I Thought I Was Failing at Vulnerability, Until…

I’d been stuck in my emotional basement for several days, feeling less than. Although I have a great deal to offer on the topic of vulnerability, my experience was that the charismatic presence of Brene Brown, now on Netflix, had cut my wings. First I had been avoidant, kind of scared of watching. It was a feeling I didn’t like and I didn’t like following my own advice either, which was to slow down and let the feelings be and then move.

Her phrase “daring greatly” as in having the courage to “lead with vulnerability” is one she took from Theodore Roosevelt, commonly known as “The Man in the Arena”. If you go down as in fall down, if you don’t win and often you won’t, at least put yourself out there in life, let yourself be vulnerable, dare greatly in so doing. That is what Brene champions. It rang hollow for me as in too smooth, it rang glib and too easy and way too simplistic. The Ted Talk audience loved her in what seemed an unconditional almost worshipping way. It provoked, not doubt in me at least a sense of failure in not being good at what seemed, coming from Brown, to be so clear-cut and direct.

I didn’t want to hate her; that was not the point and I didn’t want her to be the point. I just wanted to feel in touch with the integrity of my way of seeing and of being, and get through the onslaught of what both she and I might call a shame attack.

I was pluck in the middle of my own basements, a term I use for the lower levels of messiness, chaos, lack of clarity, impulsivity and the like. She, to me was coming from the ceilings, by which I mean the clouds, the upper crust of language and smooth appearance. My take had been for some time that much of the advice we get and sometimes give comes from the ceilings, the fancier places where things are made to seem both sophisticated and authoritative.

Being a kind of basement oriented therapist, writer and person, I had been working on an idea I was calling “vulnerability protected”. By this I meant that vulnerability in and of itself is not necessarily a form of courage, but that first it needs protection and safety in order to be a gateway to courage. I saw vulnerability as often very messy, not at all or certainly not always poetic. But if we are intimidated by advice that comes from the ceilings and seems grounded in absolute wisdom, we may be prone to play the part, to act the role of courage and of daring and to use the language that has been assigned us by what are either celebrities or experts or both.

Fortunately at a certain point in a humiliation cycle (we can call it trauma as well, it’s the same to me) I don’t tend to be addicted to humiliation. In fact at a certain point anger arises within me, towards either external or internalized forces that are squashing me and pushing me towards fakeness or judging me for the lack of it. Some five years ago during my course of chemotherapy for breast cancer, I encountered a good deal of optimism, which rubbed me the wrong way. At first I felt inadequate and ungrateful and then I contacted my anger for being pushed to be grateful when I was not, to be cheerful when it was the last thing available. I got pissed off, and blogged about it in Huffington Post in a piece I called “Cancer Comedy”. I also realized that many witnesses need an ill person to assure them, and that some optimism is a kind of forced and fake positivity.

In a sort of similar experience, I began to feel in touch with my anger at forces that would push me or anyone else to see vulnerability in any one way, and to “do it” in any one way either. I’m not sure that this was daring greatly. It was, in any case, my budding determination to own what I have learned and what I know, about myself and about others. I remembered, if you will, that I, and many people I know (friends and patients), have histories of trauma that make following even good advice a slippery slope. And as we can get depressed about being depressed, we can feel vulnerable about feeling vulnerable or even about not feeling or acting vulnerable in the “right” way. We may need more time; we may need to locate where we, and others near us, are stuck. We may need to be found, whether by a friend or a guide or a therapist, or by ourselves. Most of all, we may need help to turn our assumptions about conforming to the status quo of any given time, on their head, something also much easier said than done.

There is a path to be found for the people who don’t fit right in to the trends that become massively popular and at times consuming. Are you mindful enough; do you meditate well and often enough; did you avoid being a “helicopter parent” without allowing your child to be bullied or ouch—worse—to bully? And then of course comes the question, “Did you “dare greatly today”? Are you current on all the social media at our command or the social media that seems often to be commanding us?

