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Why vulnerability will change your life: The power of being yourself

December 7, 2021 - 15 min read

vulnerability_person looking out (1)

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What is vulnerability

4 types of vulnerability

5 benefits of vulnerability

Are you unable to make yourself vulnerable?

3 misconceptions about vulnerability

3 ways to be more vulnerable

What if you could harness the power of vulnerability to ask for what you need or express your emotions without fear of rejection?

Small actions — like sharing your feelings or celebrating your own achievements — may seem more daunting than it appears because of emotional vulnerability.

Sometimes, vulnerability can manifest itself in your body’s physical reactions. You may feel your muscles tense or that pit drop in your stomach. You may feel your breathe quicken when you openly share your thoughts, emotions, and needs. You may feel your nervous system freeze, you may feel like you’re unable to speak. You retreat. And in some instances, it may feel like you’re losing a part of yourself.

Vulnerability is scary. After all, it has the power to change your life.

To unpack vulnerability, you have to step into uncertainty and examine how it shows up in your relationships. Examining human vulnerability means you’re intentionally scanning how it shows up in your body or how it impacts your day-to-day actions. While your gut instinct may be to avoid it at all costs, it’s possible to build a quality, life-changing relationship with vulnerability. In the end, it could transform fear into belonging.

What is vulnerability?

I’d be remiss to talk about the definition of vulnerability without citing the work of Dr. Brené Brown, an author and research professor at the University of Houston. Brown has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.

In her book, Daring Greatly, she defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Through her research she discovered two powerful yet opposing takeaways that she shares both in her book and in her TED talk on shame and vulnerability.

1. Vulnerability is at the core of shame, fear, and the struggle for worthiness.

2. Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, and belonging.

To find joy, creativity, and belonging, Brené Brown argues that we must face what it means to be vulnerable: shame, fear, and the struggle for worthiness.

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4 types of vulnerability

We live in a changed society from the world we knew 20 months ago. We live in a world that’s left all us with some element of exposed vulnerability simply because of what we’ve collectively experienced. Whether it’s grief, loss, the impacts of a rapidly changing world of work, increased caregiving demands, or rising rates of burnout, the aftermath of the pandemic has arguably had an impact on everyone in our society.

Without warning COVID-19 changed how we live and work, how we make decisions, and even how we nurture and grow relationships. Not unlike what experience with cybersecurity and security vulnerability, we might feel our entire life is exposed.

But when we examine the definition of vulnerability under a microscope, we can make an assessment. Take a minute to identify what actions you can take to strengthen your mental fitness in the context of human vulnerability.

1. Vulnerability in your relationships.

As human beings, we all have wants and needs when it comes to relationships. But you may be fearful to express those emotions openly and risk certain social factors like rejection, abandonment, or judgment.

Try this. A vulnerable and effective way to ask for what you want is to use open-ended questions. As you practice asking for what you want, there’s a strong chance you’ll discover that it’s worth the risk.

2. Vulnerability in your mind and body.

Sometimes, recognizing where genuine vulnerability shows up in your mind and body requires your full, undivided attention on yourself, both mentally and physically. When’s the last time you checked in with yourself?

Try this. Ask yourself questions when you notice you’re feeling vulnerable.

How did you sleep last night? When was the last time you ate? When did you last drink water? How did that interaction with a colleague impact you? How are you feeling about your work? How are you feeling emotionally right now? As you become more aware of your thoughts and your physical self, you have the opportunity to gain a sense of well-being.

3. Vulnerability in the workplace.

How you do what you do often leaves you feeling vulnerable. Whether you’re comparing yourself to another colleague, doubting your efforts on a project, or struggling with imposter syndrome, examples of vulnerability in organizations are everywhere. As organizational psychologist Adam Grant suggests, “uncertainty primes us to ask questions and absorb new ideas.”

Try this. Consider reflecting at the end of your work day. Remind yourself that self-doubt is okay — it actually might ground you. Remind yourself there’s more to learn. Remind yourself that you have the power to accept who you are. You might even want to practice affirmation statements, like "I am strong. I am smart. I am capable." You can try using new words or language in your affirmation statements. Before long, these affirmations might become part of your new operating system and become a built habit.

4. Vulnerability in your community

The impact of COVID-19 is present in so many ways in our society. You may feel overwhelmed by the number of decisions you need to make to stay safe in your own community coupled with things like social anxiety.

Try this. You have the power to vocalize boundaries. Make decisions that are best for you and your family, and remove yourself from a situation if you don’t feel safe. You have the power to remove fear from your life by voicing and executing on your needs. Try to accept that the uncertainty around the unknown might be okay, even empowering. By vocalizing boundaries, you may even gain more visibility into your own priorities.

