Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The space to be vulnerable

Sean had a problem. He knew he was drinking too much. As a result his work, marriage and life were in trouble. What had started as a 'weekend relaxer' was now a weekday, sometimes daily, activity. Sean had made all the just excuses...

'Work is very stressful at the moment. I'll cut back when things get calmer'.
'I don't have a problem. It just helps me relax.'
'I probably drink too much but I can stop anytime.' 

Yet Sean did have a problem and a recent conflict with his family and time off work due to the alcohol had confronted him with his need for help. He was now on his way to his first meeting of AA ( Alcoholics Anonymous ). Sean arrived at the meeting and sat down with a few minutes to spare before the meeting opened. His mind reeled with a flurry of thoughts and a strong wish to bolt and get away through the door. Things got even worse when people stated to share with the famous words 'Hi. My name is X and I'm an alcoholic.' Sean was confronted by the vulnerability and deep honesty of those there. This struck him and confronted him. Sean got though the meeting and came back for more. Today he is many months sober.

Sensing our vulnerability is both a great challenge and a great possibility of growth. We often, like Sean, don't want to admit our vulnerability to ourselves or any one else. It's no accident that the 12 step movements such as AA start with this radical self honesty. The person admits to themselves and others that they have a problem and are there to learn how to deal with it. We do not need to have a gambling or alcohol problem to be vulnerable. Many things can make us feel this way. The news, work issues, relationships and people can bring to the surface the sense of not being OK - of feeling shaky and at our weakest point. This is a natural thing. It's human to feel vulnerable.

One thing some people find very helpful is to have the space to be vulnerable somewhere in their lives. This is where they meet with a person they trust. There is the positive centre where they can talk about how they feel and seek the path forward. These spaces where it is safe to be vulnerable we would contend are vital for good mental and emotional health and wellbeing. They can only exist where there is a positive connection, real trust and a non- judgemental framework. They are not spaces or place to beat oneself up or be ultra negative or throw accusations at others. More than anything they are places of affirmation and reality checking. They can exist in workplaces and in other life environments. They have three core elements which make them work - context, connection and consciousness. They offer a context where we see things in a larger way. We see our weakness but also our strengths and lights. This allows us to see our struggles in convergence with our qualities and this meeting offers possibilities of resolution, hope and coping. They offer connection. Firstly to another person and through this other to the wider human experience. It's easy to believe when we have a problem that we are on our own. These spaces, in a sense, bring us back to the human family. Through context and connection the third element can take place.  Our consciousness can change. Our views of ourselves and the issues can start to alter and new ideas and visions can start to grow. These spaces then can be truly transformative, albeit, in a gentle and quiet way.

These spaces allow us to be our authentic self. The real us is a mixed bag of things wonderful and things not so great. That's the same for all us. The challenge is how we learn to accept this and work to make the good better and either make the less good what it should be or learn to accept it. This work of inner integration leads to what might be called wholeness, completeness or true self acceptance. Dr Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, wrote a book with a fascinating title,  'The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to be and Embrace Who You are'. If we let others define who we really are we will lose our real self. In these spaces the real us can start to live and breathe.

Sean had to touch his own vulnerability to see who he really was. Yet the vulnerability was not the final destination but a road to discover a new life and self. In work we can help create these spaces to be vulnerable but only if we become people of care and trust. An interesting paradox really - it's when we start to be what we really are that we can help others find themselves. There's  an old Latin phrase and legal rule - 'Nemodat quod non habet'. It means 'No one gives what he doesn't have'. We cannot give what we haven't got. It's only when we start to become what we want to see in others that we can be truly forces of transformation. Ultimately its transformed people who transform others and its only inspirational visionary people who give vision and inspiration to others. The great news is that we can all do this. We can all in very different ways and shapes be people of inspiration, vision and catalysts of change and recovery. The reason is simple. Just as we all have  vulnerabilities, we all have tremendous potential and gifts. It's the tapping and release of these that can change our world. 

Denis Jackson, Mental Health Chaplain, South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
John Walsh, York Street Health Practice


  1. Thank you for another thought provoking article with many phases that I want to remember, for example "it's only when we start to become what we want to see in others that we can be truly forces of transformation." I have the privilege of working with many asylum seeking and refugee women. They volunteer to befriend their peers and they are the most inspirational women I have ever met. As one said " I don't want other to suffer as I have suffered".They go out of their way to reach out and pull their peers up and this kindness is never forgotton and they do truly help people to find themselves. Best Wishes,
    Rose McCarthy

    1. Thanks Rose, what a privilege to work with those valiant women !

  2. Thanks Rose for your comment, I shall pass it on to Denis and John. Regards, Sarah (Communications Team)