The Bleeding Edge of Vulnerability

Want to know a secret about me? I am more than a little shy, and spend more time being afraid than not. When I admit this to anyone, even my closest friends, I’m often met with comments like, “Yeah, right,” or “No, you’re not.” Then I find myself struggling to convince them that it’s actually true.

You see, I am an extrovert. Not just any extrovert, either. I am a textbook, off the charts, really high “E” on the Myers-Briggs Indicator, bonafide Extrovert. And when you meet me for the first time, particularly if it’s in a workshop or ritual setting, you’ll find that I’m not much of a wallflower. I have a strong personality. I’m comfortable in large groups. I enjoy public speaking. The stuff I do when I am facilitating ritual or large groups make it appear as if I am confident and self-assured. That’s just how I present. And in a large group… it’s absolutely true. I am generally confident and self-assured. But here’s the trick — I am confident and self-assured because I have carefully constructed a situation wherein I am in control. I have attention of the group, I can facilitate the energy where I’d like it to go. I’ve worked hard to hone my presentation and facilitation skills so I can maintain that focus. That’s what safety looks like for me.

But get me in a small group of people I don’t know very well or ask me to attend a cocktail party? Yikes. That’s one of the last ways I would choose to spend my time. Granted, my shyness is not debilitating. I absolutely can meet and talk with people, I just do better when other people initiate conversation. But I am well aware of how I let my shyness hold me back from taking risks to connect with new people, or network, or try new things – much more so than I often care to admit. I’ve built daily practices around risk-taking. I’ve made pledges and resolutions to expand my social circles. This sort of thing does not come easily to me, so I’ve made it a part of my personal and spiritual work.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the reason large groups feel safe for me, whereas small groups generally don’t. It seems pretty counter-intuitive. The only answer that I can come up with is that small groups and intimate exchanges require much more vulnerability, and that doesn’t come easily for me.

We talk a lot in our work about this concept of vulnerable leadership. There are lots of different ways to approach the definition, but for me it means “being willing to go where you want others to go.” It also means that I won’t ask the group I am facilitating to do anything that I am not also willing to do myself.

At a recent event I taught at, one member of the teaching team misheard when someone used the term “leading edge,” which can mean a place where there is an acknowledged potential for growth. In a leadership/facilitation context, it can be the place where you take a risk as part of developing a new or existing skill. The team member heard the words “bleeding edge,” instead, and it stuck. It became the place where we really risked — really put ourselves out there. And while we laughed about it, the term became more and more appropriate as the event wore on. For me, that bleeding edge was/is allowing myself to be vulnerable – to truly be seen at risk of rejection or ridicule – or worse… making a mistake. One piece of my personal work is to find beauty in imperfection, particularly my own.

Large-group facilitation is often comfortable for me because I don’t have to reveal too much about myself. I’ll take roles in sessions where I am presenting context or logistics over facilitating discussions. I have developed ritual skills that allow me to be open and present, but do it with music and movement rather than intimate sharing. I don’t want to devalue what I do — I am proud of my work. But I know that the next evolution in my skills is to combine the safety I feel in while facilitating a large group with the discomfort of being more raw and open and willing to take a risk to be truly seen in service to the larger whole.

Vulnerability can be hard, but I believe it is so necessary. It’s a skill I want to continue to cultivate, because I am far from mastery. In my younger years, I often mistook vulnerability for drama. I thought that rituals that included all kinds of angst for the sake of drama and intensity meant that we were Doing the Work. My older, more mature self has learned that vulnerability is more about depth. Vulnerability can be (and often is) tender – and while intensity can certainly be part of it, that’s not always the primary trajectory of a ritual or workshop. (In the work I do with Reclaiming, there’s a tongue-in-cheek definition that calls that sort of work “puking in the cauldron” — drama for the sake of drama, bearing my wounds to bear my wounds — not work towards healing them.) I don’t want to imply that wounds aren’t real, or that we shouldn’t examine them in a ritual context — far from it — but rather that where and how we approach them can either be healing or detrimental. I have to ask myself what’s actually going on when I plan a session or a ritual that requires us to get personal. The heart cracks open in many different ways, and when the intention for the work is integration, that’s a good clue that we’re aiming for the true vulnerability which can lead to growth.

It’s taken a decade or two, but I am learning now how to facilitate from that “bleeding edge,” in a way that is supportive of growth, and I am more aware of the nuances that go with that. I know the line between service and grandstanding can be very thin. I don’t want to display my wounds out of arrogance, and the last thing I want is for the group to feel they need to caretake me because of what I offered. For me, the goal is simply to show that we are all humans working towards healing. This struggle, this journey, this gift — it belongs to all of us. My job as a leader is to hold the container so we can all do the work – and I am not exempt from that work just because I am responsible for facilitating it. The only way that I can show that it’s safe to go is if I am willing to go myself.

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7 thoughts on “The Bleeding Edge of Vulnerability

  1. Amoret April 17, 2014

    Thank you for this -quite a timely read for me.

    • River Roberts April 17, 2014

      Thank you, Amoret. This sort of thing is *always* timely for me, as much as I wish it wasn’t. 🙂 Here’s to continuing the work even when it’s hard!

  2. Angela Magara April 17, 2014


    • River Roberts April 17, 2014

      Thanks, Angela. And thanks for being one of the ones who shared the initial experience of that “bleeding edge.” It has turned into a very useful term for me.

  3. Tammie April 19, 2014

    I feel such an upwelling of gratitude to witness and to be participant in this vulnerable landscape of feelings, thoughts and actions. Thank you River for Shining a Light into your own process and thereby Illuminating some areas of mine.

    Warmest Regards and So Much Love and Appreciation for Vulnerable-You; she is so very Brave

  4. River Roberts April 19, 2014

    Thank you, Tammie. That means quite a bit. And it is always a gift to be in sacred space with you. Many blessings.

  5. Sandy Cawthern May 1, 2014

    I am filled with gratitude.

    Words of our ritual said (I heard) She’s adult and it is hers and she can do this now.

    That which I gave to God herself to be healed I left with her.

    Last weekend I visited my twin daughters at their homes…all is love. And today I received those final healing loving words of grace.

    Thank everyone for cherishing each other that weekend and giving freely of your spirit.

    See you in Iowa!


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