On this page, we’ll warm up to some ideas around how to be vulnerable. After reading, we’ll have a better understanding of how vulnerability fits in our lives and why it’s important to fully embrace.
-How it helps us find where we belong
-Creating reciprocal relationships
-Tools we can all use to access vulnerability
The concept of vulnerability may be completely new to us. Or, as mentioned in this talk: we think we understand the benefits, and we’re curious about the “how-to’s” of vulnerability, but we’re not sure where to begin.
Vulnerability is a multifaceted concept that touches on many aspects, both internal and interpersonal. As a factor of well-being, it has many subfactors and related factors (all of which you can measure in personal detail using the Assessment Center). And for simplicity’s sake, we’ve defined vulnerability as, “An authentic and intentional willingness to be open to uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure in social situations in spite of fears.”
In other words, it’s that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control.
We’re going to take a look at what vulnerability actually looks like in our lives, and the beginning steps to recognizing it within ourselves.
It’s wonderful that you’re here!
Opportunities for vulnerability show up every hour of every day for our entire lives. From the moment we’re born until the day we die, we experience life through a lens of vulnerability with everyone around us.
Throughout the Vulnerability section, we explore the concept of time and vulnerability. Look out for a tiny clock icon for examples of vulnerability over time, like in the chart below. To fill out your own chart, click the button!
These are examples of what happens when we are not able to or decide not to be vulnerable with those around us
|Age 8||We are reluctant to go to school because we have no friends there. Our parents rush us into the car, and blame us for making them late. We feel regret.||At school, we are actively ignored by kids playing games we want to try. But we won’t talk to the nicer kids about it or tell the teacher.||We isolate ourselves in our room because we didn’t find connection at school.||Our parents hug us tenderly before we go to bed. We don’t want to disappoint them so we don’t tell them we’re having a hard time at school.|
|Age 16||We get up to dress to impress our crush who is in our friend group. We hope they’ll ask us to the school dance that is coming up.||We help our crush out with their homework before class. We hope they will notice how helpful we are.||We find out our crush asked another friend to the dance. We feel disappointed and at the same time not surprised.||Feeling worthless and like we’ll never be cool enough to have a date, we go to bed with a heavy heart.|
|Age 38||Driving to work, we’re feeling nervous about our job security and making enough for retirement.||We distance ourselves from others at work because we feel like everyone knows we are making a lower salary.||When we get home, our kids want nothing more than to play outside with us. But our sense of letting them down gets in the way of our ability to join them.||We try to fall asleep after tucking our kids into bed. We kiss our partner and close our eyes, trying not to dread the next day.|
|Age 88||We live in a nursing home. During meal times in the cafeteria we don’t try to make friends with other residents.||We chose to not go to a social activity because “what’s the point anymore.”||We haven’t heard from our kids in months. We have regrets about ways we’ve handled situations in the past and wonder if they’re distancing themselves from us?||As we drift off to sleep, we wonder about the meaning of life and if we did everything we wanted to do.|
Origins of Belonging
As we’ve seen when defining vulnerability, myths of vulnerability, and benefits of vulnerability, a sense of belonging is a key and valuable outcome. At the same time, did you know belonging also helps minimize the risk and exposure we feel when we’re vulnerable? Let’s investigate what goes into “belonging.” After that we’ll explain what belonging can do to ease the pricklier parts of vulnerability.
Our sense of belonging begins way before birth. There is a psychophysiological connection between a mother and a growing embryo (Dipietro 2010). After birth, infants can’t survive without their parents or caregivers. In two weeks, there is evidence of social cognition. And within six to eight weeks of life, parents can witness early social behaviors from their child: smiling, joint attention, reciprocal verbal exchanges.
This is all to say that there is evolutionary evidence that suggests there’s an inherent desire to connect and form social relationships.
In fact, evidence of tribal bonding suggests that by being social our ancestors would increase their likelihood of finding food, maintaining protection against predators, and increasing their chances of reproducing (Dyble 2016).
In later stages of life, like in adolescence, peer groups and friendships become a dominant way we navigate our social identities and a sense of belonging. We draft a connection with teachers around learning, as well as form support structures around what our parents provide us.
When we transition to adulthood, our psychosocial adjustment is directly correlated to our childhood experiences of social isolation and exclusion.3 Emotional isolation, ostracism, or other forms of insecure attachments that occur in childhood (or not) have the potential to emerge in adulthood in the form of challenges maintaining intimacy or romantic relationships.
We’re meant as humans to seek and thrive from connection throughout our lifetime! Our successes and failures to find belonging can affect how vulnerable we feel.
In summary, belonging helps us contend with being vulnerable!
Whether we get a deadly virus, decide to propose to someone, or move to another city by ourselves, we’re all going to experience physical or emotional vulnerability in our lifetime. Having relationships (AKA belonging), according to Sue Johnson, is the way to reduce the negative impacts of being exposed emotionally or physically. In The Knowledge Project, she offers that “We need connection with others like we need oxygen. We’re way too vulnerable without it.”
