Social Diplomacy, Part 8: Vulnerability and Venting

  • Find places to be vulnerable and vent safely

When we’re really trying to step up and be our brightest and most powerful, we’re going to experience resistance. Parts of me love being bold and visible, and parts that absolutely hate it. While I continue to learn to be more outgoing and friendly in my public, there are days when I need to sit at home and read a book or play video games and not talk to people.

I like being kind and understanding others, but some days I feel cranky, sad, or despondent about the state of the world. I’m less gracious and forgiving of my own and other people’s stumbling. My old patterns of acting like a superior know-it-all threaten to step out. At times the cultural conditioning that I work against slip through, and I find myself saying something offensive and oppressive. All of these skills and perspectives I discuss in this series are in danger of going out the window, subtly or overtly.

Image of an owl who appears caught by a human hand.
Image of an owl who appears caught by a human hand. Photo by Zachary Bedrosian.

The thing about personal power is that we can offer both grace and accountability to these slippages. I take responsibility. I said or did something that goes against the person I want to be. I hurt someone and will make amends. I must also look at what lead up to that moment and sense what I needed that could have helped me to be my best self.

When we’ve been disrespected, pushed against the wall, given one too many excuses, or once again we’re getting criticism when we asked for help—that’s a time to step back and go to trusted allies. Those parts of us that are hurt and angry need time to speak and get their feelings out so we can go back into the situation in integrity.

In her classic book on behavioral psychology, Don’t Shoot the Dog, Karen Pryor discusses the phenomenon of tantrums that occur during training. When animals are struggling to learn a new skill, and not quite getting it, they will sometimes engage in erratic and frustrated behavior that looks to us like a tantrum. After clearing the anger, however, the animal is soon able to take on the skill. It might be that this is necessary for learning—my suspicion is that the anger both clears out long-building frustration around failure, as well as pushing our nervous systems to make the new connections.

For our purposes, we simply need to accept that our feelings exist, and matter, and sometimes we need places to indulge them so we can hear the deeper needs. We might need to let ourselves be sarcastic and say the awful thing, but in private, with people who know us and who will let us vent and then set us back on track. Otherwise we risk saying these things in public, with greater potential consequences. This is why people in marginalized communities need spaces for themselves, free of people from the dominant culture.

One of the problems of online discourse is that it blurs the boundaries between public and private. People might think that commenting on a friend’s blog or a locked Facebook post is an appropriately private place to do this venting, but this creates its own problems. We’re not always mindful about who can see our online posts, and we may think we’re talking to a small group of people who “get it” only to learn that folks are seeing our words without knowing the larger context. We look like assholes, instead of people venting during a difficult situation.

Less loyal “friends,” moreover, can easily screenshot these conversations and send them to the people from whom we were trying to keep these feelings. Email, as we increasingly know, is a similarly private communication that is no longer so private. Some might be willing to leverage these moments of rupture to cause damage and discredit enemies. Those of us who strive to be diplomatic need to be mindful when and where we do our necessary venting.

Diplomacy is not an easy road, and sometimes quite lonely. We bond with others through shared outrage and enmity against another group, yet it is the kind of bonding that is facile and requires regular feedings of anger and provocation. Diplomacy is a path of integrity, contemplation, and bridge-building. It is not for everyone, but I honor those who step into that role or try on some of these approaches in their communities.