“Vulnerability” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the personal growth world as an aspirational state. To be vulnerable is to be genuine, authentic, real. To be vulnerable is to be empowered—another way to say, I am strong enough and brave enough and self-confident enough to do anything!, which sounds an awful lot like having “arrived,” if there is a singular point of arrival in the process of self-expansion. Being willing (or able) to be vulnerable becomes a goal.
Yet treating vulnerability as an aspiration or a status symbol bypasses a deeper consideration of what that state of being actually means.
By definition, to be vulnerable is…to be vulnerable. Open to attack. Able to be hurt. Not protected. At risk. Potentially unsafe.
To leave yourself open to those risks can be viscerally frightening. It can be asking yourself to face your worst nightmare. When you have the expectation that others will see your unarmored body—your exposed Self—and thrust in blades, vulnerability feels like suicide. From that stance, you have to be willing to die to allow yourself to be vulnerable; life behind your armor has to be worse than death in order for you to set aside those defenses.
And that is the state that is touted as aspirational? As having “made it”? Without a clear discussion of the state of being that underlies willing vulnerability, the state itself sounds more like something to run from than aspire to by those who are most in need of the benefits vulnerability allows us to receive, namely: intimacy. Trust. The experience of being held by another human being in our fullness and our truth instead of our façade.
To feel able to lay aside our defenses with someone else is a source of comfort and safety like no other. It is ironic that our greatest sense of safety is accessed via our greatest sense of unsafety.
If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear to be vulnerable, we risk that we never cross into vulnerability at all—what if the pain is never bigger?
If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear, we also risk experiencing a traumatizing degree of loneliness and disconnection from others and from our very self. We risk that the anxiety from feeling unresilient and incapable in relationships might spill out into other parts of our lives. We jeopardize opportunities to engage with others for creative collaboration, professional networking and mentorship, learning lessons that would improve our daily experience of life, chances to share our own hard-won wisdom and skills, and the simple happiness of feeling accepted by others in the human tribe.
If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear to risk vulnerability, we also risk setting a pattern of needing extremis to push us into connection. We might withdraw from vulnerability as soon as we are no longer in that state of pain/terror/overwhelm, only to have the pain of loneliness build back up inside us and cause another desperate risk. Then as soon as the extreme recedes, the experience of vulnerability becomes too unsettling to hold, so we withdraw again. And the cycle repeats. That shifting through extremes does not create a stable life, nor a pleasant one.
What, then, needs to be our inner experience for us to be willing to be vulnerable without that dire nihilism?
Inner safety. Resilience. Trust in our own capacity to survive.
You have to know that you will be able to calm yourself, support yourself, and heal yourself even in the face of the most brutal rejection or attack on your vulnerable state. You have to trust that you will be able to carry on. That you can bear the pain and keep going past it all the way back into inner peace and contentment.
That sense—that we can and will survive the exchange, that we will be whole again no matter what—is the sustainable path into vulnerability with others. It is what allows us to take the risk of opening up, because the risk becomes calculated rather than desperate, and the consequences manageable instead of devastating.
Vulnerability creates closeness, intimacy, and long-term relationships with others. It is a high-reward state, but the risks must nonetheless feel bearable in order for the reward to seem worthwhile.
Developing a sense of vulnerability as a choice and a range of degrees rather than something that happens to us, or an all-or-nothing switch, empowers us to choose when and how we open to others. Controlled vulnerability allows us to offer small extensions of trust and choose based on how the other responds whether to offer more…whether to deepen our connection or to withdraw.
If we are starting from a place of unsafety with others and/or within ourselves, how do we begin to move toward controlled vulnerability? What can we do inside ourselves to feel safe enough to risk letting someone inside our defensive walls?
The first step is to allow the possibility of living in security rather than fear. If we do not even consider something possible, we will never make any attempt to experience it.
Then we must open ourselves to learning, about ourselves and about the world. Feeling secure in ourselves stems from knowing ourselves, knowing our values, knowing the conditions that make us feel safe or unsafe, knowing our capacities and our skills and our gifts (and the corresponding deficits in our natural tool set). Knowing ourselves—and accepting ourselves.
When we are willing to accept ourselves as we are, and as we may become as our experiences expand and change us, we can work on specific skills to make vulnerability a controlled choice. Those include (but are certainly not limited to!)
- Boundaries work
- Self-parenting or self-coaching (choosing self-compassion and curiosity over self-judgment and fear)
- Being willing to be a beginner—to embrace learning as a messy, non-linear process lined with false starts and failures
- Seeing mistakes not as failures but as information that teaches us what not to do, what we really want, what we can accomplish, and how able we are to stand back up and try again
- Reframing our past so that we can learn from it without being defined by it
- Learning to recognize supportive behaviors vs. neglecting or abusive behaviors
Having experiences with others who do not betray our trust when we expose our true selves to them is a powerful rehabilitative experience. We cannot fully heal relational wounds (such as a fear of vulnerability) on our own. But we can work to foster trust in our own capacity for resilience as the first step toward willingly opening up to others. We can choose deliberate action vs. fear-driven reaction purely within ourselves—and that is the inner landscape which allows us to accept vulnerability as proof of our growth rather than the goal of our growth.