If you ever need anyone to give you a pep talk on being a good human, check out Brene Brown. In her talk on vulnerability Brene Brown recognizes that life is difficult, and in response ‘we armour up and we say ‘i do not want to be vulnerable’. Instead, we choose defensiveness. But we don’t always realize that while we are busy defending against the tough stuff, we are getting in the way of some of our really remarkable human potential. ‘In a culture where people are afraid to be vulnerable, there is no empathy.’ No vulnerability, no creativity or innovation.
Defensiveness is a natural response to fear, to the unknown, to shame, and to convenience. Fear, the unknown and shame are all associated with potential harm that could come to us. Of course we want to defend ourselves against them. Throughout history, we have had to defend ourselves against predators, natural disasters, or cultural values and beliefs we didn’t fit into [ think of the shame that was experienced around divorce, single parenthood, mental illness ]. We defend convenience as a cultural norm. The status quo isn’t real; it’s re-established every day each time we live up to it, remaining status quo because we keep doing it. And living within convenience, within the status quo, brings us comfort that we don’t want to risk losing.
At this point in history, we have fewer predators, we have science and history and biology to explain the unknown, we have rights to protect us when we don’t fit. Vulnerability isn’t as physically dangerous anymore. But we keep defending because vulnerability is emotionally risky – it requires us to confront the afraid and unknowing parts of ourselves.
When you ask people why they haven‘t chosen more environmentally friendly ways of living, they usually respond with defensiveness.
- People are afraid that environmentally friendly means dirty and no fun.
- They don’t know how they will feel if they move forward consuming less.
- They fear moving backward instead of forward as we strip away the convenience of electricity, transportation and gadgets.
- Or they impulsively defend our current economy because they don’t want to face the shame that would come if they were open to being accountable for the environmental destruction of capitalism.
*But what if it’s awesome?
Vulnerability isn’t what it sounds like. It’s strength. It’s stepping into fear, the unknown, sitting in shame, walking away from convenience, and allowing ourselves to grow through the difficulty we’ve chosen to sit with. Because the easy way isn’t always the right way.
But even more, empathy is just as natural as defensiveness. We just tend to enjoy our defensiveness more. Defensiveness encourages us to carry on as we are while empathy requires us to look at someone who is hurting, something that is damaged, and remember a time we were damaged and hurting so we can feel it ourselves. Once we can recognize the feeling of being hurt and damaged, we can help others through it.
Humans are hard wired for empathy. Have you ever noticed that you can’t look at a smiling baby without smiling? Or watch a baby cry without trying to soothe it? That’s being human. That’s being an empathy machine. When we are responsible for the wellness of another, we feel well ourselves. And when we have responsibility for the hurting and damage, empathy requires us to fix it.
Pollution, over-consumption and waste are all examples of environmental hurt and damage that we own. When we use our defensiveness, we don’t see it. Or we see it and keep going. When we use our vulnerability and empathy, we recognize what we’ve done. And what we can do. We internalize a desire to help. We become innovative and creative and implement solutions for change.