How Letting Yourself be Vulnerable Actually Makes You Stronger

It haunts you.

The fear is always there — following you, whispering to you in your quiet moments.

When you dress in the morning, you look in the mirror and wonder: Is it enough? Am I enough?

And even if tell yourself yes, the fear inside you answers no.

When you talk with people you wonder: What do they think of me? Are they judging me? Am I smart enough? Funny enough?

And no matter what you — or they — say, the fear inside answers no.

Everywhere you go, everything you do, it echoes inside: the question, and the answer.


Nope. Not enough.

You attempt to silence the fear by trying harder, working faster, giving more, smiling brighter, but deep inside you feel like a fraud — an imposter.

And you are afraid that everyone else can see it too.

The Secret to Escaping the Fear Cycle

So how are you supposed to get anywhere when the race to escape this fear feels like running on a giant hamster wheel? The harder you try and the faster you go the more tired you become. But you never really get anywhere. The whole darn pattern just keeps repeating itself, like a treadmill cycling underneath your feet.

The answer isn’t to try harder, to run faster, or even to have more endurance.

The answer is to get off the treadmill.

I didn’t always believe that. Or at least I didn’t believe it enough to actually do it. I liked the sound of the theory enough to sometimes say that kind of thing — you know, in an open, humble, genuine manner, of course. But when it came down to it, I was still running.

Sure, I could talk about not expecting my kids to be perfect or myself to be supermom — while hosting a playdate in my freshly cleaned house, serving healthy snacks (homemade, of course) surrounded by carefully washed and dressed children.

I could go to work and talk to the students in my psychology class about the challenge of balancing work and home life in a measured, reasonable voice. But I’d never hint about the real struggle the night before in trying to make dinner, pack school lunches, help with homework and figure out what the heck to even say to their class the next day, all basically at the same time.

I could be open and vulnerable, but only so much, and always with carefully calculated style. And that’s when I lucked into one of the greatest experiences of my life.

The Greatest Experience I Never Asked For

Head lice.

Of course it wasn’t the critters themselves. No one actually asks for head lice. Even though they aren’t harmful, they are icky and embarrassing and inconvenient to treat. There’s also nothing like creepy crawly parasites to make you feel less than enough.

The great part was that the whole experience left me feeling so less than enough that it pushed me right off my hamster wheel. And as I sat there, feeling a little dazed, metaphorically watching that wheel spin on without me, I realized that I really could just stop running. And I realized how great it feels to do that.

Fortunately, you don’t need lice to learn what I discovered. I’ll share my story with you.

The Problem I Just Couldn’t Fix

I took the initial discovery of lice on my children’s heads in stride. What are a few bugs? Supermom can do this, right?

First I ran to the pharmacy and loaded up on chemical pesticides, only to discover that — news flash — they don’t work. The lice who have made it through this many go rounds of elementary school parents trying to commit bloodsucker genocide are serious bad asses. Nix? Bring it on. These lice will drink you under the table and ask for more.

So once I’d coated the floor and furniture and kids with a pesticide so toxic it couldn’t be reapplied for weeks, and the lice were happily asking for seconds, I moved on to a natural alternative: Mayonnaise.

The old school advice is to cover the kids’ hair in mayonnaise, slap on a shower cap, and put them to bed, hoping the bugs will be smothered to death by morning.

It doesn’t take a great imagination to see where this one ends. Shower caps slide off. Kids sling mayonnaise at each other and finger paint the walls. Your mattresses smell like egg salad for the rest of eternity.

Oh, and guess what?


Still bugs.

So then what did I do? Still supermom undaunted, I resorted to picking every single tiny, mayonnaise-covered, pesticide-hungry little bug off every kid’s head, along with every single one of the Whoops! Was that a fleck of dandruff? practically microscopic eggs.

Did I mention I have six kids?

Somehow after putting my entire life on hold for a week I finally got all of the bugs off everyone’s heads at the same time.

And then I discovered lice on my own head.

Now despite the obvious yuck factor, this presented a major logistical problem. I couldn’t see my own head well enough to pick every single bug and nit off. My kids weren’t old enough to help. At the time my husband was working two jobs and going to graduate school. The only time he had available to try to help me was 3am. Soon enough we both realized that my long thick hair was not worth any more sleepless nights.

The Drastic Decision That Changed My Life

So, I shaved my head.

Problem solved, and problem created. At the time I lived in a small, conservative town where going bald was not seen as a legitimate fashion choice for a woman. Aside from the occasional person who was extra nice to me after mistaking me for a cancer patient, it felt humiliating.

People stared.

Conversation was replaced by awkward silence when I walked past.

Small children asked to pet my head.

