Below is the first half of Chapter 3, exploring why we might avoid vulnerability. Let me know what you think. If you want to know how to embrace your vulnerability you will have to wait until the book is done, I don’t want to share too much..
Do you embrace your vulnerability?
The other day I was facilitating a team building session, and I had asked the participants to pick out at least 5 values that they felt were important to them. Not what they thought they should value but what they really valued. This is more challenging than you think it might be. As it is difficult to find the words that describe your values I provided them with 3 pages of words that describe thier values. I then invited them to use the lists of values to start them off, but reminded them that they were not wedded to that list. Nobody used any values that were not on the list. Now this could have been that they were happy with the wide selection, or that they did not feel comfortable enough to tap into their individuality for fear of getting it wrong. This fear is driven by our shame. We all know how shame attempts to diminish us to make us less of a person. We all know now how to combat this shame. We do that by confronting it and talking about it with our fellow ashamed friends and colleagues. The problem is, that you have only just read the chapter on how to combat that shame. Fair enough you may have read Brene Browns work on shame and vulnerability, but shifting your shameful paradigm takes a lot of practice flexing your empathy muscle. So what else is there to do but avoid shame at all costs by not putting yourself at risk of mucking things up. “Probably best if you play it safe….remember the last time you tried to express your opinion at a meeting….you made yourself look a right tit”. I have said that to myself so many times. It has always led to me keeping my mouth shut in a meeting instead of letting people know, what I have observed or experienced as I was fearful that I would not be taken seriously and be dismissed, therefore diminishing my self-worth. The probem is with this approach is that it can end up having the same effect as the one you were trying to avoid. People could start to think that Matthew never contributes to meetings, he somehow appears disinterested, and is not engaged. Don’t get me wrong embracing your vulnerability is not about running off at the mouth at every opportunity. But perhaps I could have just been vulnerable and spoken up, and trusted my judgement that what I had to say had value. If it didn’t then the conversation would move on, I may feel a little silly, but I it has not harmed me.
The difficulty with avoiding vulnerability is that it is driven by our limbic system, as is shame. It is evolutionary neccessary for us to live in groups (something we will look at in depth later in this book). So it is important to us not to look foolish, as foolish means weak and less useful to the goup, which may lead to us being cast out and left to starve to death lonely and unloved. Yeah I know a little extreme. The thing is the limbic system is primitive and it’s primary function is to keep us and our species alive. It does not care which century we are in or how dangerous our outside world is. If it is left unchecked it will assume any threat is a threat to life unless advised otherwise. Therefore when you notice that another member of your team is ridiculed behind their back for making a suggestion at a meeting, your limbic system makes a note to put in your memory bank, so the next time you are in a meeting and consider making a suggestion your limbic system, goes and gets that note and waves it in your face, saying don’t do it, you then get that funny feeling in your stomach and your mouth goes dry and you say nothing. The urge to say nothing is as strong as it would be if you were alive a thousand years ago about to question the leadership qualities of your village chieftan. Only you are not likely to be cast out or get your head chopped off. The limbic system has know time uderstanding the current political climate it is just interested in you staying alive, it leaves all that stuff up to your frontal lobe.
So there you are embracing your vulnerability and confronting your shame is not going to be easy. Your limbic system is always going to scupper things and avoid vulnerability at all costs. Don’t worry though there is a way to manage how your limbic system responds.
Before we explore how to create the right conditions for you to be able to vulnerable it is important to explain why avoiding vulnerability and being a slave to your shame is not just toxic, it can be down right dangerous. Vulnerability avoidance can stop us from speaking up or acting when we see things are going wrong, things have been missed or when someone is acting with malicous intent. History is littered with testimony from bystanders that either did not think it was there place to say anything, they didn’t like to say anything or they were too afraid to say or do anything. I am not saying that to be able to embrace vulnerability you should put yourself in harms way. There have been occassions in history and to this day where people may be in mortal danger if they spoke up or acted on what they saw. Some of those people put themselves at risk and others didn’t, now that is a whole other debate that I have no wish to get into. If your life is in danger you are going to make decisions based on your values and what you are faced with. I am more concerned with situations much more common place, situations that happen on a daily basis.
As part of my role as a Clinical Nurse Educator I teach Human Factors (risk management) to Health Professionals. The basic premise of this is that we are all at risk of making errors or contributing to errors as part of the error chain. One of those human factors that creates an environment for error is a steep authority gradient, where someone is clearly in charge. This leader however is not interested in discussion, and likes to let everyone know that they are in charge. Everyone is expected to do as they are told and there are consequences for disobedience. No doubt you can all think of examples of leaders like this either first hand or through stories. So imagine you are working in an environment like this, say for instance that you are a junior nurse on your first ward and you are involved in the resusitation of a patient. The resusitation is being performed by a domineering Consultant who is barking orders at everybody. All involved a clearly nervous, no one is acting until they are told to do so by the Consultant. You notice that the green oxygen tubing that is attached to the bag and mask that the consultant is using to provide respirations to the patient is not attached to anything. It is you first ward but you are pretty sure that your tutor told you that the oxygen should be attached when using the bag and mask, but the Consultant is really shouting at everyone and you are too afraid to speak up just in case you have got it wrong. That patient subsequently dies, now how would you feel? Like you I would like to think that I would have spoken up, and faced the wrath of the consultant, and some of you would, there are some of you who wouldn’t. Now imagine you are 18 and that Consultant is in his 50s with 30 years experience as a Doctor, how easy do you think it would be.This is not a real example, however I have witnessed situations where an authority gradient has put patients at risk, and I have read incident reports from all over the world describing this behaviour. There lies another problem, we have all heard examples of this behaviour and have a perception of the type of people and the situaitons where this authority gradient might be present. When you hear these stories your limbic system becomes very interested and lays down memories in your memory bank, just in case you encounter such people or those situations. So when you come across something that remotely looks familiar your limbic system leaps into action to ensure your safety. So regardless of whether or not this person and the culture they work within operates a steep authority gradient, you will behave as if there is one. So you start to percieve that if you speak up or act on your initiative that you will face sanctions regardless of the lack of concrete evidence. This perception of a steep authority gradient is just as dangerous as a real authority gradient. Our limbic system is on the whole very useful but it can be a right pain in the arse if you don’t manage it.