The Vulnerability Trap

Brian had a lot of influence within the group, but not necessarily in a good way. On the surface, he had it all going on. He was athletic, good looking, and very experienced in the outdoors classroom environment. In fact, there wasn’t an activity we did during the first two days of this ten day Outward Bound program that he hadn’t already done a hundred times before, at least according to him. When we each had to climb the 35-foot power pole and jump off from the top, Brian elected to climb blindfolded, claiming it was just too easy for him to scale the pole with all his faculties intact.

Now it’s one thing to excel in outdoor experiential activities and another thing to alienate your teammates in the process; a feat Brian managed to do equally as well. You see, those first two days were all about bonding and become a team. After all, we were about to go out into the wilderness for eight straight days and we needed to be able to work well together. But for Brian it was more about Brian. He clearly enjoyed having an advantage over the rest of us in the various activities and went out of his way to make sure we all knew it. And to add insult to injury, he always had to go first, regardless what challenging activity we were about to do next. It was as if he wanted to show off his superiority and then sit back and enjoy watching the rest of us flounder.

It was towards the end of the second day and we had one final activity to do before dinner and packing up for our wilderness trip. By this point we had all gotten used to Brian and his self-grandiose ways. And in a weird sort of way, it actually brought the rest of us together.

 Jerome, our lead instructor, was in a hurry to get going as he gathered us together. “This activity is called Wind in the Willows. It’s a trust exercise where each of you will get a chance to be in the center of the circle with your eyes closed. You will then fall back into the waiting hands of your teammates who will gently move you around the circle…back and forth and to the side.”

As Jerome began demonstrating the correct body posture for falling backwards, the rest of us, minus Brian, began smiling at each other as we looked around the circle. Although no one came out and directly said it, I can tell you that we were all wondering how long it would take before Brian would hijack this activity as well.  

 “So, who’d like to go first?” asked Jerome.

“Here we go,” mumbled Sarah, one of the team members.

No one volunteered.

That’s odd, I thought, as I glanced around the circle wondering what’s taking Brian so long.

Still nothing.

“Okay guys,” said Jerome, “what’s going on?”

Jeff, another teammate, broke the awkwardness and moved into the center of the circle. “Let’s do this!”

We ignored Jerome’s comment and put our attention towards Jeff.

Could it be that Brian is actually learning to put others before himself, I questioned as we finished up with Jeff.

“Who’s next?” asked Jerome. “Let’s keep this going.”

More awkward silence.

“I’ll go,” said Mary Ann before glancing at Brian. “Unless you want to.”

“Go ahead,” said Brian.

After Mary Ann it became a free-for-all as everyone took their turn in the center…that is except for Brian.

 “Brian,” shouted Jerome, “everyone’s gone but you. It’s your turn.”

Shaking his head, Brian disagreed. “No thanks, been there, done that.”

“I’m sure you have, but we are all doing this,” replied Jerome, starting to get annoyed.

“Seriously,” pleaded Brian, “I’ve done this a hundred times. It is not necessary.”

This ping pong match continued until Jerome said in no uncertain terms, “Listen to me Brian, we’ve got things to do and we cannot move on until you get your ass in the circle.”

Brian looked down towards his feet like a little kid being forced to eat his vegetables. “Whatever,” he mumbled, and reluctantly headed towards the center of the circle. As he passed by me, I noticed he was literally shaking from head to toe. This is so weird, I thought. What happened to the guy who had to be blindfolded before climbing a 35-foot pole because it wasn’t challenging enough. What’s going on here?

Rebecca, another member of the group, touched Brian’s shoulder to let him know it was going to be okay.

He jumped.

“Sorry,” she said apologetically, “I was just trying to help.”

Sweat was now dripping from Brian’s brow.

“Look at me Brian, what’s going on?” asked Jerome out of concern.

“Brian stiffened up. “Nothing, I’m fine.”

“If you’re fine, then do the exercise and fall back.”

Brain took a big breath and attempted to fall back before stopping himself. His shaking was getting worse.

“We got you Brian,” said Sarah. “You can trust us.”

Brian tried again. This time he leaned back far enough to make contact with the first pair of hands ready to catch him without actually falling and immediately bent over in the opposite direction and crashed to the ground before anyone could break his fall. He covered his face and began shaking frantically. He was crying.

The group quickly surrounded him. “Are you okay?” cried Jeff, who was just as surprised as the rest of us.

Brian signaled with his left hand that he was fine while his right hand continued to cover his eyes.

Jerome put his arm around Brian and nodded to the rest of us, “Let’s give him some space.”

All eyes remained glued on Brian as we sat with him on the ground in silence. I must admit, I have never felt more compassionate for someone than I did for Brian at that moment; and it wasn’t just me. For the first and really only time during that program, we had become a complete team. Brian’s vulnerability had opened a door between the group that changed the dynamics forever.

Or so I thought.

But no. Instead, Brian got up, brushed himself off, apologized for having had a “weak moment,” and then proceeded to go back to being the SOB that we knew him to be. Sadly, his brief moment of true authenticity…the moment that literally brought the whole group together...was merely an aberration…a mistake, a moment to forget.

Four days later Brian was kicked out of the program by the instructors for his inability to be a team player and putting the group at risk. He just never got it.

I wonder if he ever will.