The art of faux vulnerability

I learnt a while ago that a certain sort of post works well, it gets attention, it is shared, liked, commented on. And I feel that I’ve done a good job.

It’s the posts where I’m vulnerable and honest. It became my thing.

I learnt how to bleed onto the screen, find the valve of my emotions, my thoughts, my fears; and spill into words the pain and anxiety I held captive. I hit publish and shared with the world.

I wrote naked and people stopped and stared.

Brené Brown shot to fame with a TEDx talk a few years ago. Four years on with over 15million views her talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched videos on the site. I recently read her book, Daring Greatly. And it is possibly changing my life. In her talk she says, and you can watch the section here:

‘So I found a therapist. My first meeting with her, I brought in my list of how the whole hearted live and I sat down. And she said, “How are you?” And I said, “I’m great. I’m okay.” She said, “What’s going on?” And this is a therapist who sees therapists, because we have to go to those because their BS meters are good. And so I said, “Here’s the thing, I’m struggling.” And she said, “What’s the struggle?” And I said, “Well, I have a vulnerability issue. And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And I think I have a problem and I need some help.” And I said, “But here’s the thing: no family stuff, no childhood S#*!. I just need some strategies.” So she goes like this. [you have to watch it to really get this!] And I said, “It’s bad, right? And she said, “It’s neither good nor bad. It just is what it is.” And I said, “Oh my God, this is going to suck.”

‘And it did, and it didn’t. And it took about a year. And you know how there are people that, when they realize vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walk into it. A: that’s not me, and B: I don’t even hang out with people like that. For me it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.’

And I thought that vulnerability was my thing. I thought I had a unique selling point beyond being a guy writing about relationships.

I wrote posts where I winced as they went live, those I agonised over for hours and those I wrote in breathless minutes. I wrote pieces which part of me wanted ignored and a lot more of me loved being noticed.

I tore open my heart and threw it onto the screen to get noticed.

I wrote posts I regret. Not because they were wrong, or offensive, or unhelpful. At least not unhelpful for others. That was my rationale, the one I gave myself. I told myself I was helping people address issues no one else was, I was saying out loud what others were thinking. I was facilitating conversation, helping others open up. I convinced myself I was helping, I think in a way I was.

But I wasn’t helping myself. I was using vulnerability.

Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly: “Vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviours that are so common place in today’s culture.”

I had learnt the art of faux vulnerability and it was costing me dearly.

It was when someone I only know moderately well, but hold in great respect delicately expressed some concern about what I was sharing online that I paused to think. Initially I was defensive. It’s okay, I know what I’m doing, I regulate. I don’t overshare.

And I don’t. I know exactly how much to say online to have the affect I want it to have. I know the necessary emotions. The right amount of contrition, of personal reflection, the appropriate deflection and shift to abstraction from making something too much about me.

I was using vulnerability like a currency to get what I wanted. And like the Wizard of Oz, what stood beyond the curtain of my exposed vulnerability was where the wounds really lay.

I was using vulnerability as a strategy to avoid being vulnerable. I had corrupted the good and turned it inside out and put it to dubious use.

And yet. And yet, the answer is not to be less vulnerable. But to be truly vulnerable. In letting it all hang out, or being seen to do that while actually remaining resolutely in control I was numbing my emotions. I was manipulating them and putting them to use but I was not accepting and listening to them. I was pretending to be something other than that which I was.

In Brené Brown’s TEDx talk she talks about numbness. You can’t decide to just feel the happy thoughts and not the said. Numbness affects them all. It stops us experiencing joy, and kindness, and sorrow and grief.

Nor is the answer to never write publically about relationships, about emotions, about struggles with shame – yes shame, that great predator lying in wait to snatch vulnerability away – about what I don’t understand and what I do not know. But there are boundaries and boundaries are healthy.

In manufacturing vulnerability I made it harder to be vulnerable.

In Daring Greatly Brown talks about floodlight oversharing, and perhaps that’s partly what I’ve engaged in. It makes it hard for people to respond to, there is too much, too quickly, and without the foundation of relationship to digest it. When I share with a friend over dinner in a pub, or as we walk we take time to hear what each other is saying and doing. When we broadcast our vulnerabilities we are not looking for assistance or acceptance but affirmation.

Vulnerability is not one of those things where you can fake it until you make.

The sermon from about a month ago that got me thinking about this.

Sexual advances and the advancement of power

The weekend papers were full of it. Nick Clegg came back early from his holiday to issue a statement. The next morning the top Catholic in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, brought forward his retirement and recused himself from the Papal conclave soon to begin which will choose the next Pope.

