The Value of Vulnerability

By Concentric Counselor Christian Younginer, LPC, NCC

Life XXXV by Emily Dickinson

I CAN wade grief,

Whole pools of it,—

I ’m used to that.

But the least push of joy

Breaks up my feet,         5

And I tip—drunken.

Let no pebble smile,

’T was the new liquor,—

That was all!  

Power is only pain,         10

Stranded, through discipline,

Till weights will hang.

Give balm to giants,

And they ’ll wilt, like men.

Give Himmaleh,—         15

They ’ll carry him!

Emily Dickinson’s word choice in the first line sticks with me- she can “wade” grief. She can trudge through the thick, tarry mire of sadness, pain, loss, and sorrow. It really feels like that, doesn’t it? This viscous bog of grief, she’s “used to that”. It’s familiar for her. But joy is foreign. 

Although she can bear the pain of life, let life surprise her with joy and she will stumble, drunkenly. This voices a common human experience: Let something test our resolve, and we will meet that challenge. But let us be vulnerable, and we will dissolve.

It is easier to harden, than to soften. Give comfort and love to giants, and they will “wilt” into ordinary men, but ask them to carry mountains (‘Himmaleh’ is the archaic form of ‘the Himalayas’), and they will offer up themselves.

This brings us to the question of this post: How does a person allow themselves to be vulnerable, without wilting? How do they remain resilient when life gets hard, without hardening themselves?

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What is vulnerability?

The insightful Brené Brown defines vulnerability as both “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity”, but also as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” (Daring Greatly). So, our options are: recoil at the latter and tell ourselves we don’t need the former OR accept the latter because we accept that we need the former.

There were times in my life where I clung to the idea that ‘ I don’t need others’- to avoid feeling exposed. That idea eventually spoiled, and I was faced with the reality that I DO need others. While I was aware of the fact, I had not yet accepted it. It was not until I accepted that I need others that my journey towards understanding vulnerability began.

Being vulnerable feels like the difference between writing in the 3rd person and 1st person. It is keeping others at a distance, to avoid the pain of feeling exposed- of not being accepted. If you notice, I switched from using “they” and “them” to “I” and “we”. As I wrote, I noticed feeling exposed, but I also noticed feeling satisfied with my self-awareness and honesty. That is, I felt joy in sharing this part of myself so that it might be of help to someone. It is this ‘trade-off’ that I believe Brené Brown is describing. If we can be ok with feeling a little exposed, we can receive wonderful gifts of acceptance, approval, validation, and love.

The Alternative.

In my pursuit of understanding vulnerability, I came to a choice. Would I rather feel uncomfortable or alone? My choice to embrace vulnerability and accept the possible “emotional exposure”, speaks to not only my desire for connection with others, but to the horror of the alternative: feeling alone. Jumping from a burning building does not mean that jumping is not scary, rather the alternative is too horrifying to consider.

Resilience.

What I am suggesting almost seems oxymoronic: Become vulnerable to become stronger. Invulnerability is not a superpower. Unless Superman exists and no one told me. Rather, accepting that we need others is the true superpower. One powerful result of letting ourselves connect is resilience. That is, if we temper ourselves in the furnace of vulnerability, we become stronger than we were. This is possible due to what Brené Brown references as the gifts of vulnerability: love, belonging, joy, courage, and empathy. Having these in our arsenal make us stronger humans, less prone to burnout and emotional distress.

Let us learn to enjoy the intoxicating effects of joy and not let it cause us to stumble. Carry the mountain if asked, because you are strong enough to shoulder it. But also do not wilt at receiving comfort or help. If we accept that we not only need others for support, but also that they have gifts to offer us, we become stronger. More resilient to carry the mountains when we need to and more courageous to be vulnerable when we just can’t carry anything else. It is the courage and strength to say: “ I’m not ok right now. But I will be.”

Better Understanding Grief & Loss

By Concentric Counselor Jennifer Larson, LCPC, NCC

During the Spring of this year, I popped onto the Dear Abel and Sofi advice column for the first time and came across a story about a Firefighter’s struggle with grief & loss after he needed to leave the workforce due to injuries he sustained on the job. He was in the rebuilding stage and had recently turned his passion for woodworking into a small business that had been met with tireless effort and financial struggles. While this former firefighter shared his story and posed questions on the advice column, I could not help but see his intrinsic desire to connect with other people as he grieved and was rebuilding his life. Seeking connection, feedback, validation, and ideas from others was a part of this man’s grieving and recovery process.

Reading this story jogged my memory about a blog post I started in August 2018 (and didn’t finish) about grief & loss. At that time, I became re-enlightened about the additional types of grief & loss that exist, namely the loss of thoughtfully designed objects and structures in our country, and the unfortunate outcome this can have on social and human connectivity. I’ll touch upon that later in this blog post.

