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Vulnerability

 

“Vulnerability is a paradox because the more vulnerable you allow yourself to be, the more powerful you will feel. When you are no longer afraid of what others will think, you’re more willing to put yourself out there in all the various ways there are to do that: in relationships, in your career, with your art and creativity, with your exuberance and heart.” 

– Karen Anderson  

 

The best part of being human is being able to connect with other humans. We’re hardwired for it. We live in tribes and families, work in groups, love as couples and thrive in friendships. The drive to connect is in all of us whether we acknowledge it or not.

 

Yet, we’re seeing more loneliness, more depression, more broken relationships, more disconnection. What’s happening?

 

Vulnerability is the driving force of connection. It’s brave. It’s tender. It’s impossible to connect without it.

 

But somehow it has been turned into a weakness in the eyes of most. Think about it, no one wants to appear weak, most want to project strength.

 

We’ve made ourselves ‘strong.’ We’ve toughened up, hardened up and protected ourselves from being hurt. We’ve protected ourselves from vulnerability and disallowed the surrender. 

 

Here’s the problem. When we close down our vulnerability we are shielded from hurt, but we are also shielded from love, intimacy and connection. They come to us through the same door. When we close it to one, we close it to all.

 

Paradoxically, it is only the strongest among us who can embrace their vulnerability.

 

Perhaps one of the greatest demonstrations of the vulnerability/strength continuum is riding a motorcycle. On a motorcycle there is no protective cocoon like a car has with fenders that crumple and absorb the shock of impact. It is just you and the bike in a sea of vehicles of all sizes and shapes with drivers who look right at you and don’t see you. 

 

But in this vulnerable state lies strength, freedom and liberation.  

 

So too in love. It has been said that loving someone is giving them the power to destroy you and hoping they won’t. 

 

The joy in life, the road to bliss is understanding that you could walk out your door tomorrow and a meteor could land on your head and turn you into earthbound space dust, but you get up, clean up, get dressed and face the day anyway.

 

Vulnerability can be defined as susceptibility to a negative outcome or the state of being unprotected from some type of danger or harmful experience. People who are vulnerable may experience feelings of anxiety, fear, and apprehension due to the risk they experience for some type of harm.

 

The concept of vulnerability is broad, as the term can be used in multiple contexts. In its most general sense, vulnerability may refer to the natural state of children, young animals, and others who cannot care for themselves. This vulnerability is often overcome with time.

 

All people experience some level of vulnerability to disaster or other types of trauma. In this context, vulnerability can be understood as the reduced capacity for a person to avoid, cope with, or recover from the impact of a hazard or other traumatic event.

 

Although the term vulnerability often has a negative connotation, the field of psychology is increasingly recognizing the value of being vulnerable. According to existentialism, vulnerability is part of the human condition. While being vulnerable indicates the possibility of being hurt, it also suggests one has an increased ability to live an authentic life.

 

Brené Brown, an author and researcher, has written much on the topic of vulnerability, and her work is widely known and highly regarded. According to Brown, vulnerability allows a person to deeply connect with others and experience emotions fully, and she believes one’s vulnerability signifies courage and strength rather than weakness.

 

In one example, think about a situation wherein after reading a few articles about the benefits of yoga, you decide to try it yourself. You buy a mat, find a nearby class, and put on some stretchy pants. Then you get to the studio and all of a sudden you see other students walking confidently in, their mats slung over their shoulders and you begin to feel strange. Your heart rate speeds up, your palms grow sweaty, and you think, “what the hell was I thinking to ever think I could do this?”

 

This shaky feeling is vulnerability, and it makes you want to turn around and run home, where you can escape the potential judgment of others and your own fear of the unfamiliar.

 

But by pushing through those doors, you are doing something far more healthy and transformative. You are connecting with others and experiencing emotions fully, particularly the emotions of courage and strength.

 

For most, vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It’s that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control.

 

Brown writes vulnerability and attempts to debunk myths surrounding vulnerability, the most popular being that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. If you were to think of times that you have felt vulnerable or emotionally exposed, you are actually recalling times of great courage.  These may be huge life events, like deciding to put an ailing parent in hospice care, but it’s just as present in those small moments of fear that pop up when we share our feelings with another person or ask for forgiveness.

 

 According to Brown, what most of us fail to understand…is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity,” she writes. So while going to that new yoga class may feel uncomfortable, you’re also opening yourself up to the opportunity to make new friends and learn a new, healthy habit. But if you run away the second those shaky feelings arise, you’re just reinforcing the voice in your head that says I’m not good enough.

