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What I’ve learned about group sharing and vulnerability

‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.’

Brene Brown – Daring Greatly.

Like many introverts, I have always been a chronic hater of sharing with the group. Allowing myself to be vulnerable – seen, heard and judged. Speaking in class, staff meetings, presentations – all have struck fear into my heart. I freeze up, unable to properly hear what others are saying as I’m too busy trying to work out what I will say, how I will say it. I test out words and phrases in my head. Words spill out a jumbled, mixed up mess.

So, in light of this long standing fear, how did I come to facilitate a weekly postnatal group? And, what’s more, actually enjoy it?

After my daughter was born my health visitor directed me to a group for new parents. It was a large group of around fifteen mothers and babies at my local doctors surgery. A shared space where we could talk about our babies development, voice concerns and ask questions from health professionals. We sat in a circle and at the beginning of the session we were invited to introduce ourselves, our baby, and say a few words about how our week had been. This section of the session, naturally, filled me with chest tightening dread. Not helped by the fresh reboot of anxiety I had felt since giving birth.

One week I broke down in tears recounting my daughter’s hourly wakes through the night. Mortified by my show of vulnerability, I told myself I couldn’t possibly return to the group. As we were leaving, the health visitor told us she would be teaching some baby massage techniques the following week. ‘Ah that’s a shame,’ I thought, ‘I would have liked that.’

I’m so glad I returned the next week. My daughter loved the baby massage and I loved how it made me breathe and slow down. I was forced to focus on the present moment; a form of meditation, a break from swirling thoughts and anxieties. I went home with the handout we were given and started practising at home – when it all got too much, when I needed to bring it back to what was important.

Months later, anxiety still lingering but becoming more manageable, I enrolled on a course to teach baby massage to new parents. The training program was a small group of four, a testing but workable number. There were anxiety inducing activities (roleplay – ugh!) but overall it felt great to learn a new skill. I felt strongly that I wanted to nurture new mothers, giving them the skills I had been given to soothe their babies and themselves. Our teacher told us that group sharing at the beginning of our classes would be vital to check in with parents and establish the group. ‘Hmm,’ I thought, ‘we’ll see’…

A few weeks later, I was running my first course at the local health centre that had housed my post natal group (a different room, so no flashbacks!) Waiting for people to turn up to the first session I was terrified – going to the toilet to focus on breathing, using visualisations, pulling out all the tricks… Once I’d had a one to one chat with parents as they arrived I realised they were just as nervous about attending a group. I enjoyed meeting the parents and their babies and I knew the massage techniques. I breathed, I acted confident, I felt more confident.

‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.’ Brene Brown – Daring Greatly.I turned the focus to the new mothers, shifting the attention away from the group as a mass and concentrating on the group as individuals. Individuals that were vulnerable. A woman trying to come to terms with the fact that her baby had been born with additional needs. A woman arriving at the class with a tear stained face as she’d had an argument with her partner on leaving the house. A woman exhausted, trying to manage a baby with colic.

I started the classes small but as my confidence grew with positive feedback, I gradually increased the numbers. I included the group sharing at the beginning of the session and it was the right decision – moving the classes from purely learning based into something more personal. It allowed the group to move from a circle of strangers to a group of comrades connecting over their highs and lows, developing strength in adversity. The strength of other women sharing their vulnerabilities with each other gave me the confidence to share, and in turn, feel more confident in my vulnerability.

The group dynamics shifted week to week. The chaotic nature of babies and sleeplessness added to a fluid journey where there were no fixed identities or personalities – no introverts and extroverts. The same mums who had seemed so self-assured at the start of the course, talking freely about their lives and partners, after a bad night or a session with an unsettled baby were reticent, anxiety showing on their faces. If we see confidence as an act then the mask can slip for all of us sometimes.

Facilitating this group taught me many things. That confidence grows with doing and experiencing. Those that seem the most confident often aren’t. That contributing to and managing a group effectively isn’t about being the loudest, most assertive person. The skills that were most important to my classes were sensitivity and empathy. Skills that may come more naturally to an introvert personality, skills polished from a lifetime of watching, listening and feeling.

Brene Brown has conducted years of research around the subject of vulnerability. In her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability, she asserts that ‘Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the centre of meaningful human experiences.’ She stresses the importance of connection, stating ‘Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others; it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.’ In order to connect, we have to ‘allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.’

We are all fearful of being vulnerable, being ‘seen’. For Brene Brown, shame is the main factor in stopping our connections. We think that there is something about ourselves that if others see it, they won’t want to connect. In her book Daring Greatly she states, ‘Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.’

Gradually testing our comfort zones can leave us with a confidence that is authentic and long lasting. Strip away the armours we put up to cover our ‘weaknesses’ and there are beautiful connections to be made.

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