If we’ve found belonging…
-When we are sick and can’t take care of ourselves or need to isolate ourselves (the vulnerability) a friend, partner, or community member will bring us meals or groceries. Suddenly having to slow down to get better seems more possible.
-When we propose to someone we love, we are expressing our true feelings and hopes to take a new step in the relationship (the vulnerability). Our trust in them to treat our feelings sincerely and the consistency of the relationship makes the risk seem easier.
-When we move to a new city, we can suddenly feel alone and out of our depth (the vulnerability). Our old support network encouraging us from afar can ease the sense of alienation and boost our confidence as we traverse a new landscape of people and places.
What seeking belonging looks like for each of us will vary and some of that will depend on our attachment style.
Attachment theory is (in very simple terms) how our relationship to our primary caregiver during childhood formed how we seek or maintain connections as adults. Or, what patterns of behavior (emotional regulation vs emotional dysregulation) we experience when trying to form friendships, community, and partnering/romantic relationships with people.
Generally, 30% of any given personality trait is genetic, with the other 70% being environmental. Even with these statistics, our genetic traits interact with our environment. We take in everything we see and hear to understand our world. Thus, our attachment styles are not necessarily carved in stone! But they can be a big indicator for how we interact with something like vulnerability. Seem abstract still?
Let’s take a look at 4 main styles of attachment:
SECURE: Someone whose primary caregivers from infancy to adulthood gave them assurance that they were loved, cared for, and safe. This can include physical presence, emotional availability, and responsiveness. In adulthood, it means their childhood supported an identity grounded in feeling loved and “secure.” They will have an easier time regulating their emotions and the risks often inherent in vulnerability may be less daunting. Vulnerability as a practice may come more organically in their relationships.
INSECURE: When a child’s assurance and needs are not met by their primary caregiver, they can develop an insecure attachment. For someone with an insecure attachment style vulnerability will have more challenges. It may seem scary, undesirable, or even nonexistent/something they can’t identify or understand.
There are three main categories aside from Secure:
- AVOIDANT: the primary caretaker did not meet the needs of the child or was distant. The child will become self-reliant because they couldn’t count on anyone growing up. They will be more likely to hide their feelings or push them away.
- AMBIVALENT: someone experienced either unpredictable care or overly intrusive care growing up. The unpredictable nature creates a lack of autonomy and anxiety around self-worth and the sincerity of their connections. For many this creates a “clingyness” behavior towards others.
- DISORGANIZED: someone’s primary caretaker was abusive or encouraged fear. The child will experience confusion around the desire to connect to their parent/guardian but also fear them or face rejection. Their ability to pursue relationships of any kind will mirror this confusion or “disorganization” and they will have to work harder at emotional regulation.
Curious about where you may fall on the spectrum of attachment? If you haven’t already, check out our Assessment Center!
Another important aspect of understanding attachment theory is affect regulation, which is how we naturally react to triggers and emotions that present within us, as well as how we process and let go of these triggers. Our attachment style will heavily influence how successful we are (at least without practice) at recognizing affect regulation and managing it.
How we were raised and our attachment style may help us understand how we react emotionally to feeling vulnerable or when we are putting ourselves at emotional risk.
If we are secure, then our ability to properly recognize our emotions and then address them will be easier because we know that no matter how scary an emotion is, we will get through it and still receive love and/or acceptance afterward.
If we have an insecure attachment, our ability to recognize our emotions or how we react will be more nebulous. Perhaps we get easily overwhelmed by the emotions (ambivalent) or overly intellectual (avoidant) about how we feel. We do these things to protect ourselves from the learned outcome of no one being on the other side of our emotional experience or emotional risks. We can’t believe we will receive support or connection that is sincere or reliable.
A big part of attachment theory and changing our affect regulation is tied to how we perceive ourselves to “matter.” If we have a healthy sense of self-worth, external validation that reinforces internal validation, faith in reciprocity when sharing or taking risks, and have an unquestioning belief that we deserve to advocate for ourselves, then we will have a high sense of mattering both to ourselves and the people around us. Finding pathways to feel like we “matter” will help someone cultivate a more balanced affect regulation and perhaps even influence their attachment style!
What’s this got to do with vulnerability? Well, as we’ve mentioned above, our sense of belonging is closely aligned to our experiences creating connections growing up.
- If we don’t feel like we belong (an insecure attachment), our ability to share our inner selves will be hindered.
- If we do feel we belong (a secure attachment) then sharing our more authentic identities will be easier.
This belonging will follow us into adulthood and is a useful tool to understanding how it can manifest through attachment theory.
An Important Note
One’s attachment style does not have a moral or ethical connotation. We are not inherently lazy or bad people if we have a disorganized attachment style any more than we are more “good” or worthy of connection because we have a secure attachment style. And, generally it is accepted that a secure attachment is achievable for everyone. Change is always possible! All it takes is support (professional or interpersonal) and patience with ourselves to slowly seek and cultivate environments where we feel safe and accepted.
We have an entire section on Attachment Theory! Check it out and see what resonates with you. Particularly relevant are the Attachment Styles, Living with Our Attachments, and Mattering pages.
