How to Be Human: Cultivating Our Power through Our Vulnerability
[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]
Seven years ago while I lived in Singapore, my Aussie friends from Perth visited with their two year old daughter. I took them to a local, infamous nocturnal park crawling with curious creatures big and small. At one point we stood together in a bat cave while bats flew, hung, and slept all around us. Holding my friend’s daughter in my arms, I leaned on a railing and noticed there was a bat upside-down and right beside us! “Look! A bat!”, I exclaimed. My friend’s kid looked at the bat with uncertainty. She looked back at me, looked again at the bat, then recomposed and stated, “That. Is not a bat.”
Us adults burst out with laughter in surprise because there was in fact a live, cute, and fuzzy bat hanging a foot from our noses! My friend’s little girl settled her ambivalence by reaching a verdict. Although ludicrous to us, from her point of view her opinion made absolute sense. Her two years worth of reference material regarding “bats” likely included cartoon caricatures and bats with wings spread out wide in books. Given that evidence, this actual bat with wings wrapped around itself like Count Dracula was indeed not what she understood to be a “bat”.
I share this endearing story to begin discussing the way humans habitually act when we are not certain, and how the experience of uncertainty activates our vulnerability. Uncertainty is a state when we are not able to rely on something or someone; when things are not known or definite. When we come upon new experiences (for example, a real time never-before-seen bat!), we are met with a level of uncertainty. The furry thing in front of my friend’s daughter did not resonate with her young set of assumptions, expectations, and beliefs about the world. So, she quickly scanned her knowledge base and formulated a “logical” conclusion.
As adults, we continue this behavior. We make assumptions and jump to conclusions when something doesn’t quite fit our current understanding. Even more poignant, is that when we don’t know something or someone, when we are uncertain, we find ourselves in a state of vulnerability.
Our brain wants to make sense of things, while our limbic system is designed to keep us safe.
Vulnerability is exposure to the possibility of being attacked or harmed physically or emotionally. Humans strive to avoid this situation of being exposed to harm. (Who wants that?!) We default to subconscious processes that narrow in on the task of “stay safe”, we make sense of things and try and protect ourselves, even from harmless, hanging bats. In this mode of maintaining safety, we try to avoid being uncertain through habitual reactions like just saying, “Nope. That is simply not the case” a.k.a. “That. Is not a bat”. We easily reject new information, or new perspectives that don’t fit into what we already know or understand. It becomes a relatively automatic behavior to try and stick with what we think is predictable or to shove new information into our existing cognitive frameworks. This all occurs with the purpose to attempt to protect ourselves from harm. To cope with vulnerability and increase our sense of safety, we draw conclusions and make assumptions that re-establish a sense of familiarity and assuredness.
When operating on automatic and allowing our default behavior to drive us, we live focused on avoiding uncertainty, and avoiding vulnerability. The bummer is that if we narrowly focus on this task of avoiding feeling vulnerable for too long or at all, we render ourselves unable to access the full range of feelings and lived experiences available to us as human beings. We cannot selectively numb one emotion, they all go down or dampen together. When we start closing down pieces of ourselves, we begin to cut ourselves off from our full human potential, our power.
What if we could shift our focus from “default living” in a protective way, to intentionally and consciously living with vulnerability in a way that re-engages us to our power and affords us access to more of our humanity? I will share with you a 10-step process and invite you to discover what in fact is possible with this “what if”.
It’s vulnerable to change habits. It’s vulnerable to get out of routine. It’s vulnerable to try something new. It’s vulnerable to talk to a stranger. It’s vulnerable to share your story. It’s vulnerable to try. It’s vulnerable to fail. It’s vulnerable to succeed and celebrate. It’s downright, straight up vulnerable to love.
In addition to the experiences above potent with degrees of vulnerability, we witness harm daily. The relentless harm doled out to so many in our community through abuse of power continues to create massive trauma. Harm to children on our Southern border, a dramatic 47% increase in homelesness in Oakland over the last two years, mass incarceration of people in the United States, the ongoing crisis in Venezuela… I name only a few things devastating human dignity. We experience or witness this in person, through our families and friends, or through social media and news. These phenomena create vast and tangible vulnerability. Harm to our brothers, sisters, children, uncles, aunties, and especially to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), LGTBQ, and people who identify as female, injures on physical, mental, and emotional levels. Racial and gendered inequity perpetually fueled by the oppressive systems and structures in place, dauntingly continues. I cannot write with integrity about vulnerability without naming at least some of what’s real and tangible in our community. There are clear patterns of who receives more harm. And, for each of us, there is a unique experience of harm.
