I have spent the past few days exploring an idea presented in the introduction to Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. Brown relays her conversation with her therapist, Diane, who asked her what she does when she feels vulnerable. Brown’s response is that she will:
“Clean the house. Eat peanut butter. Blame people. Make everything around me perfect. Control whatever I can – whatever’s not nailed down.” (p.6)
Hmmm. This sounds oddly familiar. How much do I, too, react to feeling vulnerable by attempting to tighten my control over things, to distill a messy situation into certainties I can control, predict, and know?
First, I need to define what I think “vulnerable” means. Brown says is it the “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (p. 2) that we all face in our lives. Since vulnerability is uncomfortable, we try to protect ourselves from it – the more we tend think we must protect against it, the more that reflects how much we live in fear and disconnected to others. This sounds so similar to the concept of ego that I was first introduced to in Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, and that I have learned more about through readings in Eastern thought and Buddhism. So I see vulnerability as the vulnerability of our ego, and I see how much we try to protect ourselves as a reflection of how strongly we identify with our egos.
So, back to my question. How much do I, when I feel my ego being under fire, react by attempting to tighten my control over things, to control, to predict, and to know? And, if I do, what does this mean about how much I identify with my ego and how much work I have to do?
Let’s look at the evidence.
Exhibit A: I felt vulnerable when faced with chronic digestive issues. My ego did not like the uncertainty and the possible dietary implications, especially when eating in social settings. I responded by purchasing multiple books and iPhone apps and spending hours poring over websites about using diet to control and prevent IBS-like symptoms. When control and certainty both proved utterly elusive, this caused me terrible frustration and led to even more fanatical obsession with finding a silver bullet (no wheat? no grain at all? no sugar? probiotics? no dairy? grazing instead of large meals? no coffee?). Add on the sobering realization that all this frustration, obsession, and anxiety probably has a lot to do with how my digestive system is working in the first place.
Exhibit B. I feel vulnerable when visiting family members who have a lot more material wealth and disposable income than I do. My ego does not like feeling like my lifestyle is not up to par with others, or at least that they might not think so. I respond with irritation and stubborn unwillingness to participate when the conversation turns to about home improvements and expensive handbags and designer children’s clothing. I respond by feeling more resentment than gratitude for their generous gifts beside which mine seem mere tokens (not so proud of this!). I respond by coming home and wanting to go uber-minimalist in my lifestyle as a rebellion.
Exhibit C. I feel vulnerable when in a room of people I don’t well and I am unsure how to strike up conversations. My ego does not like the riskiness of trying to connect and possibly failing. I respond by clinging to my self-imposed label of “introvert” and sticking to the safe and predictable: talking to people I know well, getting snacks, pulling out something to busy myself with. (Yes, this means I miss a lot of opportunities for connection with others…)
Exhibit D. I feel vulnerable about laying all this stuff out where anyone can read it. My ego asks, “Why am I not just doing this in a private diary? Why online?” It does not like the idea that I might blow my cover and people might see that I am human (surprise, surprise). I might respond by eventually deleting all these posts and pretending they never happened and hoping no one read them.
Not surprisingly, it looks like I respond in a very, very human way to vulnerability. I don’t think I am the most disconnected and fearful person out there, but I have been aware (more so at some times than at others) of my ego and the fact that when it feels threatened…well, that’s when I am not at my best to say the least. I’m excited to start looking at this ego issue through Brown’s lens of vulnerability…it’s a slightly different angle, and perhaps one that might help me in my journey to let go.