The Power (and Price) of Vulnerability
Kiera is a second year student studying Law with Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. Alongside her academic studies, Kiera has been heavily involved in the external mooting team representing her university in two national competitions. With a strong passion for advocacy and social justice, Kiera also volunteers with Compassion Belfast to bring dignity to the homeless and assists with Women’s Aid.
Queen’s University Belfast
Law with Politics
International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers
July 9, 2017
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”- Brené Brown
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to speak at the Centre for American Progress on the topic of diversity, justice and equality in our changing world. When I was thinking about what to say, I was conflicted. Part of the Washington Ireland Program is about challenging yourself and growing as a leader, so I decided to open up and speak about my personal experience of being mixed race in Northern Ireland and how it has shaped my view of inclusion and diversity.
I spoke about how people would ask me if I’d rather be called black, coloured or tanned, when all I thought I needed to be ‘called’ was my name. I spoke about the automatic assumption that I spoke ‘African’, or was knowledgeable enough to be a spokesperson for the entire continent. I also shared an incident when I faced more obvious and abrasive racism, and how I felt in the aftermath. My full speech can be read here, but the main focus was on what can we do as individuals and at the community level to have difficult conversations before incidents occur. Conversations in which we challenge our prejudices, and uncover those we weren’t even conscious of, where we aren’t confrontational, but see opportunity for growth and understanding. For me, this is the key to achieving justice and equality in diversity.
This blog post is not actually about racism, but rather it’s about what I’ve learned throughout the process of opening up to people. This blog is about the power of vulnerability- evoking empathy within others, sacrificing your own comfort and pain so that others can understand a different perspective, and become more aware of the world outside their own experience of it. However, the problem with being vulnerable is that it leaves you open to a lot of hurt, confusion and frustration. I’ve weighed up the positives and negatives that come out of sharing your story, in the hopes that you will find that the price of being vulnerable worth paying.
Okay, you’ve put yourself out there. Be it speaking at an event, sharing an experience with a group or even confiding in a friend. What could go wrong?
- People don’t care.
It’s easy to assume that the people will know the amount of courage and personal strength it took for you to display your passions, anger, upset and hurts and therefore respect the issue as a subject close to you. This isn’t always the case- people can have a lack of empathy, or general lack of understanding of the personal weight and importance you attach to something you choose to share. You can be listened to, but not feel like you’ve been heard. This sort of apathetic response can be devastating if you’ve tried to explain your point of view and experiences to evoke a response from people.
- People care in a different way than you wanted them to.
Further, people may not be apathetic to your vulnerability, but can react differently to how you’d hoped. It can be equally devastating for people to talk about the issue you’ve raised for an afternoon, see it as ‘dealt with’ and never talk about it again. It can be frustrating that people can have a conversation about something that affects you so deeply, the draw a line under it and move on to discussing lunch plans. Part of being vulnerable is opening yourself to other people’s’ responses, and it can hurt when you yourself are unable to ever ‘leave the conversation’ or decide to stop thinking about the issue after a short time period. You can end up resenting the very people you hoped to engage with when you have this expectation.
- People actively reject what you’re saying.
This is probably the hardest situation to be in after you have shared part of your story with others. Instead of listening and asking questions, people can rush to convince you that you’ve got it wrong. The mental and emotional exhaustion that results from having to defend yourself and convince someone that you aren’t being unduly ‘sensitive’, exaggerating an experience -or just straight-up lying can be extremely damaging to your own sense of self and your beliefs. It can make you want to shut down and expect the worst of people, to isolate that part of you and feel like that person or group of people don’t actually deserve your vulnerability. A brilliant article on this is Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”. In it, she discusses the emotional disconnect and inability to converse meaningfully about a problem unless there is a mutual recognition that the problem actually exists. Until that happens, being vulnerable can seem pointless.
You’ve opened up. You’ve put yourself out there, only to feel like you’ve been knocked back and then some. What was the point? And why should you ever do that again?
- It’s important for you.
When you prepare to talk about something personal or meaningful to you, it makes you refine your thoughts and values. Bringing your thoughts out of your head and into the world is terrifying, but can help your confidence, and strengthen your sense of self. It can be hugely empowering to decide to be vulnerable, regardless of the response of others.
- It’s important for others to have their opinions challenged.
When you are vulnerable, the audience or the other people in the conversation the people also have their opinions challenged, and their assumptions exposed. It also gives people an opportunity to learn of how others experience the world. It challenges others on how willing or unwilling they are to listen and learn, and more importantly- change. You can only bring an issue to someone’s attention; you can’t force them to act. That being said, by sharing your story you remove the argument of ignorance to the problem. From then on, how a person chooses to respond is an active choice to engage or disengage, and knowing this can be a huge revelation.
- It’s important for others to have their experiences validated.
I think this is the most important thing to remember- when you’re vulnerable you’re not alone. Everyone has experienced things in their lives, and although they might not all be comparable, it gives others the courage to step out and share their stories. Further, there could be people in the room or discussion who have gone through exactly what you have, and to hear someone express those feelings they recognise, it can mean the world. It shows solidarity in hard times, and a confidence to openly address controversial issues. The insurmountable positive of showing someone that they’re not alone cannot be emphasised enough. For myself personally, after I had given my speech and been part of the panel discussion, the response I was greeted with was overwhelming. So many people knew what I was talking about and had felt the same frustrations and hurts I had.
To wrap up, if you’re faced with the choice of staying safe or being vulnerable, my advice is to push yourself to do it. At this point it is important to note that you don’t have any obligation to over-expose yourself or to sacrifice your emotional well being for others. You can chose to be vulnerable, but you also must set your limits and boundaries. Being honest and open may be painful, it may be hard, it may not go how you intend or want it to, but you will gain an understanding of yourself and others you may never gain otherwise.
By taking the risk and exposing yourself and your life experiences, you start an undeniable conversation- it gets people thinking and talking about what matters to you, so don’t let the conversation end.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”– Martin Luther King Jr.