Claiming and honoring our vulnerable, emotionally responsive,
relational natures even as the patriarchal white male paradigm
encourages us to devalue and disown these sources of our deepest
Power of Vulnerability
To be openly vulnerable is an act of power!
For a good many years of my life, particularly those during graduate school and my first years as a professional (clinical psychologist), I lived with an intermittent sense of fraudulence. This was so despite the fact that my work and my intellectual capacities were well received and respected, first by my faculty and academic peers then later, by my clients and colleagues.
Generally, I experienced my self as peer or as superior in capabilities to those in my student cohort. (See Judging Difference for more about this.) While I could be intrigued by the occasional brilliance of some of my mentors, I was rarely impressed and never intimidated by them. Whenever my harsh inner critic (the Hatchet Lady) rose up to flay me with her invalidation and ridicule, she challenged how I used my capacities, not that they existed.
Still, I was often beset by a disturbing sense that I was somehow an imposter, not really the person others (or I) thought me to be. I was plagued by a fear that some dangling loose end in the fabric of my being could be inadvertently snagged at any moment. I was certain that, were that thread snagged, my entire disguise would unravel revealing to all a much less impressive me.
It took several years of feeling baffled before the mystery of this long-standing sense of precariousness finally resolved for me. Some of the clues to its source came from what else had been going on for me while I was in graduate school.
During the years of my graduate and professional training, I had been learning more than just the subject matter of psychology. By far the more significant education I was getting was about the boys' (patriarchal white male) world. I was gaining an understanding of how the boys' game board operated around the issues of power, respect and status. I watched my professors and my clinical supervisors as they each projected (and supported each other's) images of self-assured, self-contained inviolability.
With my finely tuned emotional Geiger counter (honed in the process of surviving my childhood), I saw beneath these Emperor's New Clothes exteriors. I would pick up on the insecurities, feelings of inadequacy and uneasiness behind their projected images. I noticed that the more insecure a professor seemed to me, the more likely he was to be dismissive and humiliating to his students, the more likely he was to require (and be impressed by) slavish regurgitation of his words on the exams he gave. I also got to see that arrogant behavior was connected with underlying insecurity, the degree of outward arrogance being directly proportional to the degree of the person's inward insecurity.
Still, it was clear that the source of all valuing and respect in this community lay within these unchallenged projected images. Of the two women on the faculty at my school, one seemed quite unaware of the game board. As a consequence, and despite her obvious scholarship, she was viewed as inconsequential by faculty and students alike (my self regrettably included). The second woman seemed to know how to play the game the way the boys did. She was accorded respect in a measure fairly equal to what the boys accorded each other.
I grasped that projecting a similar image of my self was essential to garnering the respect of my professors, respect that would then assure my success in the program. I grew quite adept at this boys' game. My emotions and anxieties were for when I was at home or privately wrestling with the Hatchet Lady. At school I was the epitome of cool, self-assured unflappability.
With this image and with my high level performance in classes as well as on tests, I became a significant (sometimes daunting) figure both to other students and to most of the faculty. In my classes I would sometimes play with my professors' image of me by asking questions that, had they been asked by any other student, would have been treated as beneath consideration. I would marvel at the serious attention that my professors would give these inane questions when I was the one doing the asking. It was a way I could play with the boys' game and explore the edges of its distortions.
During those highly functional, successful school years, my personal emotional life was in constant turmoil. In private and in secret, I felt like a complete mess. Depressed and despairing to the point of seriously considering suicide, I finally took what (in that system) seemed an enormous risk. I confided in my female faculty mentor (the respected one) in order to get a referral to my first therapist. The dear and wonderful therapist that she recommended helped me to save my life and to learn to live more comfortably with my always-intense emotional life. Our work didn't, however, touch or relieve my recurring sense of fraudulence. That resolution came years later.
As, in my therapy practice, I worked with highly competent, functional-in-the-male-world women clients, I found that many of them also struggled with feeling out-of-control over what they also saw as the messiness of their secret emotional lives. And, many lived uneasily with a similar sense of fraudulence and fears of being unmasked or revealed as less than what they appeared to be. It was in the work with these women that the mystery behind the feelings of being counterfeit finally clarified.
In the boys' world (the dominant, patriarchal white male reality) vulnerability, empathy, emotions (other than anger – which only the boys are allowed to express without penalty) are read as signs of weakness, softness (as a negative quality), untrustworthiness or undependability. And, they are devalued in a specifically gendered way: "Don't be such a wimp/sissy/girl!" We women who cross into and are successful in that reality have often learned, as I had, to garner respect by acting like one of the boys. We learn to leave our vulnerable, feeling selves at home, or (in some cases) to leave them completely.
We learn to gain position and respect (power in their world) by disowning our very natures as emotional, relational creatures. The price is devastating. No matter how well we learn to suit-up, no matter how effective our external disguises, we do not fool our selves. We cannot avoid knowing that we do have a feeling life, that under the suit we are still our female, feeling selves.
Colluding with the system by denying the presence and value of a (our) feeling life, we may gain the boys' respect, have credibility, influence and power. Yet, in that collusion, we simultaneously give our selves the message that who we truly are is neither okay nor worthy of respect. ("If they knew how I really am, they wouldn't respect/value/hear me at all!") This denial and suppression of our essential natures creates uneasiness and stress in us. We live feeling vaguely off-center, with an ongoing (if often less than conscious) fear that our true self can at any moment slip out and unmask us; or, that our careful disguise could, at anytime, be torn away – wittingly or unwittingly – by anyone around us. This precariousness arises from our less than conscious incorporation of the patriarchal white male cultural training to dismiss and disguise our vulnerable, feeling natures. This was my "Aha!"
