“Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the centre of meaningful human experiences” ~Brené Brown
From a young age I learned that the world is not a safe place—that there are bullies out there that want to harm me and that I have to watch my back. I developed defense mechanisms in order to protect myself, or perhaps those mechanisms had been there all along, programmed into my psychology by millions of years of evolution.
Maybe these mechanisms served me in certain situations as they did my ancestors; telling me when to fight and when to run away. But as I got older, I began to see how these mechanisms would often kick into gear when I didn’t want or need them to. Sometimes I would fight when there was no need to fight. Other times I would be afraid and hide when I wasn’t really in danger. Sometimes, I still do.
This isn’t just my story; it is the story of all of us. Just pay attention to how people behave on the roads—especially when they’re stuck in traffic—or how they behave in comment threads on social media. Pay attention to how people behave in work situations, especially when their skills, capabilities, or ideas are being questioned. We walk around with psychological armor, and we use a lot of energy trying to prevent even the slightest kink in that armor.
Some of us are also armed and will go off like an automatic rifle at the slightest touch of the trigger, leaving bullet-ridden relationships in our trail.
Although these defense mechanisms are meant to protect us, they also cut us off from each other. Basically, most interactions are just egos interacting with other egos. Moments of real connection between people don’t happen every day, because that would require us to put down our armor and be vulnerable. But a couple of days ago, I had one such a moment…
My kids stay with me over the weekends, and I usually pick them up at a golf course where their mom works and my oldest son plays golf. Before I can gain access, the guard at the gate has to scan the license disc of my car.
As if 2020 wasn’t crazy enough, this year has already thrown a couple of curve balls my way. This particular Friday was just one of those days; I had a lot on my mind, and I wasn’t paying attention. So, while the guard was scanning my license disc, I took my foot off the break for just a second and rolled my car over his unsuspecting foot… crunch…
Needless to say, he wasn’t happy. I felt like an idiot and could immediately feel my defenses going up—not just because of his reaction but because I’m programmed to get defensive, and this affects how I interpret situations, even when the other person hasn’t done anything wrong.
“Why was his foot under my wheel?” I thought. “It was only an accident. I have a lot on my mind, okay.” At the same time, I realized that I had messed up, so I apologized profusely and drove off to pick up my kids.
When I left, I felt compelled to stop at the gate and ask him if he was okay and whether he needed a doctor. He was limping a bit, but he said that he was okay. I gave him my business card anyway and told him to call me if he needed medical attention.
Great, I thought as I drove away, this is the last thing I need, another potential bill to worry about. And what if he tries to take advantage me? What if he tries to sue me or something? Now I have made myself vulnerable to attack by giving him my details. But fortunately for me, the next few days came and went without any calls from a doctor’s billing department, or a lawyer.
The next Friday I once again found myself at the gate to the golf course to pick up my kids, and I had to face the guy whose foot I potentially crushed. But I was relieved to see that he was no longer limping.
I asked him how he was doing, and he assured me that he was okay. I expressed that I was really happy to hear that and before I could drive off, he stopped me. He told me that most people would have gotten defensive and just left it, and as you’ll remember, I almost did. But then he said that I came back and showed him support, which meant a lot to him, so he wanted to thank me.
I was a bit surprised to be honest, because the last thing I expected was a thank you. But I felt good about this interaction. Not only was I happy that his foot was okay, but I was happy that we could part ways with good vibes between us. I appreciate how cool he was about it.
An incident that could easily have turned ugly turned out pretty good. Somehow, we had both managed to drop our armor, and this allowed us to show compassion for one another. It was beautiful.
The honest truth is that I still struggle with this all the time. I would be lying if I said that I have this stuff fully figured out and that I never get defensive or go on the attack. I am still learning, and what this incident taught me is that the world is not my enemy. Sometimes we can be vulnerable and drop our defenses. And most of the time, people will love us for it.
Seeing the world as something we have to defend ourselves against or hide from cuts us off from those around us. But when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and authentic, we allow for greater connection. This takes courage and sometimes we do get hurt. But when we start treating the world like a friendlier place, somehow, it starts feeling like one.