment—a potential teaching moment—into a toxic wash of shame.
You know the feeling, don’t you? It comes on in a hot, uncontrollable wave, an expanding red flush in my face and neck rising to the top of my head. Then the heat extends downward into the rest of my body, and soon there’s a tingling in my hands and belly. This is my shame response, where I recognize that a perceived weakness has been exposed, rendering me utterly and totally vulnerable.
These moments of vulnerability can feel like they open us to attack and emotional wounding. But might there be a different way to approach them? Looking back, I wonder how things might have gone had I remained present in myself, reminded myself that I was new at this job and I was doing the best I could with the knowledge I had at that time. While I was certainly on a steep learning curve, where was the compassion from my more experienced colleagues? Where was my compassion for myself? If I had stayed more present within my vulnerability, I might have seen how the judgment, impatience, and aggression were expressions of the others in this situation. I might have stayed connected to myself even in this challenging learning moment.
Working at a new job or being in any situation where you are stretching yourself will bring about a sense of vulnerability. But this is precisely where the juice of life lies, in the dance with new experiences. Vulnerability is an intentional way of being in the world—a state of being connected to one’s heart and staying present with whatever feelings arise. Recognizing and acknowledging the fear is in reality where your true strength lies, because what can be seen and known starts to lose its power. The point isn’t to try and get rid of the feeling of fear, but to coexist with it. The enormous amount of energy that goes into hiding and resisting the fear is then available for creative and productive activity.
Over the years, I’ve practiced consciously embracing that feeling of vulnerability. The first challenge is to recognize the sense of insecurity as it arises, because without the recognition, we are going to habitually react. Once you recognize it, there’s an opportunity to pause. Stop everything. Try taking a wide-angle look at the fear, the way you might watch a beautiful bird flying by in the distance. And then breathe. One, two, three slow breaths, accepting and acknowledging, even loving that fear response. It’s possible there is good cause to be afraid—instances when losing your job and income would be life-shattering, for example. There is wisdom in paying attention to that cautionary voice in you. But unless you know the fear and learn to embrace it as it comes, you’re more likely to react rather than respond in your own best interest. The fear is there to protect you in some way, but it may not always be a threat to your immediate existence.
Next time you find yourself in this place, make contact with your own life energy and bodily sensations. This only needs to be a few seconds. Then, as you become deeply present with yourself, awareness may arise of your own internal thought patterns and judgments. What if you stopped giving weight to that running commentary and kept your primary focus on your own presence? What if you then took another breath and looked at others, even for a few seconds, as who they really are in this moment? What if you recognized the vulnerability in them? Then just wait and see what happens.
As we develop this capacity to stay and experience feelings as they arise, our ability to respond calmly and lovingly in challenging situations grows. I had an opportunity to test this recently when a particularly aggressive attorney tried to engage me in a very nasty email exchange. Sure, I was tempted to fight back, to get down and play in the mud, but I chose not to. I decided instead to respond to what I consider to be real—the love in him—and ignore the rest. His response was to dissolve in a puddle of frustration when he couldn’t make me his sparring partner. His perception of how he held power was disrupted, and consequently he didn’t represent his client well. Yet again I saw the strength that arises out of the practice of deep presence when I act from authenticity and love.
Is this easy? No way. It’s a practice. And like with many practices, if you work with this, you will likely discover a deepening of your relationship with yourself. This is where true healing takes place, as you know and return to your authentic self. Great strength comes from recognizing how we hold ourselves back in the attempt to remain invulnerable. The habit of hiding and resisting vulnerability may give you the illusion that you are safer, but in truth it will only harden you to your own life as it’s unfolding.
In professional environments, we know there are appropriate roles to play and that mistakes or incompetencies can cost us a job. I’m not suggesting you share all your inner workings as you process your vulnerability at work. What I am suggesting is that dancing with your own vulnerability and allowing it to live and breathe can offer knowledge about yourself that is powerful and healing—and may also lead to success.
Photos (top to bottom) by Eutah Mizushima and Samuel Zeller from Unsplash