Why Being Vulnerable is Good for Your Health
Jody Stanislaw, ND
You are not perfect. Nor am I. But guess what? Nobody is. It doesn’t matter what letters we have after our name. We are all human.
Humans make mistakes. Humans get sad. Humans get mad. Humans feel insecure. Humans doubt themselves at times. These experiences are part of being human. No one is immune from them. Nobody.
So, why is there so much pressure in our society to be almost super-human? To not make a mistake? To look forever youthful? To look like we have it all together? To be rich and ‘successful’? To be healthy and happy, everyday?
I get exhausted just thinking about all that pressure.
Another part of being human is having a deep desire for love and connection. To feel like we belong and are accepted just as we are, flaws and all.
Feeling connected to others…be it our family, our friends, coworkers, or like-minded groups…is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Neurobiologically, when we feel connection, love, and acceptance, our bodies are healthier. Cortisol decreases. Blood pressure drops. The ‘feel good’ hormones are released. Thus, feeling connected is a key ‘nutrient’ for health and well-being.
Our hunger for connection, then, is very similar to our hunger for food…both are key nutrients needed to support life. But you can’t just pay $3.99 for a box of ‘connection’ at the grocery store. That fact…the availability of connection, or lack thereof…can feel kind of scary at times.
The opposite of connection is shame. At the core of shame is the fear of disconnection. The associated thought is, “Is there something about me that if others knew about or could see would make me unworthy of connection?”
To one degree or another, there is not a single human on this planet that has not had this thought. Shame is a universal human experience. The less comfortable someone is talking about it, the more they have it.
Given how important the feeling of connection is to our health and well-being, this fear is understandable. Yet to deal with our fear of disconnection, we bend over backwards trying to keep up with society’s definition of what is deemed ‘acceptable.’ (No wonder why there is so much back pain today.)
Imagine a stunningly beautiful person who is incredibly wealthy, famous, blissfully in love, and always presents him- or herself as the picture of perfect health. How easy would it be to be friends with this person?
Therein lies the problem: ‘having it all together’ actually pushes people away. Society pressures us to feel like we should always have all our ducks in a row. Yet, feeling connected and loved are key ingredients for good health…and the only way to do this is by being willing to let our true selves be seen.
Yep, that’s right. We need to be vulnerable because being vulnerable is good for our health.
The two are directly correlated. The more willing we are to let our real selves be seen, the more love and connection we are able to feel. So how do we deal with vulnerability as a society today? Well, not very well.
One of the most common ways is to numb it…through alcohol, excess food, shopping, and/or taking prescription medications or other drugs. We are the most addicted, obese, in-debt, and over-medicated adult cohort in American history.
Politicians numb themselves by not having conversations and instead throwing blame back and forth. Corporations numb themselves by ignoring the fact that their actions can have a wide-reaching, negative impact on the world. Parents numb themselves by perfecting their children. Adults numb themselves by taking fat from their rear end and sticking it into their cheeks.
The problem is that we cannot selectively numb emotions. “I don’t want to feel vulnerable so I’m going to have a few beers and a chocolate chip cookie to make myself feel better.” This actually doesn’t work. When we numb negative emotions, we also numb joy, happiness, and feelings of love and connection. Avoidance of vulnerability is a key contributor to the unhappiness and disease rampant in society today, including that which, as healthcare providers, we likely see in our offices on a regular basis.
The first time the direct correlation between my willingness to be vulnerable and my experience of love and acceptance became vividly clear to me was when I was an inpatient at a 30-day eating disorder rehab center in my early 20s. Upon arrival, I was not happy about being there, to say the least (because as healthcare professionals, we certainly know that needing treatment and wanting treatment are two entirely different matters). I stomped around the place like an angry, captured, wild animal growling at anyone who attempted to talk to me.
It took me a few days to surrender my fury, but eventually I accepted that I was right where I needed to be. Once my personal storm cloud of rage had dissipated, an immense amount of shame came over me.
Shame about how rude I had to been, not only to the staff, but also to the other women suffering with the same issues as I. It was hard for me to look at anyone in the eye because I felt so badly about myself and assumed everyone probably hated me. I imagined everyone thinking, “There’s that angry girl. Stay away from her!”
I decided one night after dinner to stand up and apologize to everyone for having been so rude. The motivation came solely out of needing to absolve myself of the piercing shame I was feeling in my chest. I certainly didn’t have the expectation that anyone would care to think better of me or want to be friendly to me…but that is exactly what happened.
As I stood there sheepishly apologizing and nakedly baring my humanness, the room of women began to smile at me. Much to my surprise, several women came up afterward to give me a hug and say how happy they were that I had finally let go of my resistance and anger and had opened up to the healing that was now possible for me. Another one just laughed and told me how she had acted in the exact same manner upon arriving and was proud of me for having let go of my anger faster than she had.
There I was admitting my absolutely flawed humanness, and all I received was love. It is a day I will never forget.
Vulnerability may be at the core of our shame, fear, and struggle for worthiness…but it is also the birthplace for being able to feel joy, creativity, belonging, for enjoying good health, and experiencing love.
So what is the solution for dealing with vulnerability? Studies have shown that those that have a strong sense of love and belonging are those that simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging, as well as regularly being courageous.
The word ‘courage’ comes from the Latin root word ‘cor,’ which means heart. The original definition of courage was: to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.
This meaning can be expanded into… having the courage to be imperfect, having the compassion to be kind to ourselves and others, to be willing to be true to who we are and let go of who we ‘think’ we should be, to fully embrace vulnerability as a natural part of being human and not something to hide, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, to say I love you first, to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out, to be willing to breathe through the waiting period after a cancer screening…
Thus the ‘treatment plan’ I recommend we employ with our patients, as well as to ourselves…is to avoid the epidemic of ‘numbing out’ to vulnerability and the resulting health issues that come with it…is to let ourselves be seen deeply and fully, to love with our whole heart even when there is no guarantee, to practice gratitude and joy, especially in moments of fear and doubt, to know that being vulnerable is a necessary part of being human, and to know that we are enough exactly as we are, which allows us to be kinder to ourselves and those around us.
Furthermore, when you take on the courage of being vulnerable, you allow others to feel more comfortable with being vulnerable, themselves. In our role as health care providers, we may think we especially need to make sure we have it all together in order for our patients to feel confident in our care. Of course, we can’t make careless mistakes, but there is no accident in the phrase, “we are practicing medicine.”
By being willing to say to a patient, “I don’t know…I will need to look that up and get back to you,” actually shows them how much you care. There have been several times where, after a patient has walked out my door, I realized there was something I wanted to change about the treatment plan I had just designed for them. In this case, I do not hesitate to contact them right away to explain how, after putting extra thought into what was best for their care and conferring with a colleague, I had changed my mind.
In closing, embrace your humanness today. If you’re feeling like you are trying to hold it all together, allow yourself to let your guard down. Ask for help. Call a friend. Take a break in your day to just breathe for a few minutes. Remember, it’s okay to be vulnerable. Actually, it’s good for your health.
Dr. Jody Stanislaw, N.D., graduated from Bastyr University in 2007. She works with patients located anywhere around the country over phone/Skype, using natural means to treat today’s most common ailments. Her focus on the mind-body connection, as well as the importance of lifestyle as medicine, is present in every appointment. In her very popular Lifestyle Transformation program, patients receive private weekly calls over a 3-month period, resulting in dramatic improvements in overall health and well-being. Living with type 1 diabetes since the age of 7, she also specializes in treating diabetes. To learn more about working with her to co-manage any of your patients, please send an email to DrJody@DrJodyND.com or via the ‘contact’ tab on www.DrJodyND.com