Dr David R Hamilton blogs

Using science to inspire

The Magic of Vulnerability

I found myself crying on stage a few times not so long ago. One of these times was in front of an audience of around 400 people at Hay House’s ‘I Can Do It! Ignite!’ conference in London.

I was speaking about my book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love’ and that having the courage to show our vulnerabilities is a big part of self-love.

I was sharing how I had learned about vulnerability from personal experience last year, from when Oscar, my beloved 2-year-old Labrador, was diagnosed with cancer through until he passed away in November. I had known about the academic research around vulnerability but life sometimes has a way of giving us a more personal experience of what we think we know.

I was sharing with the audience what had happened following Oscar’s diagnosis, about how my pain had deepened my relationships with the people around me. I shared a particular example involving my Dad, of how he opened up in a way I hadn’t known before as he witnessed my raw pain. But as I spoke about Oscar on stage that day, the raw pain of losing him rose to the surface of my mind and I began to cry.

My old self would have found crying in front of so many people highly embarrassing so I would have gulped down some deep breaths, maybe cleared my throat and pretended to look at the ceiling, all to hide my emotion. I would have tried to ‘Man up’.

But I’ve learned not to hide who I am any more. It’s a legacy of having had Oscar in my life, of having had the privilege of being his Daddy for those two short years. He taught me so very much, including the importance of being myself regardless of what anyone thinks.

It’s funny how, through my tears, while I tried to teach about the importance of vulnerability and the magic it produces, the audience were given a practical demonstration. What I most remember was the overwhelming empathy from the audience members. Some leaned forwards. Some also welled up with tears as they shared my pain as if it was theirs. Many spoke with me afterwards and offered their own experiences of loss, and in our conversations we found some common ground.

What I was trying to explain during my talk was that vulnerability not only opens us up but it opens others up too. It gives them permission to share what’s in their hearts. It gives them permission to be themselves, without any pretence. What I could see was that my own vulnerability had helped others to show their natural selves, that part of us that, no matter what is going on in our lives, we still reach out and help someone in pain, and we realise that doing so feels oh so right, that this is who we are, this is what it’s all about.

On that stage, I was privilege to a display of the kindness of empathy that I am deeply grateful for and that I will never forget.

In moments of vulnerability, people don’t judge us. They support us. The fear of being judged, or embarrassed, derives from feeling that we will be exposed, alone, rejected. To move past this fear, vulnerability takes courage.

Humans have a biological need to connect with each other. It’s a legacy of our evolution, where our ancient ancestors learned that to survive and thrive we needed to form strong bonds with each other. Over time, genes that make connecting with other people healthy and feel good found their way into the human genome. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the continuance of life. Nowadays, we simply need to connect with other people. It is a biological need. It lies deep in our genes and deep in the human psyche.

It’s why research shows that connecting with others is good for our hearts, our minds, our immune systems, and it even helps us live longer.

But in the human psyche, the need to be connected gives birth to a deep fear… the fear of not being connected, of being rejected. Shunned. Alone. This is why we’re afraid of showing our vulnerabilities. It’s not just that we’re afraid of being judged or embarrassed, deeper than that is the fear that we will be rejected, because if we’re rejected we won’t be connected.

Being rejected is like a threat to our very survival. It’s why it feels so scary and hurts so much.

This is the underlying reason why we hold back from showing our vulnerabilities, even of letting people see our true selves. How often do we just show our good sides and avoid any reference to our ‘wobbly’ bits?

The truth is, though, so long as we’re holding back from being our true, authentic selves, it is not actually possible to service our deep biological need for connection. The only way we can truly service the biological need for connection is to be ourselves, our whole selves, and that often means to find the courage to show our vulnerabilities, or at least let them surface and don’t bury them inside.

It’s a no-brainer, really. Think about it. Do you feel more connected to the people who know you best, who know about your successes and failures, your delights and your tantrums, your ups and your downs, who know you when you’re happy and also when you’re sad, who have witnessed some of your vulnerable moments, or to the people whom you hide most of this from and only show your ‘best side’ to?

The thing is, vulnerability is our best side. It’s our human side. Everyone has fears, worries, concerns, everybody feel insecure at times, everybody worries whether they will be liked or accepted.

Vulnerability takes courage, but the courage returns connection. And, of course, there is always the risk of rejection. But it’s more important that we express ourselves than hide ourselves.

The courage to be vulnerable is a massive statement of self-love. It says, “This is who I am, World, just as I am. Right now, in this moment, I don’t need you or anyone else to like me or even to approve of me. This is me, as I am, and I know that I am enough.”

Vulnerability doesn’t call for you to be an open book, of course. It only asks that you not be afraid to be yourself, just as you are, and that you understand that being yourself is most definitely, absolutely enough.