I’ve been on a vulnerability kick for quite some time now. I can’t remember exactly how it originated, but it really does fascinate me. It’s something of which we are all so afraid, even if we don’t quite know it. And if you think about it, the idea of laying ourselves out there is utterly terrifying, because when you do, you are offering someone–anyone–the chance to accept what you’ve offered, reject it, or in some cases, completely destroy it.
As Brené Brown says, this vulnerability, or the capability to “dare greatly,” can be especially dangerous when one’s contributions are closely linked to self-worth. In these situations, it can really go one of a few ways: (1) One’s work can be rejected, and when linked to self-worth, it can make one feel “unworthy;” (2) One’s work can be accepted, and when linked to self-worth, can be equally, if not more, damaging, acco
rding to Brené, because it ignites a vicious cycle of externalizing self-worth and people-pleasing. It would seem to me that Brené would want us to link our self-worth to our own assessment of our vulnerability–not to the products of our vulnerability.
While these two things–vulnerability itself and the products of our vulnerability–might sound synonymous, they really aren’t. The assessment of our own vulnerability can come from within and only from within. No one else is ever going to be able to truly know if you are being vulnerable because they are not you, and it is impossible to get inside your head. On the other hand, others will be able to assess the products of your vulnerability, whether they simply be emotions you’ve expressed, words you’ve said, or a product you’ve created. We cannot, however, control those responses and assessments, but we can control the assessment of our own vulnerability and the degree to which we hold true to who we are, what we want and need, and how we communicate that to others.
In my opinion, this is something we can link to our self-worth. We can ask ourselves the questions: (1) How true am I being to what I believe? (2) How appropriately vulnerable have I made myself, and how is that relieving any cognitive or emotional dissonance I might have? (3) How is being honest and vulnerable with the people around me helping me to take care of my needs?
Vulnerability in the Classroom: Process vs. Product
Through reading Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, it’s making me see why a focus on empathy and vulnerability has served my current class so well. She states that “the secret killer of innovation is shame,” and this is something that we all have within us. We grow up in a society trying to mold us into something we believe to be the optimal state for functioning. We, therefore, systematically reinforce and/or correct behaviors in order to achieve this. In some cases, this is done through shame. I know this because, as an educator, I am guilty of it, at times. In fact, I think we all are.
While students are growing and learning, they are migrating in and out of egotistical phases, some to a higher degree than others. In these phases, students are extremely focused on themselves and the way others perceive them. They develop a sense of self-consciousness, especially towards adolescence. By focusing on shame, we disallow risk-taking and innovation; we take away their opportunity to make mistakes and be vulnerable. We equate making mistakes and taking risks (some that might lead to failure) with a sense of self-worthlessness, as opposed to a sense of triumph.
But this is hard to combat, as our system is essentially a series of stimuli and responses that are meant to, as I said before, reinforce and/or correct behaviors, and this is evident in our lessons and moreover, our methods for assessment. Many of these things are hardly focused on the process of being vulnerable; rather, they’re focused on the product of achievement. We invest so much of our focus into these end-products, the aforementioned “work” that one lays on the table, that those artifacts for learning not only become formative assessments and symbols of intelligence, but they become subconsciously internalized symbols of self-worth.
I’ve noticed many of my students, especially in my reading class, have benefited from this sense of vulnerability this year. They’ve begun to use the word “vulnerable” interchangeably and they respond well when I remind them to be vulnerable with their personal thoughts and responses. I can also think of students who do not have a sense of this, and I can’t help but feel partially responsible. I can think of one, in particular, who struggles in math. My relationship with this student has been a series of corrections and reinforcements, heavily focused on the assessments and much less focused on the processes. I’m now seeing the detriments to his/her psyche and attitude towards math. I’m only realizing now, though, that this could be strongly linked to a lack of vulnerability in relation to making those mistakes. His/her products rarely fit the mold of what is proficient or acceptable; therefore, self-worth now is lowered, shame has set in, and he/she has lost the drive to innovate, problem-solve, or even think critically about difficult concepts. Both of these examples, though on opposite ends of the spectrum, seem to suggest that vulnerability in the classroom is also critical to innovation and risk-taking, and that a positive self-assessment of vulnerability will lead to higher levels of innovation, and dare I say… achievement?
But the question is, how do we hold students to a high standard yet still nurture their fragile psyches? How do we navigate the tricky students who need to close the gap, yet exert emotional barriers laden with shame and invulnerability? Better yet, how do we communicate unmet expectations or unacceptable behaviors without, in some capacity, linking them to self-worth and, consequently, self-shame?
These are unanswered questions, well worth looking at, and they seem to be gateways to success, innovation, and the creation of life-long learners.