 

That insecurity is present in all of us, and it’s so strong that we often go out of our way to avoid situations that might make us feel fragile. Brown has described the ways we try to sidestep the shaky feeling of vulnerability: we emotionally “armor up” each morning when we face the day to avoid feeling shame, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. The particular armor changes from person to person, but it usually revolves around one of three methods: striving for perfection, numbing out, or disrupting joyful moments by “dress rehearsing tragedy” and imagining all the ways that things could go wrong. 

 

Do any of these sound familiar?

 

All of these types of armor can make us feel safe and “in control” in the moment, but they’re really doing us more harm than good. 

 

Perfectionism can be a mega shield we hide behind. We think it will protect us but it keeps us from being seen.  And numbing our emotions is doesn’t work either because it has a universal effect in that you can’t numb fear without numbing joy at the same time.

 

Brown’s research suggests that the urge to imagine the worst-case scenario in moments of joy (such as not being able to enjoy a hug with your child without worrying about something bad happening to him) is an amazingly common phenomenon. And why is it so hard for us to soften into joy? Brown says that it is because we’re trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. Predictably, this has a negative impact, for without vulnerability, there is no love, no belonging, and no joy.

 

The goal should be getting comfortable with vulnerability. It’s important to begin to recognize those fragile moments of vulnerability and work with them.  

 

Mindfulness is a good place to start. Adopting a practice of openness and awareness of your environment as well as your own thoughts, feelings, and triggers will help you recognize when you’re disengaging because you’re afraid.

 

After you become aware of where you are, you will be more certain about what changes you would like to see in your life. And of course, keeping love in your heartspace leaves no room for fear and doubt.

 

It’s only recently that we have begun to speak about emotional vulnerability. Being vulnerable emotionally was generally compared to being weak, or at least easily hurt or frightened. Maybe it was never discussed much, because it is a natural, daily, unavoidable part of our existence as human beings, and frankly it feels bad. 

 

If you’ve ever felt the unease of admitting something or of asking for a raise at work, you know the feeling. You may be more familiar with the uncertainty of waiting for a phone call with test results from a doctor or reaching out to a friend who just lost a loved one. It is uncomfortable, unsettling, and anxiety-provoking. It can be about as welcome a subject as death or getting taxes filed. 

 

So why talk about it? Because as we have been discussing, allowing ourselves to be emotionally vulnerable is also a tremendous source of strength and the only way we can truly connect in our most personal relationships. Let’s try another definition; what is emotional vulnerability?

 

Emotional vulnerability is most often felt as anxiety about being rejected, shamed, or judged as inadequate; uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.

 

Think about that for a moment. Uncertainty is a given in every day of our lives. It is deeply tied to anxiety (like the meteor example above). In fact, very often those who suffer from chronic anxiety have particular difficulty accepting the uncertainty in their daily lives. 

Let’s look at risk, for example, the risk of feeling rejected if the object of your love does not love you back (the power to destroy you and the hope that they won’t!). Or, that your boss will not only deny the raise but will also tell you why you are not worthy of it. 

 

And emotional exposure: You’ve decided to partner with someone, and you begin to feel the fear that this person will get to know you better than you know yourself.

 

These situations are more frightening to some of us than to others, depending upon our personal histories, our cultural backgrounds, and our basic personality traits. The feeling of shame is a particular risk for many individuals, especially if they were raised in a shame-based culture. However, nearly everyone struggles with emotional vulnerability to some degree every day. (The exceptions are those with no desire to feel connected, such as extreme narcissists and sociopaths.)

 

How can vulnerability be a strength?

 

It is only through allowing ourselves to be vulnerable that we can understand, feel empathy, forgive each other, and know that we are worthy of love and belonging. Emotional courage is sharing our feelings with those who are important to us and accepting their feelings as valid and important. Being vulnerable allows us to create new ideas and to see fresh possibilities that were previously blocked from our minds. We take the risk that our creations will be judged poorly or rejected and that we may feel shame or inadequacy as a result. 

 

Here are some things to keep in mind as you practice mindfully embracing vulnerability in your own life:

 

Recognize that facing vulnerability takes enormous courage. 

Take small steps out of your comfort zone and be proud of your bravery when you do.

 

Let go of the constant worry about what other people think of you. Most people are focused on their own internal struggles, not you.

 

Feeling overwhelmed? Focus your attention gently on your breath and the sensations in your body for a few moments before returning your attention back to the task at hand.

 

Don’t worry about being perfect. In fact, don’t even consider it. No one is perfect, and the more you hold yourself to an impossible ideal, the more easily you will give up.

 

In the end, in order to have the chance of success we must risk failure. Embrace your own vulnerability and that of the people that you love. Be open to sharing what you feel and taking those risks when your sense of judgment tells you that the risk is well worth it.

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