Debunking the Myths
As discussed in previous sections, for most people Vulnerability is no walk in the park! It takes hard work and being uncomfortably real with ourselves before we can truly experience vulnerability. And, to make things more complicated, our perceptions of vulnerability are heavily skewed by how the world around us talks about it.
These myths can enable avoidance of fully embracing vulnerability OR lead us to embrace it in a way that may be unhealthy or backfire.
On this page, let’s put our curiosity lenses on and examine a few of the significant societal myths surrounding vulnerability! We’ll address some common or implied preconceptions about Vulnerability—from culture and ourselves—and ask how to see through them clearly to harness the vulnerability’s benefits.
Myth #1: Vulnerability is a Weakness
Origins of the Myth:
This myth comes from many cultural ideas of strength or even social grace. The ‘great man’ myth, saving face, strong leadership, etc. all circle around the idea of the impervious figure that always knows what to do and what to say. The stoic and infallible general who leads their men into battle with no fear and no hesitation; their bravado bolstering their soldiers’ last hopes.
In fictional depictions of performance art, a mentor will tell the student not to let an ounce of uncertainty show in their face or body language. Otherwise the audience or the judges will immediately disbelieve their right to be on stage. We believe that if we emulate invulnerability to others we will be perceived as strong and reliable. And perhaps we’ll be seen as worthy.
To be vulnerable and admit to a mistake, that we need help, or that we have been hurt (either physically or emotionally) would be to reveal weakness, incompetence, or even defeat.
- When we lose a friendship or relationship, we close ourselves off from whoever rejected us to prove to ourselves (or maybe others) that we’re stronger without them.
- When we say that “boys don’t cry.”
- Instead of asking questions when we try something new (like a new job), we’re advised, “fake it until you make it.”
Studies show we actually perceive acts of vulnerability—such as admitting a mistake or revealing romantic feelings—as a strength in others but a weakness within ourselves (Bruk 2018). Other research shows when we share specific vulnerable experiences, we build closer, more intimate relationships with the people we’re sharing with (Khalifian 2020, Aron 1997).
This means if we abide by the myth of hiding our vulnerability because we want to avoid negative judgments, we’re blocking off opportunities to both inspire others and create more meaningful connections.
Admitting we are wrong and asking for advice reveals trust in someone’s judgment or opinion—which gives them a reason to feel confident! Admitting we’re scared of taking a new job means our friends know we need extra support and might make it easier for them to reach out when they need reassurance. Crying when we are hurt not only helps us process our emotions, it lets others know it’s ok to get hurt sometimes and grow from it rather than feeling shame or regret. Our day-to-day expressions of vulnerability may benefit ourselves and other people more than we are aware!
Researcher Brene Brown asked a group of people sitting in a room whether they struggled to be vulnerable because they perceived it as weak. Most people raised their hands. Then she asked how many people thought going in front of an audience was brave, and again most raised their hands. Brown’s body of work underlines that going all-in and “stepping into the arena” of vulnerability ourselves isn’t the weakness the myth perpetuates.
We admire those who we see as being fully open, however, we’re terrified of doing so ourselves. We don’t want people to see us as vulnerable, even though we admire it.
Myth #2: “I don’t do vulnerability”
Origins of the Myth:
The core of this myth is simple. If we can shut out our inner feelings we won’t get hurt. If we never let anyone through our walls, we’ll never be disappointed. Sometimes it’s because of past hurts we went through ourselves and sometimes it’s hurt we witnessed other people go through.
We think we are our last line of defense. And if anyone else hurts us…well, the joke’s on us, right? To avoid letting ourselves down, we’ll fight tooth and nail to avoid being vulnerable again. Sometimes this will also mirror how we treat others! We won’t want to see vulnerability in others for fear it will remind us of what we don’t want to see in ourselves.
- Being at the hospital and our mother is there with a life-threatening illness. We go to their bedside and wish to speak with them – to tell them all the things we wished we would have said earlier and for them to say them back to us. Instead, she says, “I don’t do feelings.”
- Not having deep conversations in a romantic or platonic relationship ten years in.
- Given the opportunity to do a speech at a high school reunion, we only offer inside jokes rather than talking about our struggles and victories through the years.
We encounter vulnerability every day. When we say we “don’t do vulnerability,” we’re pretending to avoid vulnerability and engage in behaviors that in the end are inconsistent with our authentic desires. Leading to life feeling unfulfilled. Or perhaps even worse, creating unhealthy relationships or experiences for the people we love.
Let’s imagine an example such as a new couple. For simplicity, we’ll call them X and B.
