Vulnerability- the process 1

Feb 16 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly Stoppit

I've been recuperating from illness and have missed two play days with this months collaborators, Ed Rapley and Liz Clarke. In the spirit of Que Sera Sera, I've been tucked up in bed, reading, writing and dreaming about the next show. Here's some of what is floating around for me today.

The Cambridge dictionary defines ’vulnerable’ as “able to be easily physically, emotionally, or mentally hurt, influenced, or attacked,” The state of ‘vulnerability’ is defined in relation to external threat, it’s etymology is from the Latin vulnerare "to wound, hurt, injure, maim.” There is violence and fear contained in the roots of this word.

I remember a time when just the thought of being witnessed in my vulnerability would send me into prickly cold sweats and get me on the run, from “needing” to go home to change my clothes, to taking on jobs in other parts of the country for months at a time (fight/flight/freeze responses fully triggered). It’s been a hell of ride and with a lot of support, over the last 7 years I’ve been gradually understanding and embracing vulnerability as a conduit to deeper connection and more vibrant and meaningful living.

Vulnerability and shame researcher, Brene Brown, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Any of these three pressures; to be uncertain, to take a risk or to emotionally expose yourself, can put you into a state of not knowing. I’ve discovered through my own experiences and through teaching clowning for the last 10 years, many people often experience the state of not knowing as negative or scary. To be witnessed being out of control, risking failure, rejection, abandonment can be such a terrifying concept that we build fortresses around ourselves, or we live life on the run, to avoid the imagined hell which may ensue. But in building fortresses and running away, we prevent ourselves from fully participating in the technicolour wonders of life.

Brene Brown, in Daring Greatly, her vulnerability manual explains:

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertaintly, risk and emotional exposure we face everyday are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”

So what stops us being vulnerable? The fear of ridicule? Abandonment? Rejection from the human race? We humans are pack animals and will go to great lengths to stay in our tribes. Or is it habit? Have we just got used to a particular mode of communication that skates along the surface, maintaining everyone’s reality and not rocking any boats? Or is it our shame-based society, pumping out the “YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH” message, loud, clear and constant? 

As children in this country we were conditioned through shame in our schools; we were made to stand in the corner, sit on the naughty step, stand on the desk so everyone can see us and judge us. This is how we learn to be compliant citizens. Failure is punished and difference is eliminated.

This shame-based controlling of behaviour carries on through many people’s working lives and is backed up by shame-based advertising, “YOU COULD BE A LOT BETTER IF YOU JUST BOUGHT THIS PRODUCT,” shame-based media, “LOOK AT THE BAD CELEBRITY, DON’T BE THE BAD CELEBRITY, NOBODY WILL LIKE YOU,” shame-based religion, “DON’T BE BAD OR GOD WILL GET YOU,” shame-based politics “TERRORISTS ARE COMING, QUICK EVERYBODY, BUILD A WALL!” We are getting the message from everywhere that we need to protect ourselves and appear perfect in order to stay a paid up member of the human race.

It’s no wonder that, “Mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide.” (Vos, T., et al. 2013 on www.mentalhealth.org.uk). It’s easy to see how shame-based living can lead to depression, anxiety, addiction and suicide. The path of shame is designed to lead us directly to hope’s graveyard and to keep us small and quiet.

John Bradshaw, author of Healing The Shame That Binds You, puts it like this; in order to heal the shame, “you’ve got to come out of hiding…. you’ve got to turn to people and take the mask off and healing will come.” Brene Brown backs this up with; “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” Somebody’s got to make the first move.

So, in preparation for my next work in progress performance, I've pin-pointed my most vulnerable moments in the last show:

  • doing nothing at the start of the show, as the audience were coming in

My facilitator, Amy had instructed me to stay on the chair, say nothing, make a little contact with the audience AND stay with myself. She'd taken away my comfort blanket. I felt vulnerable because I couldn't control the audience's experience of me and I couldn't seek comfort in the connections.

  • falling down in the gaps between known material

I have a sense this happened a lot in the show (I still haven't watched the footage). I'd expected to play with these moments more and had Paul the guitarist primed and ready to play with me (we'd been exploring just this in the afternoon before the show). But I ended up rushing through these moments to get through all the material I'd set out for myself, so I didn't allow myself to travel deeply into these emotional states to find the play there. I have a sense there was a bit of "I don't know what I'm doing / saying and it's not good enough to give an audience something that lacks definition" and yet I know that this is often where the gold is.

  • approaching something totally unknown

For instance, getting ready to don the character of 'Fuckknuckle'- although she's a known character to me, I hadn't "rehearsed" her. This was the first time I'd put the dress on in maybe 8 or 9 years. I didn't know whether I still had it in me. I was afraid I might fail by not giving the audience everything I could. In hindsight- this struggle is interesting.

  • just before Fuckknuckle took over

Doubt, shame, fear. I felt like I was pretending and that the audience could see I wasn't getting away with it, and then the character took over and did what she does. I feel like Fuckknuckle has her own vulnerabilities, but she's not afraid to let people see them, they are kind of like a badge of honour for her, maybe. It's noteworthy that all my characters gave me a confidence that "I" lacked during the show, but also somehow brought an element of invulnerability. I think the characters are a good way of getting ME out there, on the stage. I feel safe in character and more frightened as myself.

  • sitting in the spotlight for longer than I'd planned

Amy instructed Aisha to keep the lighting state so that the audience could see me and I couldn't see them. This made me squirm. Without the visual feedback, I can't sense how everyone is feeling, so I can't tailor my every moment on stage to make sure everyone in the theatre is OK and happy and liking me. It's hard for me to just hold my space and let people come to me, 38 years of survival has turned me into a chameleon. 

  • receiving someone's feedback in the Q and A

I received the following feedback from a friend; "You weren't vulnerable AT ALL." Up until this moment, I'd been flowing with the feedback, taking it in, breathing it out, and then this comment cut right through. Instant failure alert. Everybody knows I'm a fraud and this person is speaking for everyone. How can I teach this shit if I can't do it myself?

So it feels clear to me that the next bit of process is about:

  • drilling down into these moments and mining the wisdom 
  • devising some experiments that allow me to inhabit my vulnerability and have it witnessed on stage
  • finding fun ways of delivering a  little theory around vulnerability and shame
  • leaving space for the unknown

Come and see the show on Sunday 5th March at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

More about Holly Stoppit's Work In Progress here.

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