S1E7 Vulnerability

Brene Brown became a household sensation after a famous TED talk about her research on vulnerability as a professor of social work in Texas. In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete talk about their personal experiences with practicing vulnerability, how people can benefit from being vulnerable, and how vulnerability can help us learn to connect with and act aligned with our values.




Nikki: We're talking about a really important topic today, that our listeners may have been familiar with already, if they're fans of Brené Brown, but we're going to be talking about vulnerability, which is something that Pete and I talk a lot about

Pete: Love being vulnerable.

Nikki: Which in case you can't tell, that's sarcasm in his voice.

Pete: I actually don't mind being vulnerable, I think that's part of our work. Sometimes I think, having chosen being a psychologist, we have to be vulnerable.

Nikki: Absolutely.

Pete: Did you feel that way?

Nikki: Well, yeah, and we've been trained in how to practice it. So it's definitely a skill, but I think what you're implying in the sarcasm, is that, which I of course, feel this, too. It's still not fun. It's not fun to be vulnerable.

Pete: Yeah. Or it's fun, because I know I want to grow.

Nikki: Yeah, well, the growth part, I would argue, maybe it's interesting, it can be interesting, but I wouldn't say while I’m being vulnerable, “this feels fantastic.”

Pete: Yeah, that's true. I think recently, having tough conversations with people that we're close with, we're trying to, encourage them to do something different, or assert some sort of boundary in the relationship. Those are things that I find myself that I'll avoid, even though I feel super comfortable with this. So, thank you. Yes,

Nikki: Well, you're welcome. I'm only saying that because I don't want anyone to be under the impression that vulnerability just feels fabulous. I recently said, to a friend, where I was having a difficult conversation and was being vulnerable in the front, my very dear old friend of mine said, “Well, you're frankly, better at being vulnerable than I am, because of part of what you do”, and I said, “I hear that”. I was like, “that's true.” I was like, “And, you know, I just want you know I don't like it. I still don't like it.”

Pete: I think in the way like funerals, they're so vulnerable. I feel like we as psychologists we’re supposed to say the right thing.

Nikki: I know, because I think people forget that psychologists are humans first.

Pete: Yeah, they do forget that.

Nikki: I'm always surprised, actually, when I'm talking about vulnerability in session with people and I'm sharing how I feel uncomfortable in session when I have to bring up a difficult conversation with the patient. Like if the patient's angry with me, or just something awkward that I'll say, “Yeah, it's really hard for me, I'll feel uncomfortable.” And people go, “Really, it is?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m a person. Do you like having awkward conversations? Because I don't. I mean, I do it because it's aligned with my values. And I know it's workable.” But I really don’t enjoy it.

Pete: I think maybe we could talk a little bit about Brené Brown’s work because I think, you mentioned her in the in the beginning. And thinking about what even led, I don't know if you know?

Nikki: I do know. You know the story too, share it.

Pete: No, you.

Nikki: No, you. So I always think it's so hilarious and adorable, because it's so true for all people. Brené Brown tells a story that when she was doing research on it, and she was investigating vulnerability.

Pete: Research down in Texas.

Nikki: Yeah, she’s at university, Houston. She has a PhD in social work, I think the research was on vulnerability and connections specifically, was that the first line of her study?

Pete: I think so, or shame? Shame came second.

Nikki: Oh, yeah, shame came second. What she found was that in order to connect with other people, it would require vulnerability. She just talks about this, in her Netflix special called ‘Occurred’, she says she was basically so distressed by finding that out that she had to go to her own therapy to work through, that it has to be vulnerability, that it's a part of human connection. And I was like, “man, if that doesn't resonate.”

Pete: Because you have to connect, so I think sometimes I find it so useful, if you're working with a client through relationship, so working with high performers, sometimes they feel like their partner has to serve a certain role. And I work with them about finding ways of being vulnerable with their partners to create connection, because you totally see that that creates another level of connection.

Nikki: Well, it's in that space of basically being an imperfect human that we're saying, “I struggle, I have pain, I mess up”. We that's, and self-compassion research they talk about this too, that an aspect of self-compassion is recognizing a common humanity. If we're walking around telling ourselves and other people that we got it all figured out, and nothing ever goes wrong, I can think of my own life when I've encountered people like that. It makes me feel so disconnected from that person and also so alone. Because then I start to go like, “maybe I'm the only one that's having a hard time, I don't have life figured out.” We know, none of us do.

Pete: I think it's this word that, it's another one of the thing where people use it a lot. But I wonder. One exercise I'll ask people to think about is give examples of being vulnerable. Either that you've been vulnerable, or moments where you feel like you can find that you might be able to be vulnerable. Because I think, do we want to talk about some examples of being vulnerable?

Nikki: I can share a personal one about doing this podcast.

Pete: There it is.

Nikki: Yeah, there it is. So, Pete's been after me to do something along the lines of this podcast for, I don't know, probably as long as we've known each other, and we know each other 10 years.

Pete: Yeah. In variations

Nikki: In variations of something.

Pete: I made you come to do the shrinks.