I especially dreaded going to church on Sunday. What had seemed like a reasonable solution to my exhausted, strung out, middle-of-the-night brain now felt like complete insanity. I visualized pews full of well-dressed women with perfectly curled, colored, combed hair looking at me and judging.

I felt naked.

For once there was no way to pretend that I had it totally together. All my frustrations and struggles of the preceding week were on full display, and to me, that meant I had failed.

Embracing a Vulnerability Crisis

Without fully thinking it through, I had forced myself to be open and vulnerable. Not just a little bit, but for real this time.

Then a funny thing happened. I went to church anyway.

The experience started out about the way I had envisioned.

I could feel people looking at me and whispering as I walked into the chapel.

A couple of kids turned and pointed.

Then, when the meeting started, the bishop squinted at me across the pulpit and said, out loud in front of the congregation, “Hot weather prompts people to do strange things.”

But thankfully the experience didn’t end there. After the meeting the women approached me, first a few at a time, and later in groups. Some hugged me. Others told me I looked beautiful. Eventually I shared the story that had led to my new look, and I was showered with kindness, offers of help for the future, and commiserating stories of other mothers’ horror stories with lice. I had never felt more included in that small-town church community.

I had thought that in order to feel accepted I had to be perfect. But the truth is, in order to be accepted I just needed to be real.

The Lie We All Buy Into

The lie that most of us buy into is that we have to overcome our weaknesses in order to be strong. Since we are human, and therefore will always have weaknesses, we struggle through a never-ending battle against ourselves.

You know the drill. First you try to obliterate the weakness. When that strategy comes up short, you try to banish it — far from your own awareness and functioning. And if all else fails, you try to at least hide it from the rest of the world.

The problem with every one of these approaches is that they pit you against yourself. And that makes you weaker.

When your energy and focus are diverted into attacking parts of yourself, you have less left over put into reaching your goals. All that running takes a lot of energy, you know? And when you run for long enough, you can lose track of what you wanted to stand for in the first place.

Worse still, over time running actually feeds the insecurities it is meant to assuage. The harder you try to change, deny, or hide from your fears, the bigger and more menacing they seem. The cycle feeds itself.

The alternative is to embrace your weaknesses along with your strengths.

That’s not to say you have to stop seeking to improve — just the opposite. Self-acceptance opens up the emotional energy needed for healing. Authenticity helps you to recognize and address the real issues that may be holding you back.

How to Stand Strong When You Feel Weak

Some specific ideas for standing strong:

  • Build in time to reflect: If running has become second nature, you may not always realize in the moment that you have pulled out your gym shoes. It can help to schedule time each day to slow down, ponder your thoughts and reactions, and reconnect to yourself.
  • Be real with yourself: Which of your actions or reactions are triggered by feelings of inadequacy? Your first instinct may be to react to insecurities by covering them up, playing out a role, hiding your needs, or attacking someone else. Those are all forms of running.
  • Stand with your fears: Have a sit-down with those insecurities that have been trying so hard to get your attention. Listen to what they have to say. Fears are like people: sometimes they just want to be heard. Until you’ve had that sit-down, all you may really know about your insecurities is that they keep harassing you. What if they are trying to send you an important message, but you’ve been working so hard to avoid them that you are missing it?
  • Choose Courage: When you let your insecurities drive your behavior, you give them power. When you consciously choose your course of action, even though you feel afraid, you draw that power back to yourself.

When you follow these steps, you will find yourself better able to do hard things. More important, you will experience the rewards of peace and confidence that they bring.

You might have a big walking-out-in-public bald moment, or your opportunity for courage might be less dramatic. Regardless, you will build your ability to:

  • Ask for help
  • Laugh at yourself
  • Dust yourself off and try again after a fall

Best of all, you will embrace all of yourself. So make friends with that lonely, terrified voice inside. Speak kindly. Remind it that you’ve got this. It needs the assurance that things will be okay even if it stops telling you to run. Because guess what? That lonely, terrified voice inside has been you all along.

Arriving at Peace and Strength

What if that endless hamster-wheel running was finally over?

What if the relentless voice that reminds you of your inadequacies, criticizes your decisions, and questions your worth was blissfully, peacefully, silent?

Imagine yourself, getting ready for the day, confidently choosing clothes that you enjoy, without second guessing yourself.

Imagine yourself cheerfully greeting friends and associates, without wondering if they see your shortcomings as clearly as you do.

Imagine yourself no longer running toward a finish line that constantly shifts.

Instead, envision standing strong in yourself. You have nothing to hide from, no secret fears to haunt you.

You have arrived at peace and strength.

And it was when you stopped running that you finally got there.


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