Vulnerability in the Time of Coronavirus

These are uncertain times. We live in a world where certainty is very highly valued. We pay big bucks for policies which promise it, possibly delude ourselves based on general past history into thinking we have it, and avoid through innumerable distractions—the possibility that we can’t be certain about much of anything.

Now we are faced with it. I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks, trying to wrap my mind around, well, the world today. I’ll admit I struggle with this level of vulnerability. Before writing I needed to rest, pause, and collect my thoughts…and maybe a few groceries and a roll of toilet paper, too. I’m sure there’s some witty post in the future about the Role of the Roll, but that will come later.

This post is based on the results of Dr. Brown’s research on vulnerability, and her work in Daring Greatly. She defines vulnerability in her book as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” We are in the throes of vulnerability. Generally, people get uncomfortable with the concept of vulnerability because we have begun to believe the myths of it that have been brought forth by Dr. Brown’s research on the subject. For more info. on these, I would highly recommend reading her book, Daring Greatly.

The truth is, as much as we would like, we can’t escape uncertainty. The good news is, learning how to “do vulnerability” is actually healthy. Learning how to embrace the unknown, accept the exposure that comes from getting very honest and real with each other about how we’re feeling, and find peace with the risk that comes with living our lives in the days, months, and years ahead, is a good thing. Okay fine it’s a very, very challenging thing-and I get a little lump in my throat when I think about it too long.

Lately, as I’ve begun converting my practice in phases to telehealth, as I’ve listened to concerns, I’ve found myself heavy. I don’t often find myself quite so quick to identify with stories in sessions, and it takes focused attention to both track the person and track my own internal barometer for holding enough of a boundary. This is a boundary or ‘semi-permeable membrane’ if you will, that allows me to take in enough of what a client is saying to be empathetic, attentive, and genuine, while also keeping in check my own capacity to engage without running into major compassion fatigue. Lately when I get home, I am very, very tired.

My recent thoughts have tended toward how I want to “be” in the midst of everything that is happening in our world today. How do I want to show up as a therapist, mom, wife, friend, daughter? I am gradually stepping out of what feels like a psychological quarantine as a plan begins to unfold in my mind and heart. Honestly, I’ve been crying a lot more than I have in a while. When at home it isn’t quite as easy to mindfully track how I am feeling from moment to moment, and I get sideswiped by big feelings which feel “out of nowhere.” I am now calling these moments “whack a mole” moments. We are living with a constant undercurrent of vulnerability. Remaining in vulnerability is hard and we can lose our tolerance for it, as is hard emotional work. We WILL have “pop ups” emotional “whack a mole” moments, that might include tears, frustrations, emotional outbursts, moments of big grief, sadness, or panic. I don’t really believe in “normal” but I would say this is likely par for the course for the time being.

One big way I want to show up for myself and my family during this time is to have compassion and allow space for myself and my/any people to have and express their ‘moments’ without judgment. Yah, I now, it’s a tall order. Misunderstandings will happen, let’s make room for them. Tears out of nowhere will happen, let’s not stigmatize it. We might have needs that seem unreasonable; these desires probably spark from a deep desire for certainty or comfort while we work hard on building up our tolerance to vulnerability.

I want to do my best to remain connected to myself and others. I find so much peace and comfort in moments of solitude, and taking time to myself with pay me back in units of energy and compassion that I can then dole out on my fellow humans. Reaching out to others from this place helps to forge and maintain genuine, heartfelt connections with others. I want to check in on my people. I want to hear how they are doing/feeling during this time. I can’t do that if I’m running on empty. Self-care may look a little different right now, but I can and will find it, and from this place I want to be a source of compassion that others can feel comfortable connecting with, vulnerably. We are all in it, we may as well embrace it, even though it sucks.

Dr. Brown talks about how our culture sees vulnerability as a bad thing, a weakness. Especially now, it’s important to dispel this myth. She talks about how anything brave requires vulnerability. I want to show up with courage in the midst of this pandemic. Accepting and embracing vulnerability as a means of courage may not look like what our culture promotes. I’m not talking about courage as if it means putting on a stoic face, and only making “It’ll be fine” statements when loved ones come and express their fears or concerns. The courage I’m talking about will involve honest transparency. I want to acknowledge my true feelings about it all. It is hard, it is scary, and I do worry, and we can do hard things. Having the courage to love wholeheartedly does not cast out all fear, but maybe it provides a place for it to go, a safe haven to be held, heard, contained and understood. It is from this place that our concerns can be calmed, and our fears may be assuaged. I believe it takes more courage to cry than it does to withhold any show of emotion. It takes more courage to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and things are uncertain, than to make generalized statements that “it’s no big deal.” Frankly, it is a big deal, it is hard, uncertain, and worrisome, and I do believe that we will move through this together.

