The prospect of invulnerability is seemingly much more appealing. Wouldn’t we all choose to be impervious to potential harm? As tempting as it may be to want to eliminate vulnerability from our lives, we must recognize that there is a cost to its absence.
Without the experience of vulnerability we lose vitality and spirit, and lack enthusiasm. Relationships become flat and lose their passionate energy; we feel numb and a loss of interest; we question whether or not this is all that there is to life. Complacency takes over our day and week; life, work and relationships become mundane. When we no longer feel desire or yearning, we may have steered our lives in such a way that we are continually avoiding touching down in vulnerability.
Vulnerability is an emotional risk that when taken, brings unbounded value to a person’s life. There is vulnerability in striving for a career, sharing your feelings with a loved one, asking for a pay increase, pursuing an academic goal, public speaking, asking someone out on a date, or allowing yourself to want something when there is no guarantee you will get it.
The fine elements of vulnerability can be intangible and not easy to convey in words. In my mind it is essentially an experience that is defined by the tension a person feels while staying open and responsive in a situation or conversation where the outcome is uncertain. This leaves a person susceptible to a negative outcome, like being hurt or disappointed, or the opposite, a positive achievement or gain, like a greater connection with another person.
Vulnerability is an emotional risk that when taken, brings unbounded value to a person’s life.
The pivotal and most anxiety-provoking ingredient of vulnerability is the lack of control we have over the outcome of a given situation and the emergence of undesired feelings. It gives rise to feelings of fear, powerlessness, inadequacy, and more, all things that we’ve tried to avoid. To be vulnerable means you are allowing yourself to remain open to possibility, staying with and addressing awkward or difficult feelings, acknowledging the fear of the unknown and continuing to face it, resisting the urge to shut it down, over ride it, or run from it.
When our perception of being vulnerable includes an image of weakness, it is counter intuitive to consider that there is a benefit to being vulnerable. However, there is an advantage and it has to do with being stretched, meaning, allowing yourself to risk the potential of uncomfortable feelings and lack of control while continuing to communicate or act on a desire that you up to this point, may have only dared to think about.
Previous experiences of being vulnerable shape our attitude and inclinations to either move towards or away from vulnerability. If historically, we have been attacked or pressured while vulnerable, it makes it that much more frightening to stay with vulnerability. The instincts kick in and tell us to get out of this spot—painful experiences being vulnerable leave us thinking or saying to ourselves “I am never going to let myself go through that again.”
Even if the situation goes sideways you will likely gain from the experience. The act of facing vulnerability is what leads us to the fertile ground for personal growth. It is a creative place involving the expansion of the self, owing to the fact that an energy is being generated, and a new quality is being expressed. It is a display of courage and maturity, whether it be in words spoken in a business meeting, to a loved one, or in reaching for the stars.
Ideas to keep in mind
Because vulnerability involves exposing ourselves and taking emotional risks, you have a right to be careful about who you open up to. Using your discretion is appropriate here. It is okay to be discerning about the situations or the person we are going to be vulnerable with; not everyone has the sensitivity or capacity to be with someone who is experiencing their vulnerability. These are conversations that require respect and consideration of the other’s experience—be selective!
I encourage couples to make it safe for one another to take emotional risks and be vulnerable. Outline with each other what you need the other person to do—for example, what kind of response do you need from your partner—be specific and explain what you are afraid of feeling if your loved one were to respond with judgement or criticism. Agreements can be reached, along the lines of: “If I say what I am really feeling, I need to know you won’t make fun of me or use it against me now, or in the future.”
Reflections on experiences where we have been vulnerable are a gold mine of information. Allow yourself to look back and notice how you feel after you have taken the risk. Do you feel stronger, lighter, more ambitious, closer to your partner, invigorated, energized, alive? Brené Brown in her Ted Talks video refers to vulnerability as “the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change,” I would further that description and suggest that a robustness begins to develop when we take the opportunity to be vulnerable. Storing the event in your mind may help you to build courage and give you the encouragement you need to take more risks.