As previously mentioned, an aspect of vulnerability is putting ourselves out there. This can mean the possibility of emotional harm.
If we choose to be more vulnerable, we’re offering others the ability to be vulnerable as well. This opens ourselves up to creating connections based on mutual understanding and thus that important “belonging” we talked about earlier. Which in turn can minimize our sense of dread about being in vulnerable positions because we are scripting positive outcomes to practicing vulnerability.
Let’s dissect this concept a bit. Here are a few examples of reciprocal interactions of vulnerability:
|Context||Our response||Reciprocal response|
|Having a conversation with our partner about the future and having children. They ask us if we even want to have children.||I don’t know. I’m not sure how I would be as a parent.||Honestly, I don’t know either. There is so much information and pressure nowadays to be “perfect” parents.|
|Our friend is going through a breakup because someone cheated on them. They don’t understand how they didn’t see the signs, and feel unloveable.||I had someone cheat on me once too. I felt so blindsided. But I learned I couldn’t blame myself for why it happened. After some time, I began to feel better and found new loves.||You’re right. Maybe I should be less harsh on myself. It’s going to hurt for a while, but we’ll move on eventually.|
|We transfer into a new school and dread the lunch hour. What if no one wants to sit with us? Instead we’re going to ask first instead of awkwardly circling.||Is this seat taken?||It’s not! Take a seat. How is your first day? You were so quiet I was a little intimidated to invite you to lunch.|
|Our mother goes to the hospital after a car accident.||I’m scared. Mom is supposed to be invincible.||I’m scared too. Do you need someone to wait with until there is news?|
|We’re new at a job and learn we’ve been assigned a project that uses software we weren’t trained on and can’t figure out on our own. We ask our manager if we can shadow someone to learn it.||I feel a little overwhelmed by the new software. Can I take notes with Susan for an hour after lunch to get the hang of it?||Actually, I struggled with it too when we first started using it, so I found a tutorial online. I’ll send it to you and if you need further help we’ll go from there! Thank you for being honest!|
|After a blow up at work, our boss recommends we seek counseling.||I’m struggling with my mental health. I feel out of control.||I struggle with my mental health more than I share with you. You’re not alone. The first step is acknowledging we need help!|
In the above examples (idealized as they are), we see how being honest about our vulnerabilities can open up pathways for others to connect or relate to us.
- What do we think the outcomes would have been if the first response avoided acknowledging any fears, taking any risks, or couldn’t admit to needing help?
- How would we feel if we said the first response, and then received an answer that shamed or ignored our feelings?
- Would we trust that person in the future to help us?
- Would it make us feel foolish for sharing?
- Those sound like horrible feelings don’t they? So, why would we want someone else to feel that way about us?
Perhaps using shields against vulnerability might make us feel safer or more in control, but what are we missing out on when we do this?
How can this idea of reciprocal vulnerability free up energy and space in our body and mind?
Thus, part of a good life is having reciprocally vulnerable relationships. We are social creatures and live longer, healthier lives when we have people around us whom we trust and love. (Check out this infographic on the benefits of friendship)
We want to be around people who can make us laugh and help us through life’s inevitable hard times. Our lives are less stressful when we have people with whom we can relax and be authentic.4 Without genuine vulnerability, it’s more difficult to build the types of relationships that can provide comfort and increase resilience.5
If we’re always refusing vulnerability, it can close off potential connections, even if we perceive it as a weakness or negative. Over time, we may also refuse what brings us pure joy and connection with others.
Vulnerability is a gift for everyone when we embrace it.
“Being real” takes time
Vulnerability doesn’t happen overnight. Vulnerability takes time and practice.
To start, take a moment to reflect on this passage from “The Velveteen Rabbit” about becoming “real” (or for our purposes, vulnerable).
Here’s the story being read out loud:
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
- What does this passage mean to you about being “real”?
- Why do you think vulnerability takes time?
In the attachment theory section, we mentioned that we can change or influence our attachment styles, but it will take time, work, and patience with ourselves. Our relationship to vulnerability will take similar efforts and may not be something we can quantify or track easily. Our greatest ally through the process will be our self-compassion.
Okay now that we know that we can either accept vulnerability or not … let’s assume we’ve chosen to begin to cozy up to the idea of it. So…what’s next?
Let’s start with the feelings and sensations of vulnerability!
Somatics and Vulnerability
There are many ways to become in tune when we are feeling vulnerable. Not just conceptually, but feeling it physically in our bodies as well.
Soma comes from the Greek and Latin words for “body.” Somatics can be best understood as disciplines and experiences surrounding our relationships to our own bodies. It’s a very broad concept ranging from dance to philosophy! In therapy, there are somatic practices which seek to help someone reconnect their mind to their bodily experiences. When experiencing trauma (or re-experiencing what our minds read as trauma) our bodies will have physical responses–like tension in our jaw, an upset stomach, or even back pain. One method used in somatic based therapies is to guide someone in discovering their body’s responses to stress, challenges, and trauma, and with that knowledge, learn to pause when it happens and work towards creating new patterns (very much like when we talked about Vulnerability Shields).