X comes off as charming and put together. They would like to have a family one day. However, they have been hurt in the past–it could be anything: an unhappy childhood, a parent or friend passed away, public humiliation or a partner cheated. And, rather than facing their emotions (sadness, loss, shame, etc.) and using their resources (community, therapist) to work through them, X buried them.
They begin to date B, but don’t mention their past hurts. The “I don’t do vulnerability” motto means they can’t imagine putting themselves back in a position where they could re-experience their trauma. They really appreciate B as a companion, and they get along really well, but X never fully lets themselves emotionally invest in the relationship. B develops feelings for X. This dynamic between them will likely lead to:
- B begins to notice X never opens up to them. It affects how connected they feel to X. They try to invite and create space for X to feel safer about sharing their feelings, but with no success. B leaves the relationship because they need a partner who connects on a deeper level than shared favorite pizza toppings.
- B never notices X’s avoidance of talking about how they feel, but is continually hurt by X’s inability to understand or hold space for B’s own insecurities or needs about the relationship.
- After several years X and B get married. They have a family like X wanted, but X is unable to foster a reciprocal relationship with their children. X embodies the cheerful, strict, and distant parent who isn’t understanding or empathetic to their children…well being children. Repeating a cycle of disconnection which may only be broken through an acceptance of vulnerability.
There is a chance B would eventually coax X to open up. However, the foundation of a relationship being predicated on “I can fix them,” can be a tricky slope to navigate.
This is only an example, and of course, there are solutions to X’s problem. But would any of those solutions leave out being vulnerable? If X is never vulnerable with a friend, a family member, or a mental health professional about why they can’t open up to others, they may never find a way to connect with someone in a healthy manner. And as we’ve touched on, humans are social creatures. We are built for connection, and our physical and mental health can begin to ebb without it.
This is not to confuse the “I don’t do vulnerable” myth with the idea that anyone who can’t express vulnerability is bad or even influenced by the myth. For example, there is a critical distinction between being closed off from engaging in vulnerability and expressing vulnerability in ways we’re not taught to recognize in a neurotypical culture. For a simple look at the updated information about emotional expression for neurodivergent people please take a look here and here.
Myth #3: Vulnerability Means We “Put It All Out There”
Origins of the Myth:
By laying our inner selves bare to anyone willing to give us an ear, we think we’re offering vulnerability to others. We are being our most authentic selves and inviting others to be theirs as well. This is not to be confused with oversharing, which can be a symptom of trauma.
- We engage acquaintances we just met at a party to share stories about our recent breakup.
- We post about our locations or personal issues on social media with no filter in an effort to be transparent with friends or followers.
- We take up all the talking space at a friendly dinner and make it harder for others to share about their day.
- We tell a first date about our childhood trauma.
This kind of behavior can potentially create even more barriers to connecting to someone—almost akin to over-correcting while driving! We’re trying too hard to create a bond too quickly rather than giving a new connection (or even a mature one) enough time to grow into something more stable.
But in the previous two myths didn’t we just talk about how vulnerability isn’t a bad thing? Yes. However, the answer isn’t to do an immediate 180 with no discernment between when or who we are being vulnerable with.
It may feel freeing at first to just let it out and receive feedback or support. And obviously, our first attempts to tinker with our current expressions of vulnerability will not be perfect. But if we are sharing everything all the time:
- We may not build the reciprocity that is key to vulnerability’s positive effects on relationships (others don’t have space to voice their vulnerabilities) and
- We may be giving folks who are undeserving or even unsafe our personal information.
“Bearing it all” can give the illusion of being vulnerable, but without the trust, time, and sensitivity that enables a bond to deepen rather than remain shallow. It may even be accurate to call it performative vulnerability as it often appears one-sided.
Keep in mind, conflating “bearing it all” with the trauma response of oversharing would be inaccurate. Oversharing is a coping mechanism to past or current traumatic and/or emotionally stressful experiences. Typically showing up as “spilling-over” personal or sensitive stories at inappropriate times. We can’t accurately discuss oversharing at this time, but it is important to know the difference.
Myth #4: We Go at Vulnerability Alone
Origins of the Myth:
When we go at things alone, we don’t need to rely on others’ emotions or emotional labor to get through life’s difficulties. Perhaps we think we’re a burden to other people or that others have things worse. Perhaps we’re embarrassed we need help in the first place or that our peers wouldn’t find what we’re going through relatable.
Despite the similarities to the, “I don’t do vulnerability” myth, this one is more focused on someone who is aware of their vulnerabilities and may even hold space for other people to be vulnerable. They just can’t share their vulnerabilities. This myth isn’t about protecting ourselves with shallow relationships, but strictly one-sided ones or no relationships at all.
