Vulnerability is not a bad word. We have come to know this word to represent defenseless, helpless, and weak. We have naturally come to fear being vulnerable and avoid it the best we can. It is only logical that we would want to avoid helplessness and weakness, however, we often see the most confident, comfortable, and strongest people amongst us discover their traits of security through their clear willingness to be vulnerable. This seems like a contradiction at first. Experts are learning that we are biologically hard wired to be afraid and protect ourselves, and logically, many of our thought processes have reinforced and asked us to succumb to fear as opposed to work with it. Knowing this we must remember the conscious choice to be vulnerable is where we discover our strengths. When we look more closely at the relationship between fear and confidence we find the contradiction is not a contradiction at all, it is actually a wonderful balance of what makes us human. When we choose to be vulnerable, we find our security of self by discovering our inherent ability to become more empathetic, more communicative, and more cooperative and in doing so we tend to find more comfort and safety because these traits attract people and help build communities. It is imperative these traits be included in the definition of what it means to be a teacher.
When it comes to fear and fearing vulnerability, neurologists have variably described the insula as being a piece of our brain that helps to manage and categorize what disgusts us, and what disgusts us has an effect on what we are afraid of. Based on current research the insula could be a key player in generating fear*. In keeping us afraid, though, it helps keep us safe. It helps us organize and notice what could potentially hurt us. What is also interesting is this fear island’s placement. This little region is wrapped up deep in the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is where important thought processing happens, and the insula is deep inside of it. Many believe that the insula itself holds some keys as to how the human brain has evolved.
While the developing neuroscience around the insula is fascinating, what is useful to know is this “fear island” proves that fear not only keeps us safe but fear is embedded into our primal wiring. Being afraid is normal. Being afraid is biological. Being afraid is not going anywhere. In fact, our subconscious and our conscious fears are what have allowed the human race to evolve as a species. Fear stops us from doing potentially nasty and harmful things to keep ourselves alive. In understanding this we should be very happy with being afraid. Our fears clearly keep us a live and safe in very particular way, but what needs more of our focus is the fact that the admittance of our fears can keep us a live as well. The other thing that keeps us safe that we tend to forget: each other. The ability to connect, effectively communicate, and cooperate has proven time and time again as a sure way for the humans species to continue evolving. In other words: community keeps people safe, too. It has been the ability to communicate and express our fears to one another that has helped us to connect, empathize, and cooperate to build systems that protect us. Community is born out of this connection. Multiple people promising to take care of one another so they may take care of themselves. The balance between feeling afraid and admitting our fears has created vast and complex systems. Agriculture, cities, economies, medicine, law, and the politics that perpetuate them have all been developed because human beings have admitted time and time again that they are feeling vulnerable, that they are afraid.
From a macro perspective, the human species has done fantastically well due to our ability to admit our fears and cooperate to build systems to assuage them, yet if we zoom in, from a micro perspective, it is not always easy to cooperate with others let a lone admit what we are afraid of. It is terribly difficult to speak up for our self at times and admit our fears on a day-to-day basis. The fear of vulnerability keeps us from genuinely connecting with each other. This is a fear many of us have come to battle with consistently. The fear of vulnerability sneaks in and tells us to not apply for the job, to not ask for help, and to do as much as possible to avoid meeting the new neighbors. Fear of vulnerability keeps us worried about sharing who we are and keeps us scared of what people may think. Fear of vulnerability stops us from asking him or her out and keeps us from speaking up in groups large and small. The fear of vulnerability can keep groups and communities who feel they have no voice quiet. It forces us to conform to a status quo that may not represent us. It keeps creativity and innovation from bursting forth. Worst of all, this fear of vulnerability allows us to dangerously compare ourselves to others in ways that are far from healthy.
Let’s zoom out to a macro perspective once again to discuss why we fear vulnerability in our day to day. Remember that as a species human beings have built communities and found groups to participate in for safety by admitting their fears to one another. When we finally have a group or community, we have achieved a way to assuage those fears and naturally do not want to lose that sense of comfort. We feel established and feel as sense of belonging yet since fear is built into us we naturally become afraid—again— to share our vulnerabilities to our groups because we do not want to feel ostracized by the very group that may be helping us feel comfortable. We don’t want to be kicked out! In doing this, we quickly forget how we found a great group or community to begin with: by sharing who we are and by allowing ourselves to be seen and admitting who we are, inside and out.
As you can see this has become a natural cycle that not all of us are conscious of. We are constantly vacillating between admitting our vulnerabilities to find connection to feel safe and protecting ourselves and staying quiet to feel safe. However, it is my belief growth comes from the prior. We must not only be conscious of this natural vacillation but we must consciously ask ourselves to willingly admit who we are. It has become imperative that we must consciously ask ourselves to be vulnerable. We must take that risk and share who we are, where we came from, our beliefs, and most importantly, what scares us. It is in this willingness where we discover our deepest connections with one another. When we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, it opens a passageway for another person to connect with you. Quite often in choosing vulnerability you give permission to those who are lucky enough to witness you doing so to be vulnerable back. It is in this space where we discover the deepest connections through empathy and it is through empathy where we find clear communication. Communication is how we cooperate. This is how we build stronger institutions, more fair economies, and more equal laws. This is how we learn to trust one another. To put it simply, we are not a lone here and now more than ever we all need the most genuine connection and cooperation. It is now more than ever we must find ways to practice being ourselves. We must practice being vulnerable. I believe that if more of us continue practicing vulnerability we actually can create positive and lasting change and protect the things we hold most dear.
Teachers are the particular group of us that must train in vulnerability more than others. If our teachers can continue to practice finding their comfort in vulnerability, they are then practicing strong connection, communication, and cooperation and instilling it in future generations, in future teachers. To empower our students to cooperate, teachers must be better communicators and to become better at communicating, teachers need to be more far more empathetic. To be more empathetic we need to be more willing to be vulnerable.
We have to admit choosing to be vulnerable is by no means an easy task. It is hard to admit our truths to other people. Goodness, it is hard to admit the truth ourselves! Though difficult we are most certainly capable of becoming more comfortable and can certainly practice vulnerability. Vulnerability is something that can be trained. Conceptually, finding ways to train in vulnerability gets almost too easy, yet at the same time people run away screaming. There is pile of tools to help us feel more comfortable that not all teachers have been using. There has been a skillset, a craft, that has been developing activities to help people feel more comfortable with being vulnerable and being seen since the fifth century BCE. It has helped those willing to participate work with their fears and share what they have to say and what they have made. Yes, the practices of theater and acting have a sole focus, and it is ultimately the practice of feeling more comfortable with your self and with others.
Wait! Before you run away, no one is asking you to get up on stage and act out a scene. For those who understand and know how to train actors and theater practitioners understand that, ultimately, what is being trained is expansion of a human being’s comfort level. The more comfortable the actor is with being watched or recorded while they do something, the more brave they will be and the better the performance will be. All teachers need to take a closer look at theater practices and find ways to translate these practices, not to put on a show, but to feel all the more comfortable with who they are and with being watched while they share themselves and the curricula for the day. This way you will connect with your students and make your day-to-day existence, not only more bearable but more comfortable, more connected, and more constructive. It is my belief that teachers can create the world that is a little less afraid, that finds its sense of belonging, and discover its happiness. It begins with your willingness, so if you are willing, let’s get started.