In terms of vulnerability, a somatic approach would look like noticing our physiological responses in moments we are being vulnerable. Do we feel queasy when we admit we made a mistake? Do we feel like our heart jumps into our throat when a teacher calls on us? Do we slam doors or run into corners when someone we worked up the nerve to ask out ghosts us on a dating app?
When we’ve noticed how we react, we can work on beginning to press pause when those feelings arise (much like we were trying to do with the Vulnerability Shields). Thus (over time!) we can recognize when our body is signaling we’re feeling vulnerable, and learn to honor and eventually talk to it about how it wants to proceed.
How do you feel?
For this activity we’re going to experiment with different types of body language and see how it makes us feel. With a friend or someone you want to get to know. It’s best to be somewhere quiet where you can sit in the same space.
- Start sitting or standing back to back with your partner. Without touching, words, signals, objects (no phones!), or looking at each other, try to connect for about a minute. Stop.
- For the next part, face each other. However, try to make your bodies as tense as you can–examples include crossing legs, crossing arms and looking down. If you’re sitting you can try curling up in a ball or hugging your knees to your chest. In the tense position, take 1 minute (or as long as you can hold it) to try to connect. This time you can use signals, but still no words.
- Next, take on a more relaxed stance. Look up naturally, uncross your arms and place them at your sides or behind you, uncross your legs and stand with them about shoulder-width apart, and face your partner squarely. Take 1 minute to connect without words.
- For the last experiment, we’re going to take a minute to focus on our breathing. While closing our eyes, start breathing into your belly. Breathe in for at least three counts and out for at least three counts through your nose. Then place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Continue breathing until your breath is back to its natural cadence. Now, open your eyes, face your partner slowly and connect in a way that feels natural. This time you can talk to each other.
Debrief with your partner for 8-10 minutes:
- How was that?
- What does this remind you of?
- How have you responded to this feeling in the past?
Did any of the connection attempts feel better than the others? Were you surprised by which one? Which one caused the most emotional discomfort? Which one made you feel more at ease?
Sitting in the open body stance can feel scary or unsafe at times and we are the best judge of what feels good to us.
Even if we don’t feel a physical or biological response when feeling vulnerable, there are other options! Remember in attachment theory we mentioned something called “affect regulation?”
We defined it as:
How we react to triggers and emotions that present within us, as well as how we process and let go of these triggers.
Perhaps we don’t resonate with feeling our emotions in our body or don’t have access to professional help to guide us back to recognizing our somatic responses to vulnerability. That’s ok! Instead, we can work on recognizing our affect regulation patterns. How we feel or how we don’t feel when we practice sharing ourselves or taking emotional risks is just as illuminating. Does it seem like you short circuit or do you desire to change the subject? Does it seem exciting and inspire curiosity? A way to track these patterns could be journaling, habit tracking, voice recordings, or even a spreadsheet!
Now that we know how “feeling” vulnerable takes many forms, let’s explore what it takes to “be” vulnerable. In the following section, we’ll explore traits and expressions of vulnerability that we can take on as we develop how to be vulnerable in the world and how that relates to our own sense of being “Enough.”
How to be More Vulnerable
There is no doubt it can be hard to be vulnerable, especially if we didn’t have positive experiences with it as children. But meaningful social connections are hard to build and maintain without mutual vulnerability. And, social connections sustain us.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable we can create amazing reciprocal interactions that empower all parties. Commonly, the situation would benefit from us putting ourselves out there.
When we are able to say the following: “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” or “I’m sorry for causing you pain,” we actually free up energy because we no longer have to put effort into maintaining our buffers and our illusions.
When we open up and admit to our vulnerabilities, we give people the opportunity to safely admit to theirs as well.
It can take time and patience to find ways to insert vulnerability slowly into our lives. Below are a few digestible ways to begin embracing vulnerability yourself. Think of them as tools in our vulnerability toolbox. We’re going to take a closer look at each tool and provide methods to understand how to include them in your own life.
- Being “enough” – developing a sense of self-worth
- Honesty – taking a radical approach to our integrity
- Openness – staying available for new experiences and connections
- Intimacy – being close to people important to us
- Self-awareness – an understanding of our own self-perception
- Trust – belief in someone or something’s reliability
- Courageous – undeterred by risks
When creating space for vulnerability in our lives, a cultivated sense of self-worth will get us through more difficult stretches of the road.
Having a unique “enough” ethos is an approach to life wherein we can:
- Feel more connected to the world around us
- Experience joy in our relationships with healthy boundaries
- Enjoy real companionship, true intimacy, and healthy relationships
- Experience a deep sense of personal freedom
- Be the recipient of compassion
- Feel a sense of self-worth
How do you relate to self-love? Take our quiz at the Assessment Center:
Think of “being enough” as a security blanket while we practice vulnerability. We’re going into the vulnerability with the understanding that if we are rejected or if we experience a letdown after being vulnerable:
- we can get past it,
- it’s not a reason to never be vulnerable again,
- It’s not because we are undeserving/unworthy
Being enough isn’t about the OUTCOMES. It is about how we relate our sense of worth to the outcomes.
