When you think of highly secure locations, Fort Knox, the Vatican’s Secret Archives, the White House or James Bond’s stomping grounds at the MI6 headquarters might come to mind. However, despite cutting-edge security technology, armed guards or reinforced concrete walls, the most intensely guarded places can often be inside of ourselves.
Society celebrates those who are strong, tough and resilient, whether at work, on the playing field, battlegrounds or your personal life. All of which makes it harder to be vulnerable. It can be ironic then that vulnerability is necessary to grow, truly thrive and unlock so much goodness in your life.
In her insightful bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown PhD, LMSW, draws upon more than a decade of research to show that rather than being a sign of weakness, vulnerability is actual the best measurement of personal courage.
Angela W. Stillwell knows that concept very well. Formerly the owner of a financial planning practice, she now serves as a business advisor, coach and speaker helping companies and professionals create deeper connections with their audience and build better relationships overall. But that work wouldn’t have been possible if Stillwell hadn’t embarked on a journey of self-discovery.
A painful divorce prompted her to look inside. “I had become a master wall builder, and it felt like my heart and soul had been deeply encased in concrete,” said Stillwell, who started digging through multiple layers to tear those walls down. It all stemmed from a childhood that Stillwell describes as tragic. She is not exaggerating.
Stillwell’s father was an unfaithful con artist who emotionally abused her mom. Her parents got divorced when she was 10, she moved 60 times throughout childhood, and attended 13 different schools before graduating high school. During her freshman year in college, Stillwell’s step-father murdered her beloved mother. The loss was staggering. Digging deep inside also triggered memories of being molested as a child.
“When you grow up in an environment like that, you learn how to build walls in order to accomplish anything,” she explains. “There was no time to build a connection, and I learned not to open up because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was going through. The only way to escape that life was to be educated, get a good job and live on my own.”
Her personal development work required Stillwell to embrace vulnerability and share her stories with others. She was struck by how doing so helped other people be fully themselves.
“When we walk around as perfectionists, that doesn’t allow other people to be imperfect,” noted Stillwell. “Sharing who I am means I have real relationships now where it is safe to express feelings openly. Learn to embrace the struggle that you’ve been through, regardless of how horrific the past might have been. Because it is what got you to where you are today.”
Determined to use her own growth process to help others, Stillwell created Vulnerability Warrior, an online program of self-discovery for people going through major transitions, such as career changes, divorce, the death of a loved one, or an empty nest, and who are seeking to achieve higher levels of personal success.
“The story of my childhood could have very easily held me back from ever accomplishing anything,” she explained. “People can have so much more to give and share with the world but aren’t because they don’t feel like they’re worthy.”
Interested in becoming more vulnerable? Here are some great tips from Stillwell:
- Find your tribe. Rather than go at life alone, locate birds of a feather to lean into. You can do this virtually, online, in person, through organized groups or whatever works best.
- Connect to others through story. Stillwell found a tremendous amount of growth by journaling the stories of her life to see what meanings may or may not have truth in them. She recommends exploring and sharing your stories to gain more vulnerability, authenticity and a great connection with people.
- Practice meditation. Rather than try to compartmentalize or dismiss difficult emotions, meditation is about sitting in the silence and really listening to what’s going on inside your head. Studies have also shown that meditation reduces stress and decreases depression.
- Allow yourself to be fully seen. Realize that what happened may have made you, but it doesn’t define you. Stillwell practices what she preaches, giving presentations about her experiences and standing proud as her authentic self.