Welcome to Part V in a six-part series about vulnerability, based on Brené Brown’s studies of vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. I encourage you to also listen to an interview Ms. Brown gave with Krista Tippet.
Stepping off the bus in Oban, Scotland, I shouldered my backpack and headed up the road in the dark. Under the dull street lights, the pavement glistened from the light rain. The hostel was just a few blocks from the bus stop but a world away from my home in Montana. It was the start of a 10-day trip through the land of my ancestors—alone. Although I had periodically gone off to camp or other similar gatherings by myself, that is, not knowing anyone, this was my first solo trip. With nothing but a backpack and a barebones itinerary, I was pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone, relying on public transportation, my hitchhiking thumb, and the recommendations of anyone I happened to meet along the way to deliver me to whatever destination sounded good. I was 31 and I thought it about time I traveled somewhere completely by myself.
We all know at least one person who appears fearless, who puts herself out there, who shows up for life, who make himself vulnerable, who does it anyway despite the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. We envy those people because they make hard stuff look so easy. They’re not afraid to be wrong or make mistakes or look like fools—or travel solo. Where do they get the chutzpah?
“Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experience,” Brown says, defining vulnerability as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. The dictionary defines it as the capability of being wounded, hurt, ridiculed, criticized, or humiliated; however, it is not weakness, though we may experience it as such because it’s associated with fear. Brown says facing our fears and allowing vulnerability is an act of courage—actually, a measure of courage. Have you ever found it empowering—even just a little bit—to admit you’re wrong or don’t know something or can’t do something or that you feel hurt? For some, even boarding a plane by themselves is a frightening prospect, despite that someone we know will meet us on the other end.
Let’s be clear: being vulnerable isn’t about allowing others to abuse us. Instead, it requires facing fear to transform it. If we shut down our experience of it, Brown says, we also shut down joy and the ability to experience the life we want. So if it’s so good for us, why do we avoid the experience of vulnerability? In large part to avoid the emotional pain of shame, to avoid being judged. We also avoid it because none of us particularly like to feel fear. I’m guessing adversity and uncertainty, BFFs with vulnerability, are also low on your pleasure list. But consider moving them up the list because embracing them is a powerful act of vulnerability.
No one met me at the bus stop in Oban. And it being mid-March, few people were traveling and few visitor attractions were open. I spent a lot of time hiking around outside in the not-so-pleasant weather. In one of the hostels, beds for 100+ people, I was the only guest. I didn’t even have to use my thumb to get lifts; on the back roads, people often pulled over for me with a kind offer. None of them was an axe murderer—that I knew of, anyway.
My 10-day adventure taught me a lot about myself and about the experience of life: I was stronger than I gave myself credit for; the world truly is full of kind people; I could find joy in unexpected places; and when problems arise (the bus never comes, for example), I can find a solution, improvise, or change plans. And most importantly, that setbacks are only major crises if we let them be. The confidence gained in solo travel infused other areas of my life too. Pushing ourselves even just a little beyond the comfort zone has disproportionately larger rewards than simply venturing into uncomfortable territory. The knock-on effect is described as “if I can do this, then I can do…”
Traveling solo, and pushing the limits in other areas of my life, has not made me fearless, however. Rather, it has increased my tolerance for being uncomfortable. And the only way to increase that tolerance is by exercising our vulnerability muscle, by putting ourselves in vulnerable situations over and over again. Discomfort, adversity, and uncertainty are still there by our side, but we don’t mind them as much. We certainly don’t let them stop us from shutting down joy and the ability to experience life. Facing our fears transforms them. We learn that things we thought were scary really aren’t. We discover our inner chutzpah and become one of those people who puts herself out there, who shows up for life, who makes himself vulnerable, who does it anyway despite the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
For a few weeks leading up to my Scotland trip, I began thinking about all the reasons why I shouldn’t go. None was a good one. If I had backed out of that and other previous adventures, which had originally given me the courage to do that solo trip in the first place, I might have also backed out of another opportunity—another Scotland adventure four years later that changed my entire life. (See my memoir in the sidebar.) What small steps toward vulnerability have you made that have paid off in ways much greater than you ever imagined?
In the next post, we’ll wrap up our discussion.