To me vulnerability in and of itself isn’t courageous: it is raw and it is weak. In Merriam Webster’s list of words related to vulnerability include: Uncoveredundefendedunguardedunprotectedunscreenedunsecured. To be vulnerable is to feel or to be weak, and a question here is: What’s wrong with weakness, with admitting weakness and isn’t admitting weakness a form of strength?

My point is that vulnerability does not equal strength in and of it but can become strength when it is protected. In fact it can become part of the road to becoming stronger if we can admit when we are too vulnerable to dare greatly and need help where we are stuck. And that is when sometimes we are in the muck of not knowing how we are feeling and in the shame that comes to us when we are stuck and feel we shouldn’t be.

#Brene Brown


#Pressure to do Vulnerability “right”





Vulnerability Protected



In the blogs that follow I would like to develop a concept that I feel is in need of attention. It involves the subject of vulnerability. Namely it involves the notion that has become very popular in some circles that the show of vulnerability can equal courage. And the notion has included that failure to be vulnerable can be a serious defect.

One aspect of this thinking is that there are some people who feel bullied by what feels like an edict to show vulnerability without fear. What can be overlooked here is that such advice can be intimidating to some since it can be experienced as a request or a demand to produce openness more quickly and completely than a person may be ready for. One thing to consider when this happens with frequency, is that it is as if needing a slower or different pace is taken to mean that the person in question risks being shunned or ridiculed or tending to hide in shame.

For some time now I have focused on the essence of vulnerability as including emotional nakedness, helplessness and susceptibility to danger. In fact, in Oxford Dictionaries online, vulnerability is defined as: “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally”. In my writing I discuss the concept of ceilings versus basements. By this I mean that much advice comes to us from the clouds, the ceilings where things sound fancy but are also made to seem easy to follow. On the contrary many of us spend much time in the basements, where we stumble and fall, where we freeze up– where we feel more raw, more messy, more chaotic.

In the absence of people we can go to, to confide our deepest doubts, especially those doubts that can unhinge us, we risk living in shame or we try to measure up by faking more comfort than we have.

There is a man in my therapy practice whose wife has lately been badgering him about his reluctance to be vulnerable with her. She is upset that he doesn’t show much affection, doesn’t say he loves her, and is reluctant to open conversations that involve emotions.

Even though this can be a serious lack in a marriage, Charlie has felt bombarded by Tina’s frequent criticisms and what comes across as scolding. The emphasis in this example is to point out that the demand for vulnerability on Charlie’s part comes through a hostile and assaultive one. And unless there is room to discuss this piece, there is little hope for a more dignified and respectful exchange.

Of course there are layers and complexities here, but what is striking is that Charlie is immersed in shame for being incapable of what he feels Tina and the culture at large expect from him. He experiences his fears as a sign of his own failure. He feels at times like a deer in the headlights, not realizing that his fears are filled with meaning and validity: if he skips over them there will be no intimacy here or Charlie’s comfort in his own skin.

Vulnerability protected has to do with not assuming that becoming emotionally naked is always a wise or true thing. It is about helping us—not sound authentic—but be authentic on the inside so we can devise ways of protecting ourselves as we expose perhaps the upper layer of our skin so to speak.

We will be called on to navigate, not only our own vulnerability but also the needs and expectations of those around us. The blogs that follow will pursue some of the nuances of vulnerability, its protection, and increasing safety in its wake.


Stay tuned and feel free to share your stories, at dancingintomaybe@gmail.com. Please tell me if you would like them to be printed here as well.


Best, Carol


The Human Climate: Facing the Divisions Inside Us and Between Us is available on www.amazon.com







Emotional Literacy in a Leader: A **Charrette, Anyone?

** A charrette: “A public meeting or workshop devoted to a concerted effort to solve a problem or plan the design of something.”

