“Our brains are prediction machines. We are constantly scanning our environment for clues about what will happening next. Fear is our built-in alarm system; it turns on when we think our survival is threatened. It doesn’t matter if the alarm is real or false.” Gloria Green
We all fear of death. From the moment we are born, we want to survive. But it manifests differently in different people. Based on the culmination of the causes and conditions in our past, fear may manifest as physical safety, “Am I going to get hit by a bus?” Or social safety, “Are people going to take care of me, do I belong?”
Safety is always about the future. I am safe now in this moment. But is the next moment going to be safe. Safety is about prediction and our brains are prediction machines. We are constantly scanning our environment for clues about what will happening next. We are asking compulsively is this OK, am I OK?
Fear is our built-in alarm system; it turns on when we think our survival is threatened. Whether we fear pain, losing connection with loved ones, not being good enough, difficult conversations or a loved one’s safety, the alarm goes off in our brain’s amygdala. Whether it is real or a false alarm, it triggers an automatic response. Instead of pausing to think before responding; we react. When we are not aware of fears’ workings, it is an unconscious driving force in our lives. This gives it great power over us and can prevent us from connecting and living life.
We all experience the fear, isolation, even shame that is commonly associated with feeling vulnerable. Is there anyone here who has never experienced that fear? Look around, you are in good company. We often think we are the only ones who feel vulnerability. We don’t talk about it because we perceive vulnerability in us as a weakness. Funny that we view it as a strength when we see if in others.
We feel the need to put up defenses. We think the defenses protect us from our feelings and the reactions that life is going to trigger in us. But if this avoidance strategy worked, then the natural reactions that we instinctively resort to, would result in security, happiness, and comfort. But our efforts to stay safe, sometimes create suffering. Our instinctive reactions weaken us. They make the world more terrifying. They put us on the hamster wheel of reactivity.
The fear of vulnerability hooks us. We get stuck. If we are mindful, we may feel a tightening or tensing of our body. We feel ourselves closing down or withdrawing. We don’t want to be where we are. If we don’t catch it soon enough, we climb on the hamster wheel of reactivity. We get hooked into negative emotions like anger, jealousy, blame, or shame. These feelings lead to words or actions that end up poisoning us.
Shame has been my biggest fear. People may see that I am not good enough and then they won’t like me. I was an extremely shy child. Just as I was coming out of my shell in seventh grade, my best friend told me I did not fit in with the group anymore. When I arrived home sobbing, my sister told me to go upstairs and wash my face so mom would not know I was crying. I did as she advised and brushed the experience under the carpet. Leaving the experience in the dark and in silence allowed shame to grow. Shame only grows in the dark and silence. And shame increases our feeling of vulnerability. I was so ashamed, that in 50 years, I only told two people about this rejection experience. The shame increased my vulnerability as I felt that I had a fatal flow that would make people not like me. That fear of rejection made me tend to close up when meeting new people.
We think that we protect ourselves when we hide our vulnerability. But unless we are willing to open ourselves to risks and being hurt, we are closing ourselves to love, joy and friendship. It is scary to open to the life that is here, so we tense against it. Deep down, we are afraid of embarrassing ourselves or not looking good. So, we cover our vulnerability with layers of armor. For me the armor was being a know-it-all and a do-it-all. I kept myself too busy to develop close friendships. I honestly believed that I did not have time to stand around chatting with co-workers, I had work to do.
I wanted to avoid the feeling of fear, so I built barriers and defenses, closing myself off from experiences where fear might arise. I deluded myself into thinking my defenses kept me safe. My defenses backfired. I thought people would like me if I knew everything and did everything. However, this made people feel stupid and useless, burned me out by having so much to do, and ensured that I would not take the time make close friends at work.
We try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure, and it’s also what makes us afraid.
“We act like timid birds who don’t dare to leave the nest. We sit in a nest that’s getting pretty smelly and that hasn’t served its function for a very long time. No one is arriving to feed us. No one is protecting us and keeping us warm. And yet we keep hoping mother bird will arrive. We could do ourselves the ultimate favor and finally get out of that nest. That this takes courage is obvious. That we could use some helpful hints is also clear.” Pema Chodron
I sat in that nest since 1968. For 50 years I held friends at arms-length, not letting them get too close, and definitely not sharing my awful secret of being rejected. I closed myself to close friendships as it was too scary to risk being rejected. By looking deeply at the experience, and holding myself with compassion, I realized that this rejection did not mean I was flawed. Thus, I had the courage to get out of the nest and tell my high school friends the story of my rejection. It is amazing how giving voice to our shame and shining the light of awareness on it reduces its power over us. I found my friends to be very compassionate. And that many of them had stories of their own. I was not the only one who was ever rejected. I was not flawed; I was just human. This clear seeing gives me the courage to live with a less defended heart.
Letting ourselves feel our emotions is one of the most courageous things we can do. It is vulnerable to feel even joy.
“Emotions won’t kill you but not feeling them will. Our fear of emotion can absolutely kill us. Pain won’t kill us but numbing pain kills people every single day. We’re the most obese, in debt, medicated, workaholic, addicted adults in human history. Pain won’t kill you, numbing pain kills people every minute of every day.” Pema Chodron
There is a feeling of freedom that comes when we stop using our energy to appear a certain way and just let our naturalness be there. Instead of using our energy to keep up our mask, we can use it to be present for ourselves and for others. This allows us to feel the peace that being in the present moment can bring. It also opens us to others fulfilling our need for belonging that is underneath the fear of rejection.
To live with an undefended heart, we need to be in a wise relationship with vulnerability. We don’t put ourselves down for being defensive. Our defenses made sense at some stages of our development, and thus they became a habit. But right now, they may not be so useful. We learn that defended isn’t safe. We may put our armor up to feel safe. But inside we still have the fear that if I was not defended, I would be in trouble. It is hard to take off our armor because then you’re left in a very uncomfortable place.
“You’ve been doing the same predictable thing to get away from that uneasy, uncomfortable, vulnerable feeling for so long, and now you’re not. So, you’re left with that queasy feeling. This requires some getting used to and some ability to practice kindness and patience. It requires some openness and curiosity to see what happens next. What happens when you don’t fuel the discomfort with a storyline? What happens when you abide with this shifting, fluid, universal energy? What happens if you pause and embrace the natural movement of life?” Pema Chodron
Next session we will talk about how to respond to vulnerability with loving and curious presence.