Putting yourself in a place of vulnerability is not easy; it is courageous and brave. It’s time to challenge the definition of vulnerability that focuses on being exposed to attack or harm. It’s one that encourages us to dwell on negative consequences, on the wounds and shame we fear, rather than to embrace the strength that vulnerability can lead us to.
I used to fear vulnerability, without even realising it. I thought I was strong and independent by keeping my emotions close to my chest, but looking back I now know that I was weaker for being afraid of expressing my inner challenges. Putting on a brave face isn’t the same as being brave; keeping feelings locked away isn’t a way to stay strong, it’s a way to mask shame. There’s still room for me to grow, but I am now stronger, braver and more confident than I have ever been. I’m also more open and I know when to be vulnerable. I want to share with you how vulnerability doesn’t expose weakness, but instead creates strength.
Why we fear vulnerability
Being vulnerable can hurt because, at first, we need to expose the wound. We naturally defend ourselves against our fears. Renowned psychotherapist Joseph Burgo has identified four types of shame, which he says influence these defenses. These are:
- Unrequited love
- Unwanted exposure
- Disappointed expectation
Have you ever felt like a failure because you didn’t achieve what you set out to do? That’s #3. Or felt rejected because you weren’t invited to a social event? #4. Perhaps you know what it is like to love someone who doesn’t love you back (#1), or have been humiliated when a mistake you made was shared at work (#2). We don’t like how these feel, so we do what we can to avoid them. We avoid shame, so we avoid vulnerability.
Where those fears come from
Feelings of shame often begin in childhood. Something as simple as hearing “don’t be silly” or “stop crying” when you’re upset can have a significant lasting effect if repeated frequently. Having emotions belittled or punished can create shame and this often comes from a place where the adults you spent time with when you were younger struggled to talk about or process emotions themselves. There is a need to break this shame cycle, to address these fears. The way to do it is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
What we gain from vulnerability
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”Brene Brown
In the past, I’ve blogged about what depression, perfectionism and epilepsy have all meant to me. Earlier this year, I took vulnerability a step further by sharing with a group of people I had met that day my insecurities and hopes for personal growth (it was a coaching demo and I was the client!). These moments have taken me far outside of my comfort zone, but that liberated feeling I get from stretching myself has been far more fulfilling than staying in my own head.
From what I understand about vulnerability, this is what we have to gain from being vulnerable in the right moments:
- greater self-confidence
- reduced anxiety
- deeper connections with others
- improved self-awareness
- renewed focus on goals
- increased resilience
Finding strength through vulnerability takes time and practice. It is not something that will happen in a single event, but through opportunity, habit and openness, you will continue to gain from the experiences.
There is no right or wrong way forward, but these are 4 steps that will take you toward embracing vulnerability:
- Recognise what vulnerability looks like for you
- Accept that shame is a normal emotion
- Challenge yourself not to give into the fear
- Know when the time is right
We don’t need to be vulnerable all the time and with everyone to find strength from it. Choose to be open with those closest to you, those who can provide confidential support, or those you want to build closer relationships with. These steps are not straightforward, so take time to understand what vulnerability means to you. It can help to talk to a friend, relative, coach or therapist. We need to be able to trust and that doesn’t just mean in others.
Remember, it’s not weak to ask for help, to struggle, to not know where you’re going or to not understand your emotions. Feeling weak doesn’t mean we can’t use our strengths, nor is it something to be ashamed of. Being able to express what is going on for you and accepting what you’re going through are signs of strength.
If there is one thing you do, switch the words “weak” and “vulnerable” for “strong”, “courageous” and “brave”. Change the way you think about yourself… and change the way you experience the world.