**Oxford Living Dictionaries

Yes, I am referring to politics, and you may have guessed I’m referring to the Democrats. That’s because I am one, if often reluctantly. I say the last because just about everywhere I look there seems to be expediency and opportunism put before loyalty to a real sense of integrity.

As I see it, we in America need leadership to help us in cultivating the motivation and capacity to empathize with others often different than us, by learning their back-story as one avenue. We need tools to listen and to take those different than us seriously—something that for these times seems rather foreign. We need someone who can help us grow in terms of our own emotional literacy—knowing our emotions so we can integrate and tame them and so they don’t overwhelm us and cancel our capacity to think.

By emotional literacy in a leader, here a President, I mean someone with capabilities in the realm of understanding also how emotions trump (the word just works) facts. I suggest that someone worthy of being a real leader of the US be someone who can help the rest of us get in touch with the fears, as one example, that can crush any hope of change or provoke a desperate need to follow the lead of someone who has little appetite for equalizing the realms of social and economic justice, as one example. I mean to suggest that a true leader for our times could help us by leading a campaign to have psychology and the information it has available, become accessible not only to big corporations and political movements but to the rest of us so we don’t have to constantly be manipulated and frequently manipulated into fear.

Integrity, then, might mean that a person/candidate would care more about the country and its people than about getting elected. I know that this might even seem extreme if not just ridiculous, because the candidates with integrity would conceivably feel compelled to interrupt their own narcissism, never a very popular pastime. They would instead help the public get to know who they are and what they stand for. And they would have to listen to constituents and even those who live among us and cannot vote.

I get several requests for support, political and financial from a few candidates every day. Am I with them? Will I promise my vote and my donations? “We” can beat “them” and we are already dividing into teams, while I for one am not sure about any of them, and am not sure if any of them have this emotional literacy and intention of helping people instead of elevating themselves.

Those candidates that do have any integrity will talk amongst themselves and see what they can do as a group to work together to give the American people an alternative. This would be an alternative to what many of us see as the rampaging and boundless lack of self-discipline of our current President. Before you know it the number of candidates will become obscene, not because diversity is a bad thing, but because demeaning and attacking the other candidates or ignoring them completely, will most likely for many of us provoke a lack of respect for any and all of them. That is, if we don’t get suckered in to feeling pushed into premature allegiances and team sport mentality.

You may think it’s silly, or naïve perhaps to talk about emotional literacy in a Presidential candidate. But unless he/she realizes how there are forces that prey upon us constantly to seduce us to buy their products and religions and votes as well, the candidates will not even know us enough to help us.

One arena in which we need help is in realizing for the first time or again, that to run a country we need to compromise. We need means for—not merely debating and debunking—but speaking in ways that make for civil conversations in which the purpose is communication, not denigration.

A movie that I just about beg you to see is “Best of Enemies”. It brings home the power of a structure designed with the sincere motivation of helping people hear each other out. This promotes empathy, learning, and sometimes the changing of minds. This is a beautiful thing, the changing of our mind, when we have the freedom and flexibility to be moved by points and people in ways that are genuine and not manipulative.

The film takes place in North Carolina in 1971 and tells the story of an integration battle in which a mediator was called in, a black man no less called in by a white man. What seems like an impossible stalemate is interrupted by the hard work, stubborn yet feeling people who allow new ideas and realities come into their own fixed worldviews. The mediator in question introduces the charrette, several days with helpful structure to aid the process of discussing important points without demeaning as the key tool, and also having people sitting at tables for lunch with people of a different race.

I say: let’s try it. Let’s at least not be duped into feeling we have to have decided on “our” candidate for President or anything else, before we have some inkling about the factors that include emotional literacy, integrity and giving a damn about us, by which I mean all of us.

I am a generally unapologetic liberal though I do apologize for making assumptions too often and too many, that I was right (and innocent) and I was enlightened while the other side was not. I know a bit better now that I have practiced and written more about the shadow, the darker sides that all of us have.