But it’s not just about those whose names are known and paraded in the press. Nor is it just more about the women, or men, affected. It’s about something that let this happen, and not just in its magnitude but also in the little things, the hand on the knee, the closed door, the subtle pressure to go along.

It is about the relationship between men and women, and about the relationship between sex and power. Lord Rennard, the former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats has been accused of inappropriate sexual advances to various women over several years, and that has been accompanied by accusations the party did not do enough about it. And Cardinal O’Brien faces allegations of inappropriate behaviour toward three priests and one former priest in the 1980s.

It could be presented as a straightforward case of right and wrong, or of particular people acting badly towards other. And in a way it is and they did. But it is not straightforward, men were the alleged victims as well as women, and as several commentators have blundered into saying, what’s so wrong with a hand on the knee?

That’s where power comes in. It’s why it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman, or girl or boy. It’s what differentiates a hand on the knee that’s a fairly normal act of flirting, from abusive behaviour.

Power changes things.

It makes something wrong that might otherwise be okay. And why does it do that? It is because power places pressure; power exists in hierarchy; power operates with authority. And that matters because power takes away autonomy. Power makes it hard to say no. Power makes us dependent on other people.

Whether it is with a boss who could fire you, demote you, make your life a living hell. Or a respected community figure, a church leader, part of who’s role it is to tell you what is right or wrong. And now what they are doing – they are telling you, with their actions if not words – is right and to object is wrong.

It is what made it hard for Liberal Democrat staffers to come forward and talk about their experiences. It is was has enshrined a culture of secrecy in the church that has covered over a multitude of sins.

When power is used to silence, it is a sign that something is wrong. This is what we are talking about when we find that we are not able to talk about something. In Shane Hipps’ book ‘Selling water by the river’ he talks about light and darkness. Light is not the opposite of darkness, darkness is the absence of light. It is impossible for the two to exist together, one removes, without hindrance, the other. Where there is light there cannot be darkness.

Where there is light there cannot be darkness.

It doesn’t mean the darkness never exists. But it means that there is another road. A road where light illuminates the way, and where things that might thrive in the dark, may be enforced by an abuse of power, have no place.

Sex and power also point to other things. These two forces rarely operate in isolation, they expose other agendas, other problems that might lie a little deeper down. Whether it is questions about whether celibacy in the Catholic church has had its day, or if women in politics have to fight a culture we may have hoped had seen its last.

And maybe this is where we circle back around to the conversation about sex and shame and silence. And why we need to talk about things that might be awkward, if only so that others are helped to talk about what might be the hardest words for them to say.

Speaking truth to power helps others speak truth too. If there are things that we will not say, we should question our silence if only to question whether we might be complicit in others feeling they have no option but silence.  

Virginity and Christian expectation

Last week I nearly didn’t go to church, I was bored of all the same words spoken. I was frustrated with the expectations and event management. I had had enough of having enough. I got annoyed with the words that people spoke, and found objections to the smallest of things. There was something deeply out of step, and going to church only made that worse.

Tomorrow I will walk through the doors again, partly out of habit, and partly out of a determination not to let my disenchantment beat me, partly because I still believe the church to be a good thing. But also out of pride.

Out of pride that I don’t want to let my guard down, I don’t want people to know that everything is not quite a-okay. Slightly defeated by writing this post.

I feel as though I have an image to protect. That of the sorted Christian. The one who doesn’t have doubts or struggles, the one who knows which verses to quote at which point, who knows the right point in songs to raise their arms in worship. The one who knows just how much sarcasm and cynicism about church culture is acceptable.

This is probably the most vulnerable thing I have ever written, I can write about relationships and keep that at arms length, I can write about being single, even in deeply personal terms and manage that. I can throw a dose of humour into posts about dating, I try and find the seems of compassion when addressing controversial topics. But on this I have no guard, I am deeply exposed.

Zoe Sanderson has written this week that: “God is big enough to handle our questions, but in my experience churches often aren’t”. When we have questions and doubts church should be a place where they can be wrestled with in all their raw, uncertain, honesty. They shouldn’t be made into abstraction, and they shouldn’t be shunned out of fear they may cause others to question or undermine the values and beliefs of the church. When the church is afraid to listen to questions it loses the right to try and answer them.

Shame is different to acknowledging that something is other than the way it should be. I do not think my attitude towards church is a particularly healthy one, and I would prefer it to be otherwise. However, fearing speaking out about those doubts and problems because shame may be the result is a far worse situation. I worry that promoting too perfect a vision for how something should be creates a culture that silences uncertainty. And this can make the church the last place people turn with their doubts. Continue reading