For many, grief & loss cannot exist without experiencing some form of connection with oneself or others, and rebuilding in the wake of grief & loss cannot exist without human connection. The firefighter's story made me think about my own grief & loss experiences felt during the earlier part of the year.  The flood of feelings and experiences that emerged from within me were great, and subsequently, I decided to really reach out to others.      

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During my grief & loss earlier this year, I allowed myself to feel and accept my grief by intentionally creating space and capacity to feel a myriad of feelings.  I also reached deep within to try to understand the messages, gifts, and lessons in my losses. Reaching out to family, friends, my therapist, and colleagues granted me the opportunity to take care of myself and to feel their heartfelt and unwavering support. The swell of feeling cared for, respected and supported by others was truly one of the best gifts I ever experienced.  Eventually, I felt myself naturally propelling forward by carrying my values with me and, yet, creating a semi-new reality ahead. My grieving process, particularly connecting with others, reminded me of the firefighter’s desire to connect with others through the advice column as he grieved and re-built his life.  

For some, grief & loss can be experienced as a harrowing crisis and this crisis can truly be fodder for future opportunities and growth. And, through my own experiences as well as listening to others’ experiences, I have come to truly appreciate that grief & loss comes in many forms and shapes.

Long gone are the days when we thought of grief & loss solely as one facing their own mortality due to a terminal illness or losing a loved one to death. These are most certainly some of the most difficult types of grief & loss people can face in a lifetime as it can bring about great pain and suffering. The loss of a loved one can stir up a deep emotional response, physical and behavioral changes. Other forms of losses can bring about up deep emotional, physical, and behavioral responses and changes as well.

Experiencing a significant life transition (such as entering into college or parenthood), a childhood robbed of important attachment figures or childhood experiences, the demise of an intimate relationship through betrayal & infidelity, and the loss of being connected with one’s feelings or reality by route of escaping into addiction, perpetual distraction or fantasy -- all of these examples fall under the umbrella of grief & loss. 

People who experience grief & loss can go through a number of stages, sometimes in sequential order, other times bouncing back-and-forth among the stages, and for some, remaining stuck in a stage or bypassing certain stages all together. There are a number of identifiable stages of grief listed, one of the more common models is Dr. Kubler-Ross’ modified 7 Stages of Grief & Loss. For brevity, here are those 7 Stages:

  1. Shock (Initial paralysis hearing the news)

  2. Denial (Trying to avoid the inevitable)

  3. Anger (Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion)

  4. Bargaining (seeking in vain to find a way out)

  5. Depression (Final realizations of the inevitable)

  6. Testing (seeking realistic solutions)

  7. Acceptance (Finally finding the way forward)

Having the understanding and knowledge of The 7 Stages of Grief & Loss can be instrumental in cultivating understanding which can eventually contribute towards facilitating growth and change. As I highlighted earlier, I believe interpersonal relationships -- connecting with others -- is also important to incorporate during the grief & loss process and survival.  Whether it’s with a trusted family member or friend, therapist, or your community can be healing as your experience and move through your grieving process and recovery. 

Being there for people by exercising empathy, attunement, and being fully present is critical as one heals.  Also, giving yourself permission to be vulnerable to express yourself with people you feel safe with creates a holding space for you and your experiences. Emotional and relational connection like these brings about a deeper understanding of one’s experiences which can then help promote compassion, transformation, healing, and recovery. The emotional-felt experience within a relational context is vital for healing and survival during grief & loss.

I am going to revisit something I referenced earlier in the blog, and I know it may seem like I am veering off (which I am) and going on a tangent, but this is an area I want to weave into the area on grief & loss.   

Around last summer, my mother-in-law remarked how the United States tends to tear down old buildings to make space for newer buildings to be built.  She conveyed her concern about our country undermining the inherent value, respect of others, its history and imprint, and ultimately the loss of felt social and human connection by tearing down old buildings. The decimation of older structures and the lack of integrating new and old buildings together equates with grief & loss for the people of this country.  This was the message I heard, and it struck me.   

The following day after my mother-in-law shared her perspective, I had read "He Knows What You Really Need" article in Psychology Today which highlights Glenn Adamson's perspective on the value of knowing how objects or things are made or cultivated. The article revealed Adamson's book, "Fewer, Better Things"  which highlights the act of purchasing or collecting mass-produced items can water-down the value and connection between consumers (people) and goods. Glenn believes diving deeper into learning more about the maker and the making process promotes greater understanding and respect for the maker and object, and overall promotes social and emotional connectivity.  Mass produced items create a lack of human connection - loss, in other words. Experiencing an artisan’s creative piece awakens our senses and taps into an emotional and human connection with its maker.

And then the following night back in August 2018 (yes, I’m serious about these sequential events), I found myself seeing these same themes emerge in the then new show, "Making It" hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. The show is about bringing master craftspeople and artisans together to compete in a friendly and fun environment.  During the crafters' introductions, one of the makers remarked that crafting in today's culture has dwindled down as people expend more time and energy on their phones. Crafting with others creates memories, she added.  Memories filled with emotional and social connections. 