Nikki: Yes. You wanted me to do a TV show? I didn't want to do it, and what did I say to you every time? You were like, “Come on, we have to do this.

Pete: You just want to be private.

Nikki: I want to be private, and I think this would probably surprise a lot of people knowing me because I have a very extroverted, I always say it's my phenotype. My presentation is very extroverted. I'm actually pretty introverted, in a lot of ways. And I'm actually a really private person. So this feels terribly risky for me, frankly. It's really hard for me, when I agreed to do the podcast, and I don't mean that in a ‘poor me’ kind of way. I feel very exposed when I do these types of things. And the reason I chose to do the podcast with Pete is not just because I adore Pete and like meeting with him every week. It's actually because, and I want to tie this together for our listeners, is because it aligns with my values. There are a lot of things that are very important to me to share, and I want to share them.

Pete: You’re one of the best teachers that I've ever met.

Nikki: Oh, thank you.

Pete: Your vulnerability was making yourself exposed around even teaching to such a larger potential audience. Which, for all we know, our moms are listening and that's it.

Nikki: Right, not to assume we've got 10 million listeners here, though.

Pete: And that's part of the Brené Brown’s story. That Ted Talk, where she was discussing her research, which how many researchers have done TED talks?

Nikki: I don’t know.

Pete: This one blew up and became overnight, had millions of followers, because people connect. Nikki, people connect with this challenge that you've had around just allowing yourself to feel exposed for this ultimate goal of living congruent with your values. The reason I said that you're such a great teacher is because, educating, that's a big value of yours, just educating people to help ultimately eliminate some suffering.

Nikki: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for saying that, and I think that it's important for me to say that, in doing this podcast, the reason why it's so vulnerable for me is that it's taking a risk. What I always teach to patients is that acting aligned with our values is healthy risk taking, is the best way that I can say it, is the healthy risk taking. So you're saying, “This is meaningful to me, I don't know how it's going to turn out, and I'm willing to try something where I know that I can make… Look, I'm going to stick my foot, I'm sure I probably already have or will stick my foot in my mouth.” You know, “give wrong information, make a mistake.” That's uncomfortable to sit with, and I'm willing to be vulnerable in the service of education.

Pete: Well, we will put our foots in our mouths.

Nikki: Absolutely.

Pete: Just along these lines of sharing about the podcast, I think one time, you and I realize one episode, we misspoke about a date of the origin of behaviourism.

Nikki: Skinner. We said, 1920s, then I was like, “ooh, 1960s.”

Pete: Yeah, didn’t feel great, and who cares? Bottom line was, and I think that was part of our practice of saying, “Who cares?” It's important to know, but I will say when I teach, whenever that history section comes in the historical context, I go the quickest. Because, as a mindfulness and Zen practitioner, it's not this moment. I try and get as quickly to July 2020. That's an example, we're not going to be perfect, we're going to misspeak, we are going to say things that are not entirely factual. These are our opinions, our training or our recollection of our training, because in our mid-career…

Nikki: ‘Early’ mid-career,

Pete: Early mid-career, we start to forget things and that's okay too. Because we learn new things.

Nikki: Absolutely. Pete, what's an example for you, where you've done something vulnerable, that you'd be willing to share with people listening?

Pete: I have to think. I think that's it's a tough question. I think in any given day that I'm teaching. So vulnerability, when I do some TV, my media work, I often feel very vulnerable. Right now, we're recording this during the pandemic still, and so some of the channels that I work with, they're still doing virtual interviews, so there's no one in the studio still. But when I used to be in live studio recordings, I was super vulnerable. And I think the vulnerability there is, ‘am I going to say the right thing?’ ‘Am I going to misspeak?’ I will say, one time after one of them, I said, thermostat instead of thermometer. And the first person to call that out was my mother, which was really nice. I was talking to her after and she was like, “Oh, yeah, it was really funny. Mike and I were sitting there, and you said thermostat instead of thermometer.”  

Nikki: Thank you, Mom.

Pete: Thank you for the exposure, Mom. But we could laugh about that, and that's exactly what I was trying to do. And it's okay, because I think that's vulnerability I misspoke. I said, thermostat instead of thermometer, and those moments do culminate collectively.

Nikki: They do. Well, I think that's actually one reason why people often don't want to practice vulnerability, because they don't want to carry around with them the discomfort that we feel when we mess up. Example, I think most people can resonate with, you share your romantic feelings with somebody, they don't return the sentiment, we carry those things around. What is the human brain do? The human brain goes into problem solving mode, and is like, “I know, I'll just stop being uncomfortable. I'll stop taking risks.” And it makes a lot of sense logically, frankly. The brain is like, “problem solved. I know how to deal with this.” But then without that healthy risk taking, which is what practicing vulnerability really is, your world gets so small.

Pete: That's one of the best, in my opinion, findings from Brené Brown’s research, is that you can't choose what feelings you're going to experience. The brain will shut down and say, “Hey, don't have that scary things.” But then you also then shut down to positive experience. I think that for me, that was one of the biggest take homes from a lot of her research, is that you need to experience, and that in a mindfulness world, going into eastern practices is that we don't judge the moment. So now what I'm experiencing, I'm just experiencing and then I just want to walk into that but not choose positive or negative.

