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The Power & Strength of Vulnerability, Even in Illness

Just the thought of being vulnerable makes most people recoil. Open yourself  emotionally to the whims of others? No, thank you! But when you’re sick, you have no choice. You must rely on others to take care of you or the responsibilities you cannot deal with; you have to repeatedly reveal your deepest agonies to health care providers (who may not be understanding) and hope they’ll give you the treatment you need; you have to let others see you at your worst, when you have absolutely no strength to keep up airs.

The vulnerability inherent in illness feels like a weakness, when the truth is actually the exact opposite. Vulnerability is a sign of strength and courage, as well as a powerful tool that allows us to connect deeply to others and live wholeheartedly, according to the research of social work professor Dr. Brené Brown. Her TED talks provide an inspiring look at vulnerability and shame (another major emotional factor in chronic illness).

I highly recommend watching both. In The Power of Vulnerability, Brown discusses her research and personal aversion to vulnerability, as well as how important vulnerability is living fully. Listening to Shame addresses the power of vulnerability as well, but looks at the epidemic of shame in our culture and the difference between guilt and shame — an important distinction for those of us with chronic illness.

Brown’s talks aren’t proscriptive, but provide insight into the power and strength of vulnerability. Although I didn’t realize it, I’ve been applying the principles she discusses as I’ve become increasingly open about the true impact of chronic migraine on my life. In letting people see me when I was at my sickest, in reaching out for help when Hart and I were alone in a new city, in not hiding the magnitude of my pain or degree of disability from friends, my connections to others are so much deeper and richer than in all the years I tried desperately to pretend I wasn’t as sick as I am.

By trying to hide chronic migraine, I was putting a wall between myself and anyone who tried to connect with me. Because of my shame over being sick, I wasn’t living honestly or authentically. No one could know me, not even myself. It’s not coincidental that I lost my sense of identity at the same time I was attempting to be invulnerable.

Vulnerability is frightening for everyone. To be open about an illness that is heavily stigmatized and often dismissed as inconsequential or made up is even more terrifying. And, yet, Brené Brown’s research shows that being vulnerable is the key to living wholeheartedly and authentically. It is also a sign of tremendous strength. As she says in her talk on shame, “vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”

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