The harm I have encountered, what I can impart about vulnerability, and what I can offer about cultivating our power through our vulnerability, is relative to my social location. In this moment, in my ongoing effort to be transparent, I will name that I am a Bay Area born and raised South Asian, coming from two lineages of colonization (British and Portuguese), a daughter of immigrant parents, female-identified, with a relative amount of privilege in terms of my education, economic position, ability, and skin tone – to name some specifics. I name the above because I believe context, even my own, is important to name in this discussion of vulnerability and power.
Our experiences of harm – and the witnessing of other humans’ experiences – inspire a deep sense of helplessness. What I observe, considering these levels of vulnerability – from personal to structural, direct trauma to indirect impact – is that so many of us are experiencing a sense of deep uncertainty, chaotic unpredictability, and staggering vulnerability.
In a cyclic fashion, the experience of helplessness forms a trajectory toward harm. This harm can come in various forms: toward self or others, physically, or emotionally through judgments, blame, harsh words, etc. When we remain in a state of tightness, contraction, disconnection, distraction, numbing, and avoiding, we are not available to engage in our full human potential and participate in whatever actions we can do to change the status quo and stop harm. When we sit too long in this vulnerability without support, accompaniment, a way out, a way to be there, some structure, some safety, we are more likely to perpetuate harm.
Raise your hand if you have made many attempts to avoid feeling vulnerable as you face an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Or, if you have experienced things you just can’t wrap your head around and have attempted to stave off vulnerability by making quick assumptions and jumping to conclusions. My hand is raised.
Despite attempts to numb, the feelings of discomfort, pain, and vulnerability come. Eventually, our hearts insist on our full humanity, and part of being wholly human is to feel.
How do we transform our vulnerability into power in the form of engagement and participation toward social change? What do we do instead of shutting down or making assumptions, when we are uncertain and find ourselves vulnerable? What do we do to disrupt that trajectory toward harm, to create some safety in vulnerability, and to re-engage with our power when we are up against something new, unexpected, uncomfortable, or harmful (or benign hanging bats)? Through building awareness, we begin to have choice(1) to stick with what we know and live our default behaviors designed to get us out of vulnerability and to safety as soon as possible… or, we can choose to expand our idea of what is possible, sit and process new information and perspectives, and return to our power and engagement. Personal transformation and structural change are not at odds, but deeply linked. Personal transformation is a necessary component to change structures of oppression. Without it, our beliefs and conditioning may unwittingly propel the very systems that oppress. It is possible to learn tools and skills to navigate vulnerability, and it is crucial and critical to radical personal and social transformation, for each of us to find a way to our power.
With all that said, I invite you into this 10-part process supporting you “to be human” by cultivating resilience through skills and tools to connect in a meaningful way to your power of engagement, participation, and action, and to your dignity by staying with, and moving through, your vulnerability. Deeply embedded in this process are components of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Take a deep breath…
- Mindset: Radical Accountability. Radical Mattering. Radical Compassion. Begin building a mindset liberated from blame. When in pain and vulnerable, it’s easy to point the finger at someone as the cause of your emotional experience. This can create a retaliatory mindset (an eye for an eye). Many systems of harm in operation subscribe to this concept. Rather than focusing outside yourself for the cause of your pain, begin to focus internally on how you can move through the pain, with the process below. One tool is to recognize that as imperfect humans, sometimes we unintentionally create harm. Being radically accountable and radically compassionate takes humility. Acknowledging harm, even if it was your actions and words that created harm, is one way to begin dismantling the mindset of blame. Being with impact first, before defending intention, takes a practice of neutrality, especially the skills of observing what was said or done without judgment of those actions. This fundamentally requires a deep self-trust of your intentions. This trust in your own intentions frees up cognitive space for you to see the possibility that another person may also not intend harm. Because our impulse to prove our intentions is directly related to our need to matter, to be seen and understood, trusting our intentions takes radical mattering. Know unshakably, that you do matter. Your worth is part of the deal of being human.
- Squad up. Find some company (your squad) to be with you when you are experiencing the difficult emotions of vulnerability (fear, shame, guilt, humiliation, pain…). Vulnerability without a structure to navigate it, guidance, or accompaniment, 100% can feel terrifying. Find folks and ask them if they are willing to accompany you and hold space for you. Through trial and error, find folks who are able to suspend their judgment, sit in empathy with you, and be present to you and your current suffering. Squad up to explore your vulnerability, as an alternative to contracting around it. You do not have to go it alone. Rest in the idea that to be human is to be collaborative and connected. Receiving support is vulnerable, too. So, when you squad up know you might find yourself having to do the work of allowing yourself to receive. To work this edge of receiving, think of a time you heard that someone close to you was suffering and they didn’t let you know. Connect with how much you wish you had known so that you could have supported that person(2). When asking for support, imagine that someone would be delighted for you to reach out to them, because people want to contribute to others’ well-being. Your vulnerability when held, accompanied, and supported by a structure to understand self – can turn into healing.