Nikki: Right. I think, the reason why, people have a hard time understanding, ‘but why would I want to walk into the discomfort? Why would I want to do that?” You and I can say, the cows come home to grow, which, again, I think logically a lot of people will say, “Yes, I want to grow, I want to evolve”, the brains like, “but why do I want to be uncomfortable?” What Pete and I, in our practice as acceptance and Commitment Therapy clinicians, act as a type of third wave CBT, it's in the service of what is important to you. I was using example, the podcast, I highly value education and dissemination, and so I'm willing to feel uncomfortable and exposed in doing the podcast in the service of sharing that.

Pete: Thank goodness.

Nikki: That is very meaningful to me. Other examples would be, like if I go back to the sharing romantic feelings for somebody. It's like if you don't know what the other person thinks; if you value relationships you value love. Are you willing to take that risk and share how you feel with another person to see if maybe they feel the same way back? How many stories have you heard of when someone, they never told each other how they felt and they went on. It gets in the way of actually experiencing meaning in our lives if we're not willing to take those risks.

Pete: Yeah, and with managers, co-workers, other family members. These are all really hard moments and good opportunities to try and have some of those really challenging conversations. But I know I avoid them sometimes, my brother I know he got to be listened to this podcast, but that's okay, I’ll say it anyway.

Nikki: Hi, if you're listening. It’s been a long time.

Pete: And we can have that conversation if you're listening. And here we are, but the point is, there are certain things that I just… today actually, we had a conversation about the COVID, because his belief systems are maybe a little bit different and wondering if there's any conspiracies. Not sure what to believe, what he's reading and not reading. There are moments that those are really hard conversations to have. Frankly, I will avoid them at times.

Nikki: I’m glad that you're bringing that up, because I think that a lot of people often have the question, or I get asked the question, I should say, in session a lot. ‘When should I practice vulnerability, when is it safe to be vulnerable?” It is an important one though, because I don't want anyone listening to think that Pete and I are advocating being really vulnerable in every situation with every person, it's not actually always safe to do that. There might be certain contexts where being vulnerable is not workable, like potentially sometimes with Pete’s brother, maybe it's not workable to be very vulnerable about difference in beliefs. Sometimes it is, for the opportunity to potentially grow in that situation. But, if you've been verbally abusive,

Pete: I was just going to say that.

Nikki: Or any kind of abusive partner, boss, friend, sharing the intimacy of how you feel is actually not a safe choice.

Pete: Sometimes high performers, like athletes, or finance guys, being vulnerable with your boss, your manager, your coach, not always a great idea.

Nikki: No, and I think what I would want people to know, in those situations is that it doesn't mean that you're failing being vulnerable. A different behaviour is more workable. So if we think of vulnerability as a practice, as a behaviour, it's effective when you know you're able to potentially connect with somebody. That other person is someone that you trust, trust and vulnerability also go hand in hand here, that they're potentially safe. But if you have plenty of data about someone that they're not a safe person, disconnecting emotionally in those moments is going to be more effective.

Pete: And that's the thing, sometimes you feel like you have to adhere to the length of a relationship, even though the person is maybe not the best for you. And that's not a moment to be vulnerable, might be a moment to assert and actually cut a boundary or cut the person off, it's important. That's the thing that's been happening with some reporters or stories now, where they're saying, “during a pandemic, how to do these things?” And I'm like, “No, these are things that we should have been doing pre COVID.”

Nikki: Yeah, being in the pandemic just puts a giant spotlight on this stuff, that there's more space than usual for people to be curious about what might work and what might not work. But, yes, I do want to make sure that we're clear about that with regards to vulnerability as behaviour, a practice that aids in healthy risk taking, aligned with one's values. Though, like any other behaviour, and this comes back to flexibility, which obviously, Pete and I talk a lot about, since that's an aim of both mindfulness practices and third wave behaviour therapies. It's not a one size fits all. It's not going to be an effective choice in every context, every situation.

Pete: Right. I think they refer to that as the window of vulnerability, when you have the moment to do it. I think it's important to feel strong during those moments, if you're feeling like this is something you want to do. So make sure you get good rest, eat well, don't do it when you're like intoxicated.

Nikki: Right, I'm glad you're bringing up, because that's actually not being vulnerable. People are like, “Oh, I want to have this hard conversation after I've had a few drinks”, I’m like, “Well, I can understand why, because it's easier,”

Pete: You’re looser.

Nikki: Yeah, you’re looser, though, that's not the practice. I always think of one thing Brené Brown says, obviously, we're referencing her because she's the person about vulnerability research. She said that she's working with some company, and I think it's a tech company or something she does consulting with and they said, “Oh, we came up with an algorithm to figure out when to practice vulnerability,” and she was like, “Oh, that's cool, very interesting, call it whatever you want, but that's not vulnerability.” There's no risk involved in that.

Pete: There's no risk.

Nikki: There’s no risk. I would like to say to people being alive is risky, is inherently risky. So, vulnerability is an opportunity to choose healthy risks that actually have the opportunity to make your life better, more meaningful.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nicki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.