With this "Aha!" came the awareness that our efforts to be powerful in the white male system actually dis-empower us on a being level. Feeling authentically empowered comes from respecting, affirming and living from our true self, not from denying and suppressing it.
With this "Aha!" came the decision to stop my own participation in the self-wounding, self-undermining attempt to obliterate my nature. My first step was consciously owning my vulnerability and beginning to explore it as an ally. I hung out with the possibility that my feelings: emotional states, moods, felt responses to all situations in my life might be sources of important information about those situations as well as about my self.
My acceptance of the wisdom in my vulnerability and my emotional responsiveness grew. As I felt stronger in my own valuing of these aspects of my self, I began the practice of claiming, naming and sharing them in my in-the-boys'-world interactions. As is the best plan with new practices, I took my first baby-step risks in circumstances where a neutral or possibly positive response might be expected.
Each time I took the risk of matter-of-factly speaking for my vulnerability/feelings, my own acceptance of these parts of me increased. It didn't seem to matter whether I was well heard or well received in the setting. All that mattered was that I spoke out simply and directly, as if I believed that what I said was honorable, meaningful and worth sharing. In these acts of sharing-with-conviction, I was empowering my self. And, typically, my conviction made what I was sharing quite compelling to those with whom I was sharing it.
One of my favorite tales of this kind of sharing comes from more recent history. At the time of writing this tale, I'd been working for about seven years with a mom-and-pop print shop. They had been doing the production of all the greeting cards and decks of affirmation cards that I've designed and been selling since 1991.
I arrived at the shop at 8:30 one morning after having stayed up all night working both at home and at a 24-hour Kinko's. I'd been doing and redoing layouts and paste-ups for a new set of twelve long postcards. When I came into their shop, soaring with excitement at the project's completion and at the edge of crumbling from exhaustion, John and Sarah (not their real names) were both there. With bubbling delight I handed over the six pages of layouts. John looked at them and, with great irritation, threw them onto the counter.
"These are impossible! You can't expect me to do three-sided bleeds!" he all but shouted at me. My eyes welled with tears at what was, to my exhausted, sensitive, full-of-self self, an unexpected energetic assault. I put my hand up, palm toward him and told him he had to stop talking at me that very minute. I took a few deep breaths. Then, through my tears, I told him that it was not okay with me for him to blow out his frustrations and anger on me, that it was misplaced, inappropriate and very upsetting to me.
I reminded him that I knew – from his frequent sharings with me – how much it upset him that many of his customers expected him to clean up the messes in their original work without respecting or being ready to pay for the time involved in his doing that. I reminded him that in the seven years of our collaboration – of my learning how to do my preparations so that he could more easily do his job – I had never asked or expected him to do my part of the work and had always paid him for every bit of his time.
Then, as he tried to respond, I picked up my layouts and told him I didn't have the room right then to listen to him about anything other than the information about what exactly was problematic about the work I'd brought. He gave me a calm, concrete explanation of the problem, apologized profusely and then I left.
During the ten-minute drive home, a very simple remedy presented itself to me. After a nap, I made that change in the layouts and went back to the print shop. John took the pages, nodded his head and began to write up the order.
"John," I said, "wait!" He looked up at me, clearly a bit uncomfortable. "What?" he said. "Well," I said, "if, when you're teaching me how to work with you, you're going to give me a hard time when I've done something badly, you're going to have to learn how to acknowledge me when I've done something well! You could try saying: "Robyn! What a brilliant solution you found! This is great! It makes my job so much easier! Thank you!" I said.
John turned scarlet with embarrassment. Sarah said, "That's so right. He's always quick to criticize, but he rarely gives compliments."
John apologized again and actually found words of his own with which to acknowledge the clever and simple solution I had devised for the 3-bleeds problem.
Through the years of our collaboration (until he retired), I still occasionally had to remind John to remember it was me he was talking to and how he could better communicate with me. Yet, on the whole, he did get it that very day. John and I joked about this dialogue repeatedly as time went on. And, his wife Sarah often teased about how that interchange had impacted his behavior in general.
I've gathered many similar tales since I've begun bringing the whole of my vulnerable and empowered feeling self into every situation in my life out in the so-called real world. Often it feels like I'm doing one-woman guerrilla theater. I know that the combination of my forthrightness, my conviction that feelings matter and that vulnerability openly acknowledged is powerful, can often be disconcerting. It's usually so unexpected and off the ordinary continuum that it winds up being quite disarming. I am heard. It does make a difference, for the moment at least, in business-as-usual.
When people occasionally respond to me with raised eyebrows, disdainful faces or attitudes or other suppressive behaviors, I usually address it directly. Often, I'll ask, " Is there something –" or, "What is it – about how I'm being (or what I'm saying) that's making you uncomfortable?" Of course, this is still more guerrilla theater, since one is ordinarily expected to respond to such censorious hints by stopping the misbehavior or shutting up.
Perhaps the most empowering thing I've discovered about respectfully owning my vulnerability is that when I choose, matter-of-factly, to acknowledge whatever I've been encouraged to be afraid of having revealed about me, I am finally and truly safe. Whenever I have my own permission to be my whole self, I am living from the center of what is so for me. This is an act of power, an act in which I authorize my self to be all of who I am, out-loud as it were.
Consider exploring and claiming the fullness of your vulnerable, feeling self.
[Because the simple message of this card – To be openly vulnerable is an act of power… To be openly empowered is an act of vulnerability – turns out to have such a complex underpinning, this tale reflects only on the first half. The next tale goes on to explore being openly empowered as an act of vulnerability.]