Making the statement, “I am worthy of ____” is true.
We are all worthy of love. Of compassion. Of being vulnerable with other people and finding acceptance. However, the statement cannot be used to evade personal responsibility for why we’re not receiving love or finding those relationships with reciprocal vulnerability.
It’s the tricky space of deserving (love, vulnerability, etc.) as we currently are, but also not being owed those things from other people by default. If we are not receiving, it may be a good idea to look within ourselves for why. Self-compassion encourages us to see our flaws and know we can change them for outcomes that make us (and those around us) happier.
Our page on 100% Responsibility goes over what to do about balancing situations that seem out of our control with our proactive role in life.
Developing that feeling of being “enough” can be a bit nebulous to find in ourselves.
Particularly relevant is what we covered in attachment theory. The “mattering” bit. We have to create a belief that we mean something both to ourselves and the people around us. As difficult as it can seem, WE ALL DO MATTER. We are all enough already.
Consider perusing our Self-Love and Social Comparison pages for a more in-depth look. Additionally, we’ll dive deeper into what it means to “Be Enough” later on:
Alternatively, try some self-compassion exercises from Dr. Kristin Neff.
Being vulnerable starts with being honest with ourselves. If we can’t come to terms with the fact that we COULD be better, we may not be able to find that starting point.
For example, if we want to be a better friend or romantic partner, we first need to be honest with ourselves that sometimes we might not show up the way we want to. If we can’t learn from our past mistakes, how do we realize that we’re making them in the first place? A level of integrity is important to incorporating vulnerability into our lives.
Whether we’re in a monogamous relationship or a non-monogamous relationship there are “relationship agreements” we have built with our romantic partners around boundaries and support. Being honest about expectations within a relationship as well as needs and wants is crucial to long term happiness with someone.
As Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. points out in an article about romantic relationships and honesty, honesty in a relationship isn’t merely about not lying. It’s about approaching communication with a desire to understand each other. It truly is about being comfortable being vulnerable with each other.
In friendships honesty is integral! We won’t find people who understand us if we are not honest about what we like to do for fun or what we need to recharge. Eventually we’ll realize:
We’ve surrounded ourselves with people who don’t make us happy
That we’re exhausted from performing what we think will make us friends
Instead, using honesty we can find who will want to be our friend for who we are. For more insight on the effects of friendship in our lives and even some tips on finding and making friends, check out the friendship section!
Modeling honesty with young children can help them emulate it as they grow up. According to Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, three steps to teaching children honesty are:
- Discuss what it means to be honest and to lie
- Model honesty
- Praise honesty
This could apply to our own children, nieces, nephews, younger cousins or siblings, etc.
And to be fair, sometimes adults also need honesty modeled for them too.
Our families are some of the longest and most influential relationships we’ll have in our lives. Having positive relationships with our siblings for example can improve our likelihood for social adjustment as we grow into adolescents (Kim et al, 2002). Learning to be honest and open with them can have lasting positive consequences.
After reading this opinion from a Silicon Valley CEO, it becomes clear to us that it’s considered a faux paux for startup employees to show a sense of vulnerability. Whether it’s posturing by appearing wealthy or an inability to share authentic feelings about a project that’s failing, “fake it ‘til you make it” is a ubiquitous mantra within that culture (we have an ENTIRE section on Busyness and its relationship to work culture in the US).
What are some alternatives to this cultural phenomenon for startups and showing real vulnerability?
What are some ways they could be more honest and show real vulnerability?
How is asking for help showing vulnerability?
At EY (formerly known as Ernst & Young), a program called “r u ok?” was launched within the company culture. The company realized that mental health was linked to higher retention and performance levels. So, they made an effort to be a resource for their employees to say they were having a hard time and to get help. In essence, they wanted their employees to be more honest about vulnerabilities tied to mental health.
One employee remarked, “I began to realize I have an enormous amount of support at this firm and they could even help me think when I couldn’t,” he shares. “I think being asked “are you okay?” was something for me that was truly life-changing.”
The program lead, Sandra Turner said, “We need to have the right culture – one where people trust that coming forward about their struggle with mental health will not affect their job.”
Dr. Sue Johnson, a researcher, clinical psychologist, and the developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, explained that, “When you can be vulnerable for a moment, and that person tunes in and cares about your vulnerability, that’s the person to go with (Johnson 2022).”
In this way, vulnerability can also serve as a litmus test for your close relationships.
Being open means our relationships develop more quickly, and deepen too. If we find ourselves closed off and defensive, we may only be able to connect with ourselves and others on a more superficial level. But if we remove layers of defenses, we can connect on a deeper, more authentic level, which creates more bonds than barriers.
Watch this brief scene from the show “Euphoria”. Here Zendaya’s character Rue apologizes and takes an honest assessment of her actions toward her friend. Her character’s use of drugs to numb her pain disabled her from being truly vulnerable. By getting rid of her guard, Rue tells Jules how she truly feels, unlocking a level of vulnerability she didn’t think she was capable of. It also becomes a turning point in their relationship.