5 benefits of vulnerability

While exposing where you feel insecure can seem a bit like opening up the door to a human malware attack, vulnerability lends itself to more benefits than failure. If you’re deciding to move from the fear of vulnerability to unleashing its power to be your true self, you will reap the benefits.

vulnerability_people at cafe

1. Vulnerability strengthens relationships

Have you noticed why some of your relationships are stronger than others? Many of the strongest relationships come from embracing genuine vulnerability, whether it’s showing empathy, sharing information with someone you trust, or simply expressing needs and wants openly without judgment.

2. Vulnerability can help us grow and learn

Buddhist author Pema Chodron, who wrote Living with Vulnerability, shares that vulnerability is part of the human experience. She notes that vulnerability is “the category of things that, if we move toward them, have so much to teach us. Having a relationship with vulnerability, with things falling apart, is a life changer.” Instead of being a problem, vulnerability can be a solution.

3. Vulnerability expands gratitude

The word ‘gratitude’ resonates through Dr. Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability. In her work, Brené Brown focuses on people she describes as wholehearted. These are people who love with their whole hearts, without conditions. She finds as we fully embrace the meaning of vulnerability, we are filled with a growing sense of gratitude and joy.

4. Vulnerability improves self-awareness

When you work to let go of your assumptions and biases, you begin the process of accepting uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. That moment when you admit you don’t know everything opens up a path for you to continue to explore, grow, and learn.

5. Vulnerability affirms you are enough

Brené Brown is clear: “to connect, we have to allow ourselves to be seen.” When we choose to be vulnerable we recognize that we are enough. It’s what we bring to the table, how we demonstrate kindness, and how we interact with people in our lives. We begin to understand that what we offer is exactly what is needed at this moment.

Are you unable to make yourself vulnerable?

Even when you decide you want to embrace more uncertainty, risk, or exposure in your life, there are certain triggers that may halt this process. And the result? Misery.

You’ll find yourself avoiding vulnerability when:

1. You want to be perfect

Perfectionism can be your own worst enemy. The last thing you want is to say or do something that might be misconstrued, so you say nothing. If you don’t have it all figured out, you’ll sit this one out.

2. You don’t ask for what you need

There are different examples that come to mind, whether it's within your organization or in your personal life. You know that you deserve that promotion. You want more intimacy in your relationship. But what if you don’t get what you ask for? You’re silent.

3. You keep people at arm’s length

You’ve been hurt before, so you are not going to dive in and get hurt again. You stay busy at work, or home, or school — anything to keep you safe.

4. You don’t share — frustrations or success

You believe if you express frustration you’ll be labeled petty. If you share a success you’re arrogant. So, no matter what happens, you keep it to yourself.

3 misconceptions about vulnerability

There might be a number of reasons why you may avoid vulnerability. In Daring Greatly, author Brené Brown Brown breaks down three misconceptions that play a role in that avoidance.

1. It’s a sign of weakness

Because it’s so easy to attach human vulnerability to shame or fear, you may forget about the benefits, like of belonging, courage, and joy. What would happen if you looked at the full picture and took the journey from fear to courage? That’s where you’ll find strength.

2. I don’t share my dirty laundry

You believe that to be vulnerable you have to share everything with everyone. On the contrary, it’s critical to know and feel safe when you do choose to open up. The purpose of your vulnerability is to deepen relationships by sharing emotions in thoughtful and intentional ways.

3. I’m a lone wolf

When you think you’re the only one who can solve your problems, you often end up isolated and alone. Asking for help actually changes how the people in your life will respond to you — most often, the people in your life will support and empower you.

3 ways to be more vulnerable

So how might you accept vulnerability as part of your life while knowing it takes embracing the scary parts to unleash your whole self?

1. Acknowledge your emotions

When an emotion courses through, observe it without judgment. Are you sad or angry or ecstatic? Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. Then decide how you’re going to express, share, or address the emotion. As you agree to take the risk to be vulnerable, you begin to experience what’s on the other side: courage and joy.

2. Live with integrity

What do you value most in your life? When you live out the values that mean the most to you — like courage, forgiveness, growth or kindness — your whole self aligns. As you lean into your values, you’ll be able to embrace vulnerability and expand your sense of belonging.

3. Practice

Are you ready to step into this space of uncertainty, risk, and exposure? Like almost everything in life, it starts with practice. Let’s say you’re taking on more responsibility at work and deserve a promotion or additional resources. Leap in and make the pitch to your manager. Perhaps you feel hurt by others but have kept your feelings bottled up inside. Try sharing your emotions openly and see what opens. With practice, your confidence and security grows.

vulnerability_two people sitting down talking-1

Take the plunge

Vulnerability is a life changer.

Harnessing the power of vulnerability allows you to say what you want, ask for what you need, express your emotions, and celebrate your achievements. Every time you do, you give yourself permission to do it again. Every time you do, you expand that sense of confidence, security, belonging, joy, and growth. With each practice of vulnerability, you’re becoming your true and whole self. Soon, you'll see vulnerability as a strength, not a weakness.

You have the power to change your life, one step at a time.

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Published December 7, 2021

Lois Melkonian

Better Up Fellow Coach, PCC, CBC

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