- Catch feelings. No, really! Catch them, name them, hold them, allow them, accept them, and honor them. To be human, in part, is to feel. Build a practice of acknowledging, naming, and feeling all your feels. You may start to notice that the choice to suppress or ignore feelings – which we can habitually do with uncomfortable or painful feelings – often works to perpetuate those very emotions. What you may begin to notice is that your feelings pass through. They do not stay. Catching feelings, in the way I am suggesting here, can build resilience to sit with painful feelings, discomfort, and hurt. Through this “being with” and “letting pass through” you may start to trust that entering these emotional states can be “safe”, and that you have the capacity to navigate difficult emotions. This is a liberating option compared to blaming others for your emotional reactions and getting stuck in your vulnerability.
Start building a vocabulary of feelings. If you have only the words and emotional states of “angry, mad, sad, and glad”… you are missing out on your full range of human emotions. For example, you may be experiencing simple “frustration”, yet only have the language to describe “rage”. With an extended vocabulary of emotional states, you can more readily identify what’s going on with you, and you are able to get a sense of your individual complexity. Herein lies some beauty; who YOU uniquely are. Give your emotions some space. Allow your feelings to guide you toward your values. Our feelings give us rich information about what’s deeply important to us.
- Pssst! Your thoughts are not your feelings. The biggest mix-up I see when people start learning NVC and discovering their feelings, is the mistaking of thoughts for feelings. Our thoughts are the stories we tell ourselves, our opinions, judgments, and evaluations. They can often be filled with blame. Our feelings are sensations in our bodies and our emotional states. One step toward your liberation from the mindset of judgment and blame, is to start clarifying the difference between thoughts and feelings. Become curious as to what situations – and the thoughts you have about those situations – activate your feelings. What did someone say or do, and what thoughts do you have about those actions? What are the stories you are telling yourself? Thoughts activate our feelings, but are not one in the same. (And, remember that feelings point to what you care about.)
- Return to your power by grounding yourself in your core values. Your emotional experiences are guides, pointing to where to pay attention; they shepherd you to your core values and what’s important to you. Become curious about what stirs in you and begin to name your WHY; what motivates you to do or say things? What do you deeply long for? The NVC model defines these core values, your why, your motivations and what you deeply long for as “needs”. Find power in your willingness to acknowledge what’s truly important to you. When we are grounded in our humanity, through this recognition and naming of what is valuable to us on the deepest level, we return to our power. We are secure in our mattering and our worth, and clear about what we hold dear. This clarity and centeredness builds self-trust and motivates us to take action toward getting our needs met. When we know what we want, we are empowered to communicate that to others and seek support to get our needs met. When we self-connect, rather than bypass our feelings and needs, we begin to transform vulnerability into power. We move from helplessness to being grounded. Becoming curious and aware of our needs through self-connection re-engages us with our humanity and we find power through the choices and options that start to arise once we are grounded in our core values.
- Mourn. Grieve. As you begin to connect to your core values and your WHY, you may realize how much of what you have longed has not manifested yet in your life. Find a way to mourn. It is understandably painful to realize that you may never have had some of the most fulfilling aspects of being human: affection, attention, love, power, a sense of mattering, support, kindness, and care. When you step into awareness of what’s really important to you, you may feel revived and uplifted, and then sometimes oddly sad. This is possibly because you are in touch with the pain of not having had something you have wanted. This, mourning, is another stage of vulnerability and you may want to return to catching feelings with your squad, before continuing with this process.
- Brew and Brainstorm. Get wildly creative about strategies. When you go through the steps to recognize and name what’s deeply important to you, ask yourself: What now can I do to fulfill my needs? What can I ask of someone, or myself, to attend to my core values? What can I request? Be creative, curious, and explore a million ways to get what you long for. When you are connected to your center and your core, creativity arises. Here, you may find the power to implement new strategies to get your needs met. This step is an exciting brainstorm and brew. Review all the strategies you conjure up, and choose the ones most aligned with your values. Your needs can be your touchstone for decision-making, a guide, something to check your strategies against as you move forward.
- Be with the limitations of strategies. Herein lies potential for more grief. Part of the pain of the NVC components embedded in these ten steps, is that when we start seeing our needs, and start coming up with strategies to meet them, we also realize there may be limitations to all our needs being met and limitations to strategies due to a lack of access to resources. Here I invite you to consider that mourning opens the surprising possibility of meeting our needs in the future: when we shut down, we stop seeking or listening to our needs. So rather than locking up, hardening, and stewing in resentment, process through your pain as best you can to become aware of and connect with your needs. This takes the work of being truly available to many, many different strategies, rather than being urgently fixated and attached to inaccessible or ineffective strategies. The hopeful news is that simply by knowing what we need we can attempt to get our needs met. Once we know, we can’t unknow. Mourning, going through it, allows us to maintain awareness of our needs and ignite some self-love. This process can create an opening, a possibility, for fulfillment of our core values and for taking action from a place of power, instead of limitation.