Our emotions are killing us, just about literally. They blind us to climate change or make us holler endlessly citing dangers while few are listening. Why are we blinded and/or why are so many people not caring or listening or hearing? These are questions we should start addressing.

There are reasons. And beginning to look at the reasons that problems and people’s humanity aren’t addressed, is as important as anything else. If we ignore the emotions behind the impasses before us that we can ill afford, we will flail around desperately, running on assumptions and superstitions. We will evolve no further in terms of our capacities for understanding more deeply, the conflicts and capabilities of ourselves and others. We will be devoid of curiosity and empathy.

The latter alternative seems the saddest one.




Radical Hopelessness, Immigration and Personal Reactions

On a mild spring Sunday a large group of local residents of Fort Collins, Colorado, was treated to an informative and provocative talk about immigration. The visiting speaker was Rev. Dr. Miguel A. De La Torre, Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.  His books and passions and achievements are many and he has most recently written about white privilege and immigration.

The program, at the Plymouth Church, was sponsored by ISAAC, an interfaith Northern Colorado organization dedicated to giving sanctuary, and solidarity to immigrants crossing the border to the US from Mexico.

De La Torre told us about his idea of radical hopelessness, whereby people perform acts of justice, without the expectation of winning a fight or a cause. He shared his pessimism about deep and lasting social change—precisely because of the long-term history of domination and greed. (As one example, he suggested that should we see crime erased or nearly so, we would then have to demolish the private prison system, a big chunk of our economy.) He made it clear that it is by embracing the hopelessness that we can be free of the ego and high expectations of achievement and insistence on particular results.

De la Torre traced the beginnings of immigration crisis for us, a propos of Mexico and Latin America. He recounted the exploitation of some Latin American countries by the US, which instigated regime changes, often promoting one dictatorship after another. The normalization of “free trade”(NAFTA) unfortunately meant that big corporations took charge and ownership of local crops and other resources, negating the role of indigenous farming. This in turn made living safely and well for local people impossible, pretty much forcing them to come to the States, so often not out of hope but out of desperation.

He advocated that our role doesn’t end in being supportive or even kind, but that we as a country need to provide restitution for nations—for people– put into dire conditions by our foreign policies. For me this was a rather harsh wake up call, a bit like that I’ve experienced when I was pushed to confront my own role in racism and white privilege. Before that point, I more or less had felt the liberal glow of benign intention and image—one that turned out to be very shallow in the end.


To return to the matter of radical hopelessness, I do realize that often, in my work as a therapist, I feel I’m working in the dark and without evidence or certainty, as I’m pursuing a thread or behavior that has no completely predictable relevance or result. In addition there is the sober—and ultimately disappointing– awareness that however much any of us feel we are doing the right thing we don’t know what the ultimate impact is going to be. We may be barking up the wrong tree, following the advice or conventional wisdom of a given time. We take the wrong medicine; we get the wrong diagnosis; we treat our patients or our children with the smartest psychology and insights of the day and yet it can prove too little too late, or simply misguided.

When it comes to reflecting on a world so often based on domination, greed and on showmanship, there are many who want to close the door on these inconvenient truths. They say: It’s too much for me to take, so I don’t think about it and hide in my small world. Or, I do my good deeds and leave it at that, because I cannot stand thinking about the larger picture. We all compartmentalize some of the time so as not to fall to pieces from the strain of seeing too much that is out of our control, yet some people seem to do this without batting an eyelash.

I have trouble not caring for too long; call it sensitivity or vulnerability or pain. And I can’t quite embrace the hopelessness of feeling that people won’t become more successful in tackling the stubbornness of those in power.

I can’t embrace it perhaps because a cloud cover of pessimism is something that suffocates me and makes me too sad. Even so, I don’t feel—and don’t want to feel as of now–compelled to stop acting in the right direction when I know what that is, or when I can muster my motivation and stamina.