What do you think enables this level of honesty that Rue is showing here?
Because vulnerability can be perceived as stressful to some, it would make sense that we choose to create boundaries between how we’re vulnerable in life and at our jobs, for example. This stance can often lead to work cultures filled with bullying, shaming, and systems of reward that promote criticism.
In a report from the Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, they explored how nurses’ own experiences of vulnerability and suffering had positively influenced their capacity to engage and provide exemplary patient care (Stenbock-Hult et al 2011).
In 2017, they confirmed this theory with a study in nurse education where teacher development had greatly benefited from peer assessment. They found that by actively inviting review, it made teachers vulnerable to other fellow teachers and established trust. This study showed how openness and vulnerability leads to increased mutual learning, team growth, and offered more accountability for nursing curriculum (Tanner et al 2017).
In 2018, Stephanie Lopez, a researcher at Seattle Pacific University, found that organizational leaders who are willing to be vulnerable with those they lead created further connections and progress toward company goals (Lopez 2018).
A really easy way to be more vulnerable is to not only be honest and open, but to also tell other people about it. When we’re not feeling good, talking about it out loud can help us acknowledge the emotions and programming that’s stuck in our bodies and minds. Journaling, meditation, counseling, or talking about it out loud with a trusted friend can help in the journey toward healing.
The following exercise can help us work through some emotions and programming.
First, watch this part of a conversation between Karamo Brown and Russell Brand.
#1: Grab your journal and write down at least one aspect of your life where you could honestly acknowledge your past.
#2: Read your journal entry out loud and do a body scan. Try to attach a feeling to that experience and write that down, as well.
- How does talking about an experience out loud change your perception of that experience?
- What are some other ways we can acknowledge our journey with mental health?
BONUS: Take about an hour to work through that experience with someone in your trusted circle. Then write about how they experienced you in those moments (and maybe differently!) in your journal.
“Why is it that many of us only show our vulnerable side at the most extreme times? After all, vulnerability can help us not only build relationships, but also experience our feelings more deeply.” – Brene Brown
As we mentioned before:
when we open up and admit to our vulnerabilities, we give people the opportunity to safely admit to theirs as well. It’s the perfect space to build intimacy (closeness, familiarity) with people we trust!
As a quick primer, try this short activity about levels of vulnerability in relationship to intimacy.
Ever find that we’re more or less intimate in certain situations, at specific times, or around particular people? It’s not too uncommon!
Let’s do a little audit. Rank the following life situations from 1-5: put a 1 for less intimate, and a 5 for feeling like you can be the most vulnerable in these kinds of situations.
Intimate partner/spouse – having a conversation about the future
Family – talking about the past
Extended family – talking at Thanksgiving dinner
Workplace – Talking by the water cooler
School – Participating in a class discussion
On the street – talking to someone at the bus stop
Doctor – Talking about our health
Faith group – Talking about spirituality
Therapist / counselor / mentor – Talking about our challenges
Looking at our scale here. Notice anything different about where or when we’re more likely to be vulnerable? Is it an either/or? Meaning, are we all in, or all out in some situations?
For example, someone could be very vulnerable with their friends and therapist, yet struggle to ask for what they really want with their spouse regarding sex. They could talk about health readily with their doctor or family, yet not at the workplace, even if they wanted to. Someone might be uncomfortable revealing their status with some groups or in certain places, and fine with it elsewhere (e.g., religion, financial status/ability, divorce, health diagnosis, gender, confronting gossip, etc.).
People often consider vulnerability as a unidimensional ability/quality/virtue/skill, but it is very likely nuanced and dependent. The idea here is that intimacy in these places is more of a “living thing” than that “thing” we only do sometimes.
- What are the places you notice you’re more vulnerable in?
- What about places that you feel less vulnerable in?
- What are some little ways we can make vulnerability part of our everyday interaction in those places where we lack vulnerability?
- What are some medium-sized ways?
- Big Gulp ways?
- How about the places where vulnerability shows up all the time – what are the conditions that make it easier, and can you replicate those conditions in the places you feel less vulnerable?
The Three Vaults
A key element of vulnerability is about levels of intimacy we share with those around us. A way to contextualize this is with the Three Vaults approach. to the world and a way to be seen (or be vulnerable) on different levels. Each vault equals a different level of vulnerability used to unlock deeper intimacy.
When we have everyday encounters, we largely let people into our First Vault – we choose to let people know about more superficial aspects of our life: where we live, what we do for a living, or how old we are. This is an entry-level of vulnerability.
- Expand on the Storied Life exercise from above and finish writing out the facts of life that are in The First Vault.
- Who in your life do you notice you share this information with? Be specific as possible.
This vault contains the stories we tell about ourselves and that define our past. We share lessons about our family origins, our personality, and our identity. It’s the moderate level of difficulty in vulnerability.
- What would you consider to be the statements you carry around that are shared in the Second Vault? How do these ideas shape your personality and identity? For better or worse?
- Who in your life do you notice you share this information with? Be specific as possible.
