Nephew: You reckon that to be happy we need to satisfy innate needs, and one of those needs is to feel safe. Yet the happiness gurus recommend that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
Uncle: They’re right.
Nephew: But when we feel vulnerable we don’t feel safe!
Uncle: Remember the pygmy twins? The best way to avoid anxiety is not to avoid scary situations . . .
Nephew: . . . but to learn how to handle them. Yawn, how could I forget.
Uncle: In the same way, being vulnerable just means putting ourselves in scary situations, while trusting we could handle the end result. And when we do, we come out the other side feeling a little safer in life than we did before.
Uncle: It’s about living with uncertainty.
Nephew: How do you mean, exactly?
Uncle: Some people create judgments and expectations of how they think the world should be. By doing so they gain a feeling of control, of certainty. That makes them feel a little safer. The trouble is, judgments are often wrong, and expectations are rarely met, so their ‘safe’ world becomes unpredictable, and not so safe. Anxiety results.
Nephew: I get you. Those people have lots of shoulds.
Uncle: Yes. If they were to drop their judgments, drop their shoulds, and drop their need to protect their image, they might initially feel uncertain and vulnerable, but they would soon realise their world isn’t going to end. That’s when they discover they can cope with uncertainty. And that’s the gift.
Nephew: Why is that the gift?
Uncle: Because once you realise you can live in an uncertain world and survive, you develop the feeling that whatever happens, you will handle it.
Nephew: We develop resilience?
Nephew: Like the pygmy twins?
Nephew: Those twins have a lot to answer for.
Uncle: When we can willingly allow ourselves to be in uncomfortable situations, knowing we will not feel shattered by the experience, we strengthen our sense of ‘I will be okay.’ Then anxiety dissipates and core happiness rises in its place.
Nephew: Got it.
Uncle: There’s a bonus: when we drop our judgments and drop our shoulds we also strengthen the connections we have with others, and that helps satisfy that other big innate need I have mentioned: our deep need to belong.
Nephew: What if someone bursts into tears at the drop of a hat, or professes their love for someone in desperation? Things could get awkward. At work, to display vulnerability might cost you your job.
Uncle: Being vulnerable is not about exposing every feeling you have, or every flaw you have. It’s about allowing yourself to be present in uncomfortable circumstances.
Nephew: Like what?
Uncle: Like allowing yourself be criticised. If you can deal with that well enough, you will add to your resilience.
Nephew: What else?
Uncle: Admit your mistakes . . . . Apologise . . . Be the first to bring an uncomfortable topic into the conversation . . .
Nephew: I understand. Do things that can make us look bad.
Uncle: I guess that’s one way of putting it.
Nephew: Would it include revealing a secret?
Uncle: Only if you want to reveal that secret, and if you felt you could handle the consequences. But be discerning. Disclosing too much of ourselves can at times be off-putting for others. It can unfairly burden them. We need to be sensitive to the other person’s interest and choose carefully.
Nephew: But we are better off revealing it?
‘Nothing makes us as lonely as our secrets’.
‘Secrets are the enemy of intimacy’.
Frank Warren, Postsecret.
Uncle: If the secret gnaws at you then yes, consider revealing it to a trusted friend. But feel comfortable that if your trust were betrayed, you could handle the consequences.
‘Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it – it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is to hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.’
Brené Brown, in her book, ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’
‘. . . keeping secrets reinforces the perception that their shame is justified, and that catastrophic consequences would follow should others find out. This maintains their anxiety and perception of defectiveness. One of the best ways to evaluate whether our beliefs are correct is to conduct a behavioural experiment . . . self-disclose to the relevant people and observe their responses. Once we ‘come out’, our anxiety drops because we no longer need to worry that people will find out. In addition, in most cases people do not react with the harsh judgment that we had predicted, and so we get immediate evidence that our perceived failings are not so bad after all.
But what if they do? Behavioural experiments with self-disclosure always involve some risk . . . sometimes our fears are realised . . . However, we do not overcome our self-doubts and fears without taking risks . . . The most powerful learning occurs when we risk the possibility of disapproval and discover that in most cases it does not happen, and that even if it should happen, that we can cope.’
From Sarah Edelman’s book, ‘Change Your Thinking’
Nephew: What if people look up to you? They will want to see someone strong and unwavering. They don’t want to admire someone prepared to make themselves look bad.
Uncle: If someone looks up to someone who is strong and unwavering, it’s because they themselves require those qualities. But do you remember the difference between stoicism and resilience?
Nephew: ‘Stoicism’ is about not showing the pain; ‘resilience’ is about dealing with the pain.
Uncle: That’s right. To admire someone who appears invulnerable can be reassuring, but that doesn’t mean it’s always wise. We can’t always know who is behind the mask. I like to admire people who can admit their mistakes, apologise, accept criticism . . .
Uncle: Because when we see their true selves, we begin to present to the world our true selves, and our mask begins to disintegrate. Then it becomes a world in which we don’t have to hide, and don’t have to pretend. If we can live in that world, and handle it, we will be better off.
Nephew: If I want to admire someone who is strong and infallible . . .?
Uncle: Go ahead. They’re easy to admire because they display no flaws.
Nephew: But if I want to learn how let myself be vulnerable . . .
Uncle: . . . then aim to admire someone who lets themselves be seen.
Nephew: A stripper?
Uncle: For goodness sake.
‘Over the long-term, every possible partner will be revealed as rather crazy in some dimension of existence or another. So what really counts is not whether or not they are psychologically complicated, but how they relate to this complexity: the degree of insight, calm, perspective and humour they can bring to bear upon it. Conversely, there should be nothing more terrifying on a date than a person who sticks a little too aggressively to the idea that they are totally sane and entirely normal. Anyone over the age of twenty possessed of the idea that they are ‘easy to live with’ has evidently not begun to understand themselves or their impact on others. We should probably skip dessert and head home early.’
Alain de Botton, on his site ‘The Book of Life’. ‘How to Prove Attractive to Someone on a Date’.