The magic of vulnerability

Oscar, my labrador dog
Oscar

I have found myself crying on stage a few times recently. One of these times was a couple of weeks ago 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 latest 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.

16 thoughts on “The magic of vulnerability

  1. Karon Clements

    Your honesty inspired me to start my workshops when you related how you had so few to begin with. I’m so glad I started as they have been a fantastic success. You have probably no idea how your honesty and vulnerability inspires others and changes their lives. Thank you.

  2. Heather

    Your.beautiful story brought tears to my eyes. I agree with every word you wrote.
    Thank you for all your correspondence. I look forward to that.
    With loving thoughts. Heather.

  3. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Thank you for your kind and sincere words, Heather. 🙂

  4. David R. Hamilton PhD

    Thanks Karon. I’m so pleased you started your workshops and that they have been successful. Well done you! 🙂 Thanks for your kind words. I don’t often hear how people benefit from what I write about and say, so it always warms my heart when I get such a lovely message as yours. 🙂

  5. Love that article David. I’m a positive re-framer with my words, though there is a time when I do a certain talk about how I got into coaching and I have to mention a low point in my life (at first reluctantly) and the strange thing is that people have really connected and resonated or booked a session with me to help them afterwards, because I’ve been there and I know what’s it’s like to be vulnerable and I now help people to turn that around as I did. Stories of vulnerability often makes for a more meaningful connection and people see their own story in them just as I did there. I think your journey with Oscar has expanded your talks from science to a greater heart connection and when we add feeling to a message (especially really genuine feelings like yours) more people get and remember the message which goes on to benefit their lives.

  6. Elle-Jay

    Love your writing, I have shared so many similar experiences – thanks for sharing yours; makes me feel ‘normal’…’enough’!! 🙂

  7. Zuzana Chuda

    David, it was an absolute privilege to watch you on that stage. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your story and touching so many hearts that day. It was very emotional, especially for us, dog lovers, who felt every single one of your words… Will remember it for a very very very long time. Reading your book every day, bit by bit – it’s a great book which I will pass on to my loved ones as well!

  8. Thanks so much for writing about your experience with Oscar, It made me cry, we just lost our cat to cancer 2 weeks ago, he was a part of our family and daily life for 12 years. I have allowed my self to grieve as much as I need. I even posted his picture and a poem I wrote for him on Facebook, and felt so connected and understood at all the lovely heartfelt comments I received. I told myself that I didn’t care if people thought I was silly or over emotional because it was exactly what I was feeling, and I wanted to honor the great gifts he gave to us by being in our life.
    Bless you David for your realness and self-honoring! I believe your willingness to show your authentic self inspires others and helps them to do the same.
    I love what you say about “not being afraid to be yourself, just as you are, and that understanding that being yourself is most definitely, absolutely enough.” Thank you ! and I look forward to reading ‘I Heart Me’

  9. Hattie

    This post is exactly what I needed to read right now. I’m about to go on a group coaching call with Nancy Levin and I was totally freaking out (not great on calls) but after reading this I know what I have to do. Just be me. Thank you so much. I saw both you and Nancy talk at Hay House Ignite and was blown away by your confidence and ability to have the whole room captivated. I hope to be able to do that some day!

    Thank you for everything you do!

    Hattie

  10. Hi David 🙂
    I to lost my beloved pet Shelby , a very bouncy lovable yellow lab , my heart sings just thinking of her ! But almost five years a go during her last days knowing I needed to make a decision to release her from this world broke my heart into pieces,I was blessed to have her by my side for nearly 15 yrs ( longer than my marriage) she came in just when I needed her and I have dedicated my first book to her . on her last day she bought all of my family together where vulnerability was plenty no words were able to be spoken but the hugs and tears and comforting each other said it all , a true soulmate! My heart goes out to you and your loss a love like that never dies my friend . Best wishes Jeanette

  11. Ursula

    It so happened that last night I was reading the chapter in your book on vulnerability. In my mind it was not important and I put it away . Luckily this morning I received a wake-up-call. You were there again talking about vulnerability. Thank you for inspiring me , I will go and try and learn much more about it – I sense that it will be a steppingstone in my process of self-growth. Thank you for being there.
    Ursula

  12. Jane

    I love reading your blogs and messages – they are so inspiring and make me feel happy! What you write about vulnerability is so true…

  13. Lovely post David. I work with people who want to overcome various challenges and I often find my eyes welling up. Sometimes because their pain, hurts and fears are close to mine and sometimes because what I help them through is simply an intensely emotional process. There was a time when I viewed my reaction as unprofessional and something to be hidden, but these days I simply accept it, because it does not get in the way. Your post though has made me wonder, does my emotional reaction increase the connection to those that I’m helping and therefore strengthen the process?

  14. Julia

    Of course it’s good to be human and authentic. I wanted to comment on “Can we see dead people?” but it doesn’t seem to have anywhere to do so. I am still seeing the aquamarine angelic light shining out of the photo of Oscar in the sky! My feeling is that the bone shape is rather a dolphin angel. I feel a connection to these angels and in January this year I bought a calendar from a charity shop which came from Australia and was illustrated by an Australian artist. The beautiful picture for March was “Dancing Dolphins” – the dolphins were in the sea set against a big yellow and pink sun. You posted this around the time of the solar eclipse. For me it was a gift to experience this light (it’s very powerful light), so thank you for sharing the photo and although my comment is more about the angelic realm than dead people, perhaps it will give you and Elizabeth some comfort.

  15. Susan

    I love this. I end up crying at least once a year in front of my class of about 30 pre-teen students, usually over relating a story of loss or even writing the date Sept. 11 on the board. Instead of it freaking them out, it does have this magical way of letting them know that I am human and that, yes, it is okay for them to be human as well. Thank you for this post.

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