Most of our encounters with those we know are limited to the First and Second Vaults.
When we let someone into our Third Vault, they encounter our full presence, our soul, and what sets us apart from everyone else in the world. It also offers our humanity – what connects us all. We find safety in others when revealing the contents of our Third Vault. It is the “final level” of vulnerability.
- What are the hopes, dreams, fears, and emotions in your Third Vault?
- Who do you allow yourself to share these with?
- What are the circumstances in which you’re more or less willing to share elements of your Third Vault?
- What do you notice about those conditions where you’re more or less willing to share?
Love Beckons to Us
A type of intimacy can involve romantic love. When we let folks through different “vaults,” we are inviting them closer to our most vulnerable selves. When that vulnerability is reciprocal it can open the doors to a very special kind of love.
When writing about love, Lebanese-American artist, poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran offered us a meditation on our ability to lean into things in our life that would make us more vulnerable:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
How does this level of exposure create meaning for us and those around us?
Next, Gibran offers us another, more direct call for vulnerability in our lives:
[I]f in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter and weep, but not all of your tears.
What tension does Gibran explore on falling in love. What level of risk are we at with this level of intimacy in a relationship?
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.
What other takeaways came up after reading Gibran’s words about intimacy in relationships?
Speaking Our Truth
Writing about one’s life story can be an inspiring and often gut-wrenching experience. But, vulnerability can’t exist without it!
After watching this brief interview with Jonathan Van Ness after releasing their book, answer the following questions:
- What are “the costs” of speaking one’s truth?
- What are the benefits of this level of intimacy with the entire world?
- Do the benefits truly outweigh the costs?
Self-awareness is when we see ourselves clearly. Without self awareness, we may have a hard time recognizing when we’re shielding from vulnerability, our shadow selves, or the other hindrances to vulnerability our body and minds use to protect us.
If we can learn to see our reactions when asked to be vulnerable, we’ll know how to grow into being more comfortable with it. In this way, we become more creative, confident and make sounder decisions. Studies show we’re even able to build stronger relationships and communicate more effectively when we’re self-aware.
But we can also get caught up in a self-awareness loop such as:
- “I don’t think this person likes me so I shouldn’t talk to them.”
- “Oh, maybe I just think they don’t like me because I’m projecting my insecurities onto them, so I should talk to them.”
- “But will that be considered presumptuous?”
- “Why should I think they want to talk to me?”
What’s interesting is that we need vulnerability for more well-rounded self-awareness:
- Being vulnerable enables us to ask questions about ourselves even when we don’t know the answers. It also gives us the willingness to not have all the answers.
- Being vulnerable enables us to admit our mistakes and shortcomings.
- Being vulnerable empowers us to fail as well as persevere.
Conversely, we need self-awareness for vulnerability:
Self-awareness is a component to emotional vulnerability. When we are able to recognize our reactions to vulnerability, then it will be easier to see what emotions are tied to each reaction. Some of the more difficult emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness can make us feel like we’re in a rut we can’t escape. It can make being vulnerable with others feel unbearably embarrassing.
Somatic Experiencing is a technique to help people move through the “stuck” energy by witnessing and then renegotiating their body’s response to a past trauma. Learn more about the process of Somatic Experiencing to release trauma and restore connection with our bodies, minds, and emotions.
By witnessing our most painful emotional reactions we can validate them, and then inquire within ourselves where they are coming from. This is being emotionally vulnerable. If we can acknowledge our feelings in this way, we can cultivate a much healthier and mature relationship with them. Making it easier to share them with others and creating vulnerability.
Below is a graphic from the Self-Regulation section of the Factors in Listening page that has a universal approach to practicing emotional self-awareness:
For more on how to take a step back and assess our circumstances while maintaining choice over our responses, we invite you to explore our section on Allowing:
Here are few more resources around AMeaningOfLife to help develop emotional vulnerability:
From birth onward, we have to trust people around us. And how that trust is responded to has important effects on our emotional development.
Trust is defined as a firm belief in the reliability, honesty, or ability of someone or something. Trust is often lost when a person acts outside of what was agreed upon or expected.
Like intimacy, and even vulnerability itself, trust requires risk; sometimes it won’t be reciprocated, will be undervalued, or damaged. Of course, it would be considerably difficult to be vulnerable without trust, or to trust without vulnerability.
Try this thought on for size: trust that all people care about one another’s well-being because we are interdependent and impacted by one another’s well-being.
In other words:
- Trust that people enjoy contributing to each other’s well being.
- Trust that if someone doesn’t contribute to your well being, it’s because they are saying yes to one of their own needs.
- Know that there are many ways to meet our needs, and compromise does not mean giving them up.
These ideas form one of the basic premises behind nonviolent communication. In order to build a more accepting and vulnerable world, treating others with trust first rather than suspicion can open doors.
A basic beginners guide to rebuilding our ability to trust could look like this list from Psychology Today:
- Stay in one place: consistency is key to building trust. A great start is with where we live or what community we surround ourselves with.