The idea is that thoughtfully-designed, emotionally and physically labored crafts, objects, and buildings promote greater human connectivity. Eliminating them only promotes greater relational loss. I really started to sit with the idea of how the loss of certain physical objects or structures impact us psychologically, relationally, and culturally, and what this could mean for us and perhaps, for human evolution.

Of course, facing a terminal illness or experiencing the loss of a loved one pales in comparison to the loss of not knowing the maker of a vase on your dining room table. I am not making the comparison that both are similar in terms of its impact when it comes to grieving.  But, I do think it’s worth acknowledging that grief & loss comes in many different shapes and forms. It’s not black-and-white.

So, here are my hopes. My hope is we can continue to acknowledge, better understand and define the various forms of grief & loss that touch people in various ways both intimately and globally. That we can all take a leap by vulnerably reaching out to others for support during our own grieving journey. We can be truly available and present to those who are grieving. We can take a moment to think about preventing unnecessary losses. And, we can appreciate the preservation of human connection, particularly in the wake of grief & loss. Because human connection is truly a powerful thing, take it from me.      



Finding Balance Between Healthy and Unhealthy Anxiety

By Concentric Counselor Charles Weiss, LPC

There are 10 seconds left of the clock in the state championship game and your team is down by 2 points.  You have the ball and the fate of the team is in your hands on what will you do next, either pass or take the game winning shot.  Sweat is protruding down your face, your heart is beating a thousand miles a hour, your mind is racing with a million and one different case scenarios on what you should do and then your anxiety starts to take over.  However, you realized that your anxiety has allowed you to think quicker on your feet and make better decisions, because you don’t let it control and consume you.  3, 2, 1 and throw up a prayer of shot from about 35 feet away from the basket, knowing that being vulnerable to your anxiety, you can live with the consequences…  Swish!  Game over and you have just won the state championship for your team.

Anxiety… What is it and what does to mean to us when it begins to take control; do we let it control our consciousness or embrace it as an opportunity of growth and self-discovery?  According to dictionary.com, anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

When outcomes are uncertain to us in which we want to control, but can’t, anxiety can consume our every decision, thought and feeling.  It leads to panic, fear and vulnerability to the unknown, having us over-analyze every decision we make, postulating those “what if” scenarios.  Anxiety can so debilitating to someone when it’s severe and impacts our day-to-day activities.  Plain and simple, anxiety can suck!  Nobody wants to constantly live a life of panic, fear, worry and dread, wondering all the time, “What if?” When you let anxiety take control and inhibit your ability to just be “you”, it becomes unhealthy.

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Is there a way to gain back that control over anxiety before it begins to consume us, crippling our sense of self and being vulnerable to “What if…?”  Anxiety is your body’s indication that something isn’t right, like a built-in warning system indicating that your homeostasis might be out of balance.  When we listen to our body as it talks to us and yes, our body does speak to us, you can begin to prepare and embrace for its impact and figure out how to manage it. Certain symptoms to be mindful of that can alert us when something “isn’t right” and anxiety begins to manifest itself within us, are the following:

·        Racing thoughts

·        Irritability

·        Headaches

·        Nausea/upset stomach

·        Disturbed sleep

·        Muscle tension/tightness

·        Shortness of breath

·        Mind going blank

·        Difficulty concentrating/focusing

·        Fatigued

·        Palpitations

When we are able to listen to these symptoms we experience, then we can to things to keep these symptoms in check before they exacerbate. Taking the time to do a body scan, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness exercises, progressive muscle relaxation techniques can all help keep the heightened level of anxiety at bay.

Can anxiety be healthy?

Anxiety can also be a way to motivate yourself to reach your goals and achievements that you have established.  It can better help prepare yourself to face as well as overcome challenges. When we approach anxiety as a hindrance, it can become unhealthy. You can instead capitalize on it as more of a way to inspire your self-growth and to live a more authentic life.  According to Katharina Star, Ph.D., anxiety is another way people can be more empathetic towards other people’s issues and concerns, and help with how they interact with others. She also stated that individuals who struggle with anxiety are often more cautious thinkers, problem solvers and decision makers because they are often building-in “back-up plans” for when things go wrong. 

Bottom line, anxiety isn’t always bad and unhealthy when individuals experience it, it can be a way people thrive if they are able to recognize it, understand it, and know how to cope and properly channel the healthy aspects of it. People can still live fully authentic lives when experiencing anxiety, it’s when it takes control and we begin to panic, that derails aspects of our lives.

If you are experiencing at least 3 symptoms of anxiety, that have been affecting your ability to function on a day-to-day basis in a variety of settings (i.e.: school, work, home) and those symptoms have been occurring for at least 6 months in which you find it very difficult to control that worry and anxiety, please contact your local mental health provider and schedule an appointment with a professional who can help you learn how to regain control over your anxiety and transform it into a healthier form of anxiety for you.