Being vulnerable is not a choice. It’s a reality of living. What we do with that vulnerability can either open doors to deeper connection, or throw up walls that stifle growth and fulfillment.
Vulnerability: the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.
Given the potential consequences, why would anyone ever choose to be vulnerable? Who wants to risk an emotional or physical attack?
At the basic biological level, it seems to make very little sense to be vulnerable. When we are, we can more easily get hurt. We can get physically maimed or killed by a predator. Emotional attacks can make us afraid of rejection. Since the vast majority of us don’t want to die and instead pass on our genes, avoiding vulnerability seems to make perfect sense. Be tough in order to increase your chances of a long life. Don’t give anyone the opportunity to hurt you.
However, humans usually want to do more than just survive. We focus on the quality of our lives as well. Yes, we want our lives to be long. But we also want them to be good.
Part of a good life is having good relationships. We are social creatures and live longer, healthier lives when we have people around us that we trust and love. 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. Without genuine vulnerability, it’s impossible to build the types of relationships that can provide comfort and increase resilience. The risks of vulnerability may be high, but the rewards of positive, strong relationships are even higher.
The reality is, we are vulnerable in some way at all times. We are vulnerable to viruses and accidents, misunderstandings and the pain caused by our fears and anxieties. Vulnerability is a part of life for all of us. Having close relationships where we can be vulnerable is actually a way to reduce our overall weakness. As Dr. Sue Johnson said on The Knowledge Project, “We need connection with others like we need oxygen. We’re way too vulnerable without it.”
The only choice we really have when it comes to vulnerability is the choice to acknowledge it or not. There is no doubt it can be hard to be vulnerable, especially if we didn’t have positive experiences with it as children. But social connections sustain us, and meaningful social connections are hard to build and maintain without mutual vulnerability.
Some people constantly pretend they have no vulnerabilities. Those people are frustrating to be around. Why? Because everyone is vulnerable in some way, so we know that those who say they aren’t are lying. No one likes to spend time around people who can’t be honest. Furthermore, people who refuse to acknowledge their vulnerabilities (at least to themselves) don’t make great friends or partners because we can’t learn much from them to help us process our own vulnerabilities. Even if it’s hard to pinpoint, we sense something is missing in our interactions with them. They don’t trust us enough to risk hurt.
Someone who goes on about how everything in their life is okay can’t offer much insight into how to deal with things that are most definitely not okay. And someone who thinks they are infallible tends to blame others when things don’t work out. They can’t admit to being wrong, which is another drawback to having them as a friend.
In her TED talk on the subject, author Brené Brown says, “The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are.” We develop these lists of all the things we won’t do and all the ways in which we won’t engage with people in order to protect ourselves. Our vulnerabilities get registered as something that could be exploited to hurt us. So we put up big buffers of denial and anger because it seems that if we admit we are afraid of something, our whole lives are going to come crashing down as people rush in to take advantage of our weaknesses. Except that isn’t true.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable (most often to those we are closest to, but also occasionally to others when the situation would benefit from us putting ourselves out there), we can create amazing reciprocal interactions that empower all parties.
When we are able to say the following: “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” “I’m sorry for causing you pain,” “I’m scared,” “I cried last night,” or “I’m struggling with this,” 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. We might hear back: “I make mistakes all the time,” “I’m scared as well,” “I cry too,” or “I also struggle with that.” And in that shared space, we can let go of some of the fear and make room for a deeper connection. When we are vulnerable with someone who doesn’t judge us for it, we can grow stronger. We can become less affected by situations that normally cause us stress.
Most importantly, we strengthen our connection with the people we are sharing with.
Although someone may react by ridiculing you when you admit to a fear, a far more common reaction is respect for your bravery and a sigh of relief over a shared circumstance. Someone doesn’t have to share your particular fear to feel a connection. We’re all afraid of something, and by being honest about your fears, you have signaled that others can share their fears with you in return.
We have written before about the social media prism and how it distorts reality, leading most of us to believe we are the only ones whose lives suck sometimes. The endless posts about career successes and fabulous vacations are really a large-scale representation of the fear of vulnerability. Complex, varied lives become little more than a glittering highlight reel. We never get to see the outtakes.
But coming clean about the downs increases the value of sharing the ups. At the very least, it’s more relatable. We learn more through failure than we do through success. And since we can’t try everything, learning from others’ failures is exceptionally valuable. To just hear the story of the person who made it big and sold their company is not useful. To hear about their multiple failures, their trials, their stops and starts and all the times they doubted themselves—now that’s an insight worth sharing.
Being vulnerable starts with being honest with yourself. How can you get better if you can’t admit that you could be better? How are you going to be a better partner or friend if you can’t admit that sometimes you aren’t a great one? How will you learn from your mistakes if you don’t acknowledge making any?
When we share that vulnerability and find people we can be open with, we form valuable connections. After all, to really trust someone, we need to know if they are going to be there when we are vulnerable. As Dr. Sue Johnson explained on The Knowledge Project, “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.” In this way, vulnerability can also serve as a litmus test for your close relationships. If you can’t be vulnerable with someone, why bother? What can you really get from a relationship in which you can never relax and be yourself?
When we have people with whom we can be vulnerable, we actually reduce our exposure to potential harm and improve the quality of our life. By putting ourselves out there and risking hurt, we often find that we create more meaningful interactions with the people in our lives. When we have people we can trust with our deepest vulnerabilities, we increase our ability to be resilient in the face of chance and change.