- Ground yourself in a routine: repetition will help us get used to new faces. Again, consistency is key.
- Give a little, and see what we get: reveal a little or ask for a little. It’s a low risk way to see how being vulnerable will be received.
- Make plans for the future: shaping an idea of permanence/reliability.
- Trust an animal: sometimes having a pet that is home waiting for us no matter what is a logical first step to learning to trust humans again.
- Stop painting red flags green: Do we sometimes think we deserve behavior we’d never let a friend put up with? Time to examine that! Mending our intuition about people begins with learning why we ignored or didn’t see red flags in the past.
Grow the belief that we deserve to be around trustworthy people: when we are distrustful, we often think it’s because we are inherently bad too. We’ll never seek out trustworthy people if we think they’re too good to be our friend.
There’s a particular level of vulnerability that comes along with people willing to act courageously.
Courage can be defined as someone’s ability to cope with physical stress or psychological pain (Leighton 2022). It is a component of resilience, or the ability to weather a storm (an emotional or social one) and have faith in our ability to contend with it’s challenges. It takes a lot of courage to volunteer to be vulnerable. Whether it’s speaking our truth, deciding to travel to a new continent for the first time, asking for a raise from one’s boss, or facing an abuser in the courtroom.
Take the following examples of people showing courage in their lives:
Watch a short clip of an interview between Ms. Burke and Brene Brown wherein they discuss the extra layers inherent in the Black experience of vulnerability.
Activist Tarana Burke started the Me Too campaign “to spread a message for survivors: You’re heard; you’re understood.” The movement is powered by the courage and vulnerability of survivors who put everything on the line to end sexual violence and harassment.
She trusts in the possibility of a new world without sexual violence. She believes that building community based on empathy between survivors is how to get there. And she won’t let naysayers, now matter how powerful, get in her way (Burke 2018).
Black people, black women in particular, are faced with extra layers of armor they have to contend with to safely practice vulnerability to unlock important aspects of a meaningful life like intimacy and trust (The Daily Show, 2021).
What comes up in this clip that showcases vulnerability from a lens of the Black experience?
How does vulnerability play a role in the Me Too movement?
Greta Thunberg (15 years old in the photo below) is an environmental activist who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable about how climate change will affect our future.
Instead of having a “normal” childhood (like going to school in her home town every day), she actively rebelled and refused to go to school. She opted instead to begin talking to adults about how they were failing her generation. First, outside the Swedish Parliament building, then reporters, and eventually the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City.
She has been up front about how the danger of climate change has affected her mental health very negatively. This took a lot of courage. To disrupt the expectations of her family and her peers and do something that would make many people uncomfortable in the least.
She has found empowerment through being vulnerable (The Guardian 2018).
What comes up in this story that showcases vulnerability for children and teenagers who think about their future?
How does vulnerability play a role in Greta’s ability to show resilience?
“An authentic and intentional willingness to be open to uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure in social situations in spite of fears.”
- We are hardwired for vulnerability. It will be present in many stages of our lives and is key to finding belonging, love, and even authenticity. It can feel like a burden or too much of a risk, but the rewards are essential.
- Attachment theory can influence how we experience vulnerability. Growing a more secure relationship to our inner selves can allow our fears to be signals rather than red flags. At the same time, we can’t find vulnerability all on our own. It requires letting other people into our world. And it will take time.
- There are a lot of tools for building or accessing vulnerability in our lives. We went over honesty, being trusting, being open, understanding intimacy levels, developing self awareness, and being courageous.
Vulnerability can bring a lot of wonderful things into our lives. And even if being vulnerable doesn’t feel natural to us at first, it’s never too late to rebuild our connection to it.
Next, we’ll take a look at a few ways we misunderstand vulnerability. There are two pages that will look at roadblocks to vulnerability: Myths and Hindrances.
Myths will go into our misconceptions of vulnerability and why they may be more misguided than we think!
Hindrances will go into more detail about the armor we put up to deflect or gainsay vulnerability’s messages in our lives.
First up: Myths!
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
- Dipietro J. A. (2010). Psychological and psychophysiological considerations regarding the maternal-fetal relationship. Infant and child development, 19(1), 27–38. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.651
- Eliason, S. R., Mortimer, J. T., & Vuolo, M. (2015). The Transition to Adulthood: Life Course Structures and Subjective Perceptions. Social psychology quarterly, 78(3), 205–227. https://doi.org/10.1177/0190272515582002
- Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(3), 385–399. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0126.96.36.1995
- Lotz, M. Vulnerability and resilience: a critical nexus. Theor Med Bioeth 37, 45–59 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11017-016-9355-y
- House, J., Landis, K., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241(4865), 540–545. doi:10.1126/science.3399889
- Lopez, Stephanie O., “Vulnerability in Leadership: The Power of the Courage to Descend” (2018). Industrial-Organizational Psychology Dissertations. 16. https://digitalcommons.spu.edu/iop_etd/16
- Robinson LR, Bitsko RH, Thompson RA, et al. CDC Grand Rounds: Addressing Health Disparities in Early Childhood. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017;66:769–772. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6629a1