How embracing vulnerability can help you deepen your relationships, clarify your desires & connect to the world
Asking for feedback, crying on a friend’s shoulder, getting on stage, standing up for your beliefs, going on a date, apologizing, quitting a job…
This is what vulnerability looks like, and it looks a whole lot like something else too: bravery.
Exposing ourselves to potential pain is about as necessary as it is scary. We learn to avoid pain at all costs — whether in the form of guilt, sadness or embarrassment — and in all that tiptoeing around, we avoid much more than that.
1) Connecting through Vulnerability
Relationships, the building blocks of life, come in all shapes and depths: colleagues, acquaintances, parents, friends, partners and neighbors.
The level at which we expose ourselves emotionally to these people determines how deeply we connect. This emotional exposure, or vulnerability, can connect two strangers who have experienced a harrowing event together or two friends who have opened up through hours of conversation.
In each case, vulnerability creates a purity that leads to a deeper connection. Sharing our hopes and fears not only lets others see our humanity, but it creates a safe environment for them to open up too. Nothing builds connections like vulnerability met with empathy.
One would think that connecting “on a human level” is natural for us humans. However, we live in a time where prolonged eye contact, too much emotion and big hugs make many uncomfortable. That’s not to say that forcing any of those behaviors will lead to genuine connection. It’s only to highlight where our current culture has brought us.
Avoiding eye contact with a waiter, passing others on the street without acknowledgment, failing to help someone in need — unfortunately these are telltale signs of the time. Strangers stay strangers and friends stay an arm’s length away.
Often, vulnerability lives in small, quiet acts — calling a friend, asking for advice, offering a hug — small moments between two humans that leave us connected, sometimes in spite of ourselves.
Embracing vulnerability by talking to the person next to us on the bus, sharing a laugh with someone at the checkout counter or introducing ourselves at a party, creates opportunities to connect that are impossible without taking a small leap of faith.
2) Finding Truth through Vulnerability
Reactiveness, defensiveness and denial flourish wherever vulnerability is absent. The mind invents narratives to protect us from pain, even if that means “protecting” us from the truth. According to vulnerability champion Brené Brown, our fear of vulnerability stems from an all-consuming fear of shame.
This manifests itself in other ways too, such as a discomfort with one’s own emotions and the emotions of others — helping contribute to the lack of empathy already mentioned.
To learn what we want, how we feel and who we are, we need the lens of clarity that only vulnerability can bring. When you find yourself defending an opinion, throwing out a rebuttal or justifying an action, take a moment to reflect. What emotion is driving it? Why do you need to be right? Is there an underlying insecurity that could be motivating you? Was a sensitive topic triggered? Why is it sensitive for you?
Instead of embracing vulnerability we embrace an image of ourselves that we defend at all costs. Generally, someone who attacks another’s parenting is spurred by their own misgivings or inability to forgive themselves for past errors.
By diving into our feelings of shame and guilt rather than building walls to keep them out we begin to see ourselves clearly. Everything we thought was important might just be smoke and mirrors. Maybe we realize, for example, that we still hold on to blame or trauma.
Before building a fulfilled life we need to know what we want and what we have to work with. Without that self understanding, that self empathy, we are riding blindly toward a goal that we might not even want.
Vulnerability will be your closest ally in the journey of knowing thyself.
3) Healing through Vulnerability
Vulnerability is not fun, but it is liberating. Imagine the freedom of being able to admit when you’re wrong, ask for help or apologize with ease without the weight of shame. How would it feel to live with the lightness of true forgiveness? What if you could leave your past in the past and not let it cloud your judgement?
The full-circle impact of vulnerability on our overall wellness is profound. By finding empathy for ourselves and leaning into pain we can begin to let go of blame — which is just an armor against vulnerability. Blame, not to be confused with accountability, tries in vain to “make sense” of things and create a feeling of control.
Reactive blaming to avoid vulnerability destroys opportunities for empathy. When we stop making blame a priority our relationships grow deeper.
In addition to nurturing empathy, vulnerability helps us illuminate our demons and take stock of them.
Try making a list called “my sources of pain.” Guilt, sadness, anger, embarrassment are all forms of pain. Take a look at that list: all the moments, experiences and words that caused suffering, which you still carry. Read it out to yourself. By defining these causes of pain they can no longer remain nameless and shapeless.
Consider why those experiences have had that effect on you: just like 2 + 2 = 4, that conversation caused pain for you because of this insecurity, for example. Relax into those emotions without letting them hide. Familiarity with the truth will help you either take action to improve the situation or let go. If you let your sources of pain continue to exist as an undefined, dark fog, it will be harder for you to find the perspective needed to grow.