Vulnerability! If your first response is “Ummm, no, thanks”, you’re not alone. Vulnerability sounds like something we want to get away from, not something to cultivate. Yet researcher Dr. Brené Brown of the University of Houston has done considerable study of this topic and her findings are that being or becoming vulnerable to risk, to emotional upset, to shame and disclosure is the first step towards living what she calls “wholehearted living”.
So what is vulnerability, exactly? What is its relationship to mood? How can something so scary be an important component of meaningful connections in life?
Vulnerability can be simply defined as taking an emotional risk. When you act vulnerably, you are exposing the truth of your feelings with the knowledge that the outcome cannot be guaranteed. We make ourselves vulnerable when we ask someone out on a date (They might say no!). We make ourselves vulnerable when we share intimate and private details of our lives with close friends (They might laugh at me!). We make ourselves vulnerable when we share something about ourselves that opens us up to judgment and criticism (My boss might pass me up for a promotion!).
In the treatment of anxiety, I often ask patients to consider sharing their anxious feelings with the people in their lives. (You may not be surprised to hear that this often elicits a “Hell no!” look from patients!) For example, when someone is struggling with social anxiety, I might encourage them to say something like this to a colleague, “I get pretty nervous at the team meetings and that’s why I don’t speak up.” This is often the socially anxious person’s greatest fear! They spend so much time and energy trying to conceal their anxiety that confessing it seems like it will make things much worse.
If they are willing to take that step—if they are willing to be vulnerable in that way, to expose their struggle—what they often find is that the results are totally opposite of what they predict. Before this kind of interaction, they predict they will be shamed, made fun of, ostracized, and their anxiety will go through the roof. Knowing that we can’t predict the future, we must acknowledge that those are possibilities. However, can you guess what happens 90% of the time? Most of the time they get reassuring feedback, an offer to help, and a reduction in nerves. Being transparent or vulnerable with your feelings is a potent strategy in managing anxiety.
Similarly when people are feeling sad or depressed, the instinct is to hide away. “I don’t want to burden my friends.” “No one wants to hear me complain about my life.” “They will think I’m weak if I tell them how I feel.” As in the anxiety example above, when encouraged to share how they have been feeling, most times they receive encouraging feedback and end up feeling a bit better and more connected with people.
So it turns out that being vulnerable is a potent way to feel better and stronger, and a clear step towards closer, deeper connections with others. And yet, and yet, it’s hard to overcome the fear of being shamed, being laughed at, being belittled that we all believe will be the result of owning up to weaknesses. A problem for everyone, it is perhaps harder for men, who are trained to always appear in control, than for women, who are not always shamed by weakness. Still, it’s a challenge for all of us, and the only way forward is to try, telling someone how weak and afraid you are, and experience that the response may well be “me, too”!