I want to offer encouragement and validate concerns of my clients, kids, and family. I believe it is healthy for my kids to see me have human struggles, so that they can know it is okay to have a hard time. Parenting my kids, I want bravery to look like this, “Yes, things are going to be weird, and maybe harder, and it’s okay to have worries and be scared. I want you to know that I have your back. I am here for you, and am ready to listen to you. I will be honest with you. I have confidence in us, our family, our faith, and community to get through hard times. Yes, we’ve got this, even if sometimes we don’t really feel like we’ve got this. Even if we have moments where we feel like we’ve ‘totally NOT got this,’ I want you to know that I’ve got you! I’m doing what I need to do to take care of myself, so that I can take care of us. I will always do everything in my power to protect you. It isn’t your job to take care of me. It’s my job to take care of me. It’s your job to just be yourself and talk to me about stuff you’re worried about. It’s okay to have all the feels. None of your feelings are wrong. We are going to find some parts of this that might actually be awesome discoveries about ourselves. We might find strengths we didn’t realize we had. We’re going to make some sacrifices, but we are also going to make some memories that I’d bet we’ll never forget. We might hit weird bumps in the road as we go, but I promise that if I mess up, I will circle back around and do my best to try and make it right, and admit and apologize for my mistakes. I love you always. This will not change.”

Empathy and the Platinum Rule: We know the Golden Rule, right? Treat others the way you would like to be treated. Have you heard of the Platinum Rule? Treat others the way they want to be treated. When it comes to emotional, risky, uncertain times, people may want different things. Most people will try to just fix it. This isn’t an issue that can be fixed. Often the underlying reason we want to quickly “fix it” when one of our loved ones is really struggling, is that when we truly empathize with their pain, anguish, fear, etc., we have to make contact with our own experiences of those emotions. This is very uncomfortable. Especially when we are already making contact more often with our own challenging emotions, it can be so hard to feel the hurt of others’ pain. However, if we can make mindful contact with others through empathy, it can be an incredibly healing and connecting experience. Sympathy, “fix its” and general clique statements, sorry, they don’t really help. Instead, I offer up the platinum rule “treat others the way they want to be treated.” Taking much more effort, this rule makes it possible to connect with others in a way that THEY feel heard, felt, and understood. Maybe some of your people actually WOULD like to hear “that it’s all going to be just fine.” Great. Give them what they want. The thing is, you do have to check in with them about it to see what would be helpful. It involves more effort, and opening up to communicate in a more intimate, and vulnerable way. Personally, I don’t want to hear a fix it or a general positive statement when I am hurting or scared. I want someone to validate the emotion I’m feeling by trying to communicate it back to me, letting me having, not fixing it. When I get a match for my feeling, someone meeting me on my same level, I am much more able to just breathe into it and then let it go. It’s much more challenging for me to let it go if I feel like someone “gets it.” When someone is sharing something vulnerable with you, ask them about the kind of response that helps them most. Empathizing is not the same as enabling a negative emotional spiral. There’s no need to jump in and over identify, and no need to say anything that encourages the person to stay there. Sometimes it can be as simple a statement as “This is hard. It sounds scary, right? Yah, scary totally sucks. This is so not easy.” It’s more about relating with the feeling, not the behaviors associated. It might also help to ask “What would be most helpful right now?” and offer some options “Would it be best to have some space to be sad? Are you looking for a distraction or something funny? Want to just talk about it for a little while?”

Lastly, I want to show up with a lot of patience and compassion. We are learning heaps about ourselves right now. We all learn at different paces and have different capacities for hardships, emotions, and even the taking of advice and learning. We are going to gain understanding and insight best in an atmosphere of love and compassion. This too, takes tremendous courage.

In a quarantined nutshell, I think I have finally found the ways I want to show up in this pandemic. I want to be brave, and this is going to mean embracing vulnerability. I want to take good care of myself so that I can have as much compassion for and connection with others as possible. This will start with self-compassion, especially in the moments I mess up and need to turn around and make something right. I want to be genuine and real, while also modeling courage and stability for my family. I want to show true empathy by taking the time to learn about how others want to be treated in their moments of struggle. I want to show up with grace and patience as we figure this out together. I want to model love.

How do you want to show up?

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