- Not asking for help when moving from our apartment.
- Being a martyr and burning out (but affirming that behavior with ourselves).
- Closing ourselves off at school, from our friends, and from others around us.
We may be biased as to what vulnerability is and may not realize what it really could mean for us. We need others to support us and truly care about our well-being. This may seem counterintuitive to people who go at things alone. However, studies show that going through life alone, or secretly bearing one’s own burdens alone can be detrimental for our health. Especially as we get older, the importance of our community gets more and more pronounced.
To more clearly understand the relationship between community and quality of life, look at our Benefits of Friendship page:
We don’t have to take on the world alone.
It can be surprising how much a friend will find our troubles relatable rather than boring. Or how much easier our life can get when we create boundaries about workload within a household. If we are on the road to burnout, asking for help can create a different path for us. It won’t make us less valuable in the eyes of others.* If anything it might reveal which relationships are worth fostering deeper connections with.
Folks who will value our vulnerability will hold space for it and perhaps even celebrate it! They will want to help. It can be terrifying to take the plunge, but the possible rewards are worth it.
Vulnerability is about being in community with others. It’s not a solo mission.
*Unfortunately, when it comes to boundaries and vulnerability in workplaces, we have to be in a work environment that won’t respond by scoring us lower in performance reports or even firing us
Myth #5: It’s a Bargaining Chip
Origins of the Myth:
We get to unload any and all of our vulnerabilities and in exchange, we get to be closer to those around us because they’ll likely share too. There is an expectation put upon the other person whether they volunteered to be vulnerable or not. Perhaps even judgments will be made if the vulnerability is not immediately returned. Or we get disappointed we didn’t get what we wanted.
- We tell them our secret in hopes that they’ll share as well.
- Being overly candid at work in hopes that our boss sees our authenticity and promotes us.
- A teacher shares their family struggles in class in hopes that they’ll form a better connection with students going through similar difficulties.
Here we’re only masquerading (perhaps to ourselves as well) our sense of vulnerability as a means of transactional exchange. We are being vulnerable to gain social capital, to join someone’s confidence, or to obtain connections we wouldn’t have otherwise developed. We need to be wary of this type of vulnerability because it can often damage any attempt at establishing real trust. If we think of it as a trade rather than cultivating mutual support and understanding, our ultimate motives to get something out of the exchange will eventually become obvious. It might even be perceived as manipulative, and the vulnerable moments shared will be given less and less weight.
In the case of a job and networking purposes, finding common ground with other people is a smart move. A way to survive or compete for a position. Yet, do these circumstances require something that resembles true vulnerability? Would a more authentic and organic approach to creating a connection, professional or otherwise, result in a more secure association? A gift freely given is always more appreciated than one given with strings attached.
Recognizing the Myths
It’s easy to create myths around, well, literally anything! And every society and culture will carry its own baggage around the concept of vulnerability. What’s tricky is that it may not be the norm to question something everyone takes for granted! It will take everyone their own time to suss out what influences their relationship to vulnerability.
The first step is recognizing there may be outside forces that have impressed upon us an unreasonable expectation about how to experience vulnerability (family, religious community, trauma, social norms, etc.).
The second step is to wonder if life could be different if we tried another path. Curiosity is key!
The third step is finding the gumption to give it a try. And if the first path doesn’t work, we can look for another alternative until we find what works best for us.
- What are some other myths about vulnerability?
- Vulnerability in relationships? With oneself? With friends and family?
- Write these down and see about debunking them. It’s okay, take a few guesses.
Establishing Myth-Free Foundations
In the end, if we establish better foundations free of these myths, vulnerability can bring us closer to one another. Therefore, we create a more vulnerable “inner world” with those around us.
We mentioned norms earlier. What do we mean by that? Where do these myths about vulnerability even come from? The modern literature and psychology surrounding vulnerability have a few ideas. On the next page, we’ll delve into the different ways we steer away from vulnerability, such as shame and the “wall of cool.”
Sounds interesting, right? Let’s explore the hindrances to vulnerability so we can have a better understanding of how to recognize them in ourselves. And once we do, be more efficiently equipped to unravel their hold on our link to expressing vulnerability in our own lives.
- Bruk, A., Scholl, S. G., & Bless, H. (2018). Beautiful mess effect: Self–other differences in evaluation of showing vulnerability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(2), 192–205. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000120
- Khalifian, C. E., & Barry, R. A. (2020). Expanding intimacy theory: Vulnerable disclosures and partner responding. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(1), 58–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407519853047
- Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167297234003