The first time I saw a couple dancing tango in Buenos Aires was on a bustling shopping street. In the centre of a crowd of tourists, they stared at each other passionately, their facial expressions a parody of romantic jealousy. The performance was marked with elaborate and dramatic movements which exaggerated the sultry, fiery tone. I snapped away at the couple with my disposable camera (it was 2005), delighted at the show. I walked away from it, not feeling particularly moved until I developed my photos some days later.
What I captured hadn’t been feigned for onlookers. Two photos showed the intimacy of their close embrace as the dancers closed their eyes and clung to each other. In the moments when they weren’t pretending for tourists, their yearning for connection was expressed through the tightness of their union in between flips and tricks. I still have those photos to remind me that vulnerability is what makes us beautiful, human and authentic. Expressing it genuinely is what brings us closer to others, builds trust and allows us to experience life with all of our heart and emotions.
That’s not an easy conclusion to reach and for many of us, it’s something that we have to re-learn. As children, we were told not to reveal too much of ourselves because it might not be accepted by our communities.
I feel sad for men who cannot even get in touch with their emotions, let alone express them because they were taught this was weak and somehow, it equated to being feminine. Women also find it hard to appear imperfect. We are judged every day on what we wear, what we say, how we behave and whether we asked for it.
Shame and Vulnerability
Brene’ Brown, a leading shame researcher, found that we all feel shame and if you don’t, it’s because you have no capacity for human emotion. We experience shame as a fear of disconnection from others; that we will not be accepted if we reveal who we really are to them. In extreme cases, people who experience abuse don’t even talk about their trauma because they feel so unworthy of love and acceptance that they must hide their experience, even from themselves.
You might feel the need to hide a mistake at work because if people knew about it, they may no longer accept you as a highly educated professional. You may feel that people would see you as weak if you told them that you suffer from a mental illness or that you are grieving somebody you love which is why you’re finding it hard to perform at your usual levels. Shame shows up in all sorts of ways but the basic feature of it is an unwillingness to be who you are because that part of you may be rejected by others. That’s a painful, isolating and unhappy place to be.
Shame underlies vulnerability.
We have learnt to numb our vulnerabilities through drink, drugs, eating, pretending and a whole raft of other ways that stop us from facing the discomfort of being imperfect. I don’t even know what it means to be perfect!
The problem with this is that you can’t just numb one emotion, you have to numb everything including joy, love, happiness and satisfaction. Allowing and being open to your vulnerabilities, observing them, being compassionate towards them is where our humanity resides.
When you live wholeheartedly, you take risks. You accept that asking out somebody might lead to rejection, but you do it anyway. You know that if you quit the job that makes you unhappy, things might not work out but that’s ok. Failure is not something to be ashamed of.
You understand that when you express your deepest secret to a friend, they might be disappointed in you but that doesn’t change your approval off yourself.
You know you are worthy with all your imperfections and flaws. You know that nobody can reject you because you accept yourself. People who have this inner belief aren’t judgmental of others. Instead, they see the beauty in vulnerability and know that it is a necessary part of being alive. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy to sit with, but the alternative is emotional emptiness.
We stop feeling ashamed of appearing stupid, failing, not being attractive enough, not being whatever enough. We are satisfied with whatever there is.
What Does This Mean For Conflict?
When I was training to become a lawyer, I learnt to find ways to blame the other party. Lawyers are paid a to analyse the rules, laws and procedures and to come up with positions and defences to convince a judge that you are right, and the other party is wrong. Controlling the outcome is the aim and the more concrete your position is, the better. These positions can become so entrenched that parties can spend thousands of pounds proving that they are right.
I’m not saying that legal action isn’t appropriate in some situations but what I am saying is that you should be aware of your vulnerabilities and look at them realistically. Pretending you have none is costly in a real, practical sense.
In any conflict, it’s highly unlikely that you are one hundred per cent right. Conflict is complex and is usually accompanied by high emotions, new and old wounds and interest and needs that are left wanting. This can lead to you fighting something that you will lose, in more ways than one.
People who don’t accept or express their vulnerabilities are most likely to blame somebody else and insist on being right. They build walls around themselves during conflict and throw stones at the other party. That’s what blame is; a defence mechanism that discharges pain and suffering onto the other person. It comes from shame.
Conflict and Vulnerability
When parties to a conflict perceive that they will “win”, they usually don’t want to negotiate or resolve the conflict in another way. They believe they are right, a belief often fueled by lawyers, friends, relatives or anything else that supports that position.
We don’t tend to recognise our vulnerabilities until something happens which makes us realise that we won’t win and that the conflict is hurting us more than we can stand. When the other party has the same perception, this usually results in attempts to resolve conflict.
Parties then start to reason that the costs of pursuing a legal battle outweigh the amount of the claim. This can be persuasive in bringing parties together.
In inter-personal disputes, parties might feel emotionally exhausted or after a period of absence from the other party, they may realise that their relationship is worth saving.
Resolving Conflict Using Wholeheartedness
In order to be vulnerable, you need to be honest about your feelings, needs and crucially, what you want from a resolution.
Starting any conversation with an acknowledgment of how you feel, how the other person seems to feel and a commitment to moving forward with a conflict, will at the very least, get the attention of the other party.
Telling them that both of you are being negatively affected by the conflict may actually get them to think seriously about resolving it.
It might not, you might be rejected. They may totally ignore you and carry on as before. This will nonetheless, provide you with valuable information. The conflict just isn’t ripe yet for resolution. Maybe the other party’s perception of the conflict is still different to yours. The answer may just be to wait a little longer until emotions and perceptions have died down.
What you can be sure of is that approaching conflict with a willingness to admit to mistakes, to apologise if you cause harm and to openly understand the interests, needs and emotions of the other person will help you to contain conflict and come to mutually beneficial solutions. You will feel empowered and you may even find a renewed, deeper connection with somebody who you once despised.
As I often say, none of this is easy. My emotions are still a battle for me and I often have to give myself a pep talk about the way I react to somebody. I always have to step back from my emotions and take time out to let them self-expire before I read over what I have written and attempt to put it into practice. The fact that you are reading this blog post is a step in the right direction, for which you should give yourself credit.
When have you been vulnerable and how has it helped resolve conflict? Has it made it worse? Let me know by leaving a comment!