There is one factor that for me is huge here—that of loneliness. When I feel too lonely, that people around me won’t look at the greed and the anguish that we are directly or indirectly wrestling with, this is a particular kind of hopelessness wrapped up in desolation. It is a hopelessness beside and beyond that described by de la Torre. It can become disabling.

I clearly need company in this. Even if it has to start with my feeling entitled to my feelings and observations when I am alone. That would at least be a beginning of not hiding in shame or fear, the first steps to begin to own these things and share them out loud.

Oh, and by the way I’d like to mention that I’m also looking for a Presidential candidate who is familiar with emotional literacy, and who has that as a central part of his/her platform.

Not to be hopeless, but: Just what are my chances on this one?



****Meanwhile, this Easter/Passover any other holidays or no holiday at all, if you need combinations of humor, serious caring and having your perspective bounced on its head, please try:

“A Day Without a Mexican” (2004), and in theaters near you,

“The Best of Enemies”








Count the Titles as You May: 1. Watch Sam Rockwell Change his Mind. 2. Please do not dare again to tell me that if I liked the movie I’m pandering to white condescension. 3. Who is anyone to tell anyone how to feel about a movie? 4. I recommend “The Best of Enemies” with all my heart. 5. Is it legal to feel moved by a movie? 6. Are we ready for a charrette, anyone?



Okay, so you get the gist. I loved “The Best of Enemies, which I saw today in a local theater outside of my usual purview.

Not only did I love it and everything about it, including acting, directing and music, but also I experienced it as profoundly moving.

I am white; let’s get that straight at the outset. So I suppose with the flutter that has existed about the allegedly self-congratulatory theme of “Green Book” (a point of view with which I totally disagree), this film is going to hit the charts as something thin on substance and fat on self-flattery.

I want to say right away that I’m sick of the film and political correctness police telling me or anyone else how to feel about a film. Not only do they say how to feel or how to think but they block your emotional arteries so you can’t simmer with the ideas and emotions triggered in the experience.


A charrette, I found out tonight, is defined as follows: a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions. It’s pretty radical, in that it was radical for then and it would be radical—if necessary—for now.


The film takes place in the early 70’s in North Carolina where communication between black people and white people is all but impossible. Sam Rockwell is the Ku Klux Clan leader in the town where some issues of race come to a head. I don’t want to spoil this for you so I’ll leave the rest to your movie going outing.



The unlikely meeting of minds and hearts that we see in the film, could even happen today, if we don’t stay manipulated by people in power who want to see us fighting all the time. See the movie: you will see this is possible. Corny and sappy and sentimental or not, it is true. We need to start to see that not only is our taste manipulated but also we are encouraged by media and politicians to stay on the media high that an addiction to fighting maintains. For the first time in many moons I felt (I really felt it) tonight that listening to the other sides—having to sit at dining tables with them, having to see them as human—might be transforming.

I admit it: I was immersed in the performance of Sam Rockwell. But I was equally enthralled by the performance of Teraji P Henson. If it makes me a racist to mention him first, what else is new? Of course I’m racist: man, I’m white in America, how else could it be?

I have my own affiliations with that about which I’m writing.. One involves having been intimidated and traumatized (yes, even moi) by a level brutality of verbal and emotional assault centering on insult and invalidation.

I am not in a freedom movement or claiming status as a victim. But I can afford, I’m coming to think, feeling assertive about my right to feel my own feelings and think my own thoughts.

One of the crucial lessons we need on bullying in general is: Even if the person intimidating you or insulting the s—t out of you, yells louder or even sounds smarter, it doesn’t mean he/she/they are right.

We live in a land that is so divided. And beyond that there is really more pressure than we may realize to agree with the liberal or the conservative or the black or the white caucus. Sometimes we lose ourselves; we lose our voices and we lose our right to vote, not only for an elected official, but also for our taste in a film and the thoughts that can come from that. There is healing to be had here.

See the movie, and let me know what you think and how you feel about it. And try, as hard as you can, not to let the voices all around you dictate to you what the experience should be.