- Practice Presence. We have power in our choices and no control over outcome. Albeit sometimes constrained or limited by a lack of access to resources, we do have power in our choices even as we have no control over outcome. Relief and liberation come from realizing that we only have true influence over ourselves. This does not mean that we give up, or submit, or allow life to pass us by. We do not become passive to injustice or harm, or the beauty in things and people. We become present toall of it. Having no control over outcome and only influence over ourselves, actually means that we have a place to start from. And, a place to return. Once we enter the process of self-connection and grow our awareness through presence and familiarity with our emotions and motivations, we have something: ourselves. This becomes a relatively known “place”, somewhere to work and to rest. With this safety, grown in our own bodies and minds, we can be more present to moments of vulnerability and return to our power with more ease.
- Empowerment is being able to act. Do something. Take action. This final step is crucial: do something. At some point, get out of your head and the captivating brainstorm, and act. This may look like connecting with someone you care about, calling your grandmother, watching the sunset with a loved one, donating to a cause, journaling, walking out of abusive circumstances, participating in a direct action, becoming more informed about something you value and care about but vulnerably do not know where to start… you may find by exploring and discovering strategies aligned with your values that there are so many options, and there is so much choice. This process starts with mindset shifts and acknowledging and allowing vulnerability, which can throw us into a limbic response narrowing in on strategies to be “safe”. Yet through this 10-step process, after the dance of vulnerability you can find yourself grounded in your power and available to make impact through action, and move the meter toward personal and social transformation. Rather than being stuck in helplessness and vulnerability, empowerment is to be able to act while grounded in our mattering and the things most important to us.
With this process, I am answering questions in the context of limitations: How do we find our power and agency to act, in the places we do have choice? How do we honor our vulnerability, and move forward to create the relationships and the just world we want to live in?
We return to our power by allowing our vulnerability through self-connecting in order to find the clarity of our values within us that inspire us into action. When in pain and discomfort, we have two choices – either to focus on our fears, judgments, and blame and harden and contract barring ourselves from our full human potential, or to focus on our humanness in the moment and soften, become available, engaged, and participate. We re-engage with our power.
I acknowledged earlier that the systems and structures in place, alongside our global culture of inequity, create ongoing vulnerability for some of us in a serious way, especially BIPOC, LGTBQ, and people who identify as female. So to ask you, if you identify with the above, to be more vulnerable and go through this process, may not be the thing for you. I invite you to discern when and with whom you want to be vulnerable. I also invite those of you with privilege and power to stretch more – given your social location – and seek ways you can balance the personal and structural work it takes to create social change toward equity, justice, inclusion, and transformation. I encourage each of you to assess, if the project is to find new ways to return to your power from a state of vulnerability, to figure out what conditions you need in particular to do this work, over and over again. This 10-step process is but one option to add to your tools.
The possibility of healing starts by looking within, with an ultimate goal of changing systems and structures of oppression. It’s a dance. We exist together in context of history, and we embody the very systems of power that oppress most of us. We swim in it, grew up in it, our belonging is tied to it, and by default, we perpetuate it. To self-connect in the way I offer in this 10-step process, is radical. To then communicate what we find, seek support, act and do what we value is further an act of resistance to the status quo.
There is a way.
I began with a story of a little girl and a bat to talk about the auto-habits we employ when uncertain. I close this exploration with the question: In the context of ongoing trauma and continuous direct harm being done to our community and people we love, how do we continue to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and not contract and guard off in protective mode? My hope is that through the components listed above, you can see a path through your vulnerability to your power.
So, how do you even start?
I will use the wisdom and words of my dear mentor and friend gone too soon, June Jordan, poet, activist, journalist, essayist and beloved teacher, who wrote:
“To begin is no more agony than opening your hand”.
Sheila Menezes, M.S., CPCC, is a Co-Active Coach focusing on Leadership Development, Communication, Relationship Building and Mediation for individuals, couples, and organizations. She is a Collaborative Trainer with BayNVC, and has brought NVC into San Quentin State Prison with the Safer Communities Project since 2015. Sheila holds sacred our shared humanness, alongside the unique depth and uncanny wisdom that each of us stewards. Meanwhile, she loves getting results that are tangible and real supporting people to access their human potential, and compassionately and effectively communicate.
(1) I want to clarify that I do not want to glorify “choice”, this would be a disservice to anyone impacted by trauma through incarceration, marginalization, oppression, inequity and harm of all types… for this writing piece I am assuming “constrained choice”: the limitations of choice relative to your social location and access to resources.
(2) Thank you Oren Sofer for a guided meditation that brought this strategy around receiving into my awareness.