Vulnerability: the word itself makes many of us uncomfortable. It means you’re exposed, you can be hurt, you’re susceptible to outside forces – all things none of us like to admit. It’s a fear of disconnection. We fear that we’ll feel shame if we do something wrong or say something out of place. It eats at us with comments like “I’m not smart enough” or “thin enough” or “doing enough with my life.” Vulnerability plays a crucial, unsung role in the majority of our daily interactions. It lets us know who we can “open up” around, and who we must show strength to. Unfortunately, the less we expose of ourselves, the higher the barriers are to creative expression and personal joy – which is why it’s crucial to address this sensitive subject in both our personal and professional lives.
If our environment isn’t conducive to exposing our ideas and ourselves, we can’t move forward for fear of judgment. The idea that you may be holding back from expressing could be the perfect solution for a problem – but you’ll never share it if you’re uncomfortable with the people around you – nor will you ever deepen your connections with others. In this article we’ll look at how shame lies at the heart of vulnerability, the implications this has on our lives and some suggestions for overcoming vulnerability.
Vulnerability is uncomfortable, so why do we feel this way? The answer is two-fold. One reason for our vulnerability is our need for social acceptance. We’re afraid we don’t belong or aren’t like anyone else. We fear losing our social circles. These fears are hard wired into our brains – if our ancestors did something out of place with a tribe’s traditions or values they’d risk excommunication and possibly death. Even if we slip up just once, the world can be cruel and come to associate that one action with your character. We grew up intertwined in these social dynamics – each of us just one accident away from a few years of social ousting in elementary school and public shaming. The other reason is worthiness. Many of us don’t feel worthy of belonging and love because we feel we aren’t enough. We’re ashamed of who we are – a lack of confidence. It drives us to misery, we’re far more masochistic than one would rationally expect.
The key emotion at the heart of vulnerability is shame – which is far worse than embarrassment, humiliation and guilt. I’ll distinguish each because these terms are frequently used synonymously.
Embarrassment is a temporary discomfort, an example being when we are caught doing something that makes us lose our composure i.e. tripping on stairs in front of a group of people.
Humiliation causes us to lose some form of social prestige. We may have done something funny or wrong, but we don’t feel deserving of the harsh way it was portrayed i.e. you fail to clock out at work and your boss holds your unstamped time sheet up in front of all the other employees and mocks your inability to complete such a simple task.
Guilt says I did something bad i.e. I forgot to pick up my kid after school. Did I make a mistake that I feel bad about? Yes. Does that mistake mean I’m an awful parent? No.
Shame is the most hurtful of each of these. It’s when you tell yourself you are bad. Whatever action you took directly reflects your character i.e. I can’t figure out how to solve this problem so I’m stupid and incompetent. You place all the blame on yourself and see your action as a direct reflection of permanent character traits.
Vulnerability is caused by our fear of shame. Vulnerability keeps us from expressing ourselves to our fullest, which has dramatic implications on our overall happiness. We avoid exposing ourselves in situations. Vulnerability is so intimidating that we find ways to numb ourselves to it – to numb ourselves to the possibility of feeling negative emotions like shame, guilt, embarrassment and humiliation. We don’t ask out a potential date or refuse to ask our loved ones for a sensitive request for fear of denial. The same applies for the office – we’d rather stress ourselves out than show “weakness” by asking for help (in most cases, combining resources is what’s best for the business anyway). Instead we don’t. We choose not to expose that part of ourselves. There’s just one big issue with numbing ourselves to these issues – we also numb ourselves to the best emotions life offers like excitement, joy and love. We reduce our vulnerability with numbing agents like vices and bad habits. We’re afraid so we numb, but that’s not living. It’s time to overcome this barrier to living.
To overcome shame and therefore our fears of not belonging or not being deserving of love, we’ll need to change the way we think, act and feel – but how? The answer lies in scientific deconstruction. By studying and deconstructing the minority of people that rarely feels vulnerable, we can identify the characteristics they possess and implement them in our lives to overcome our fear. Luckily, Dr. Brene Brown has already undertaken this research. She found that these people possess 3 key traits: first, they have a sense of courage; second, they practice self compassion; third, they’re authentic. To overcome vulnerability, we’ll need to practice each.
Self Compassion – We need to learn to love ourselves – including our faults. We need to understand that nobody is perfect and reminder ourselves of that at these times. We may feel guilty at times because we forgot to do something we promised someone or made a mistake at work. It’s understandable to feel upset about making mistakes, but you have to remind yourself that these mistakes are not true representations of your character and your heart, and that you’ll come back stronger with a lesson learned (regardless of how painful it may be).
Authenticity – We shouldn’t live for other people – it’s a waste of life and will only lead to misery. We must live our lives how we please. Do what we love. Go where we want. Think how we like. If we’re focused on fitting in the mold that other people build for us via their expectations, we’ll never find happiness. We need to find belonging to find joy. I differentiate belonging from fitting in. Fitting in is doing what a group does; belonging is finding a group of people that do what you do. If you strive to fit in, you’ll never be genuinely satisfied with how your life turns out because you’re living out other people’s expectations of you. Be yourself.
Courage – We must be courageous enough to be ourselves. We need to put ourselves out there and risk not belonging, in order to find belonging. You must risk vulnerability to have a chance at finding belonging – and to do so takes courage. Show yourself.
Be yourself, love yourself, and show yourself – no shame. That’s how we overcome vulnerability and shame, and that’s how we find joy and belonging. When others show vulnerability, it deepens our connection to them. They give us the chance to judge them, and we appreciate that. It’s time we do the same. When we see someone on stage giving a talk or presentation and they self criticize jokingly, we applaud them for their courageousness in exposing their flaws – because we’re all human and stuff happens. In our lives, we feel ashamed to show our flaws because we’re embarrassed by them. We’re holding ourselves to a double standard. We should applaud ourselves the same way we applaud the speaker for exposing their vulnerability. It’ll only deepen our connection to each other and lead us to belonging. Its uncomfortable, it could be painful, and it’s hard, but being vulnerable is necessary.
We’re losing so much of the most valuable, precious parts of our lives because we’re uncomfortable with exposing the most genuine parts of ourselves. It’s time for us to step outside of that box and let ourselves be seen. Show yourself the same compassion you have for others and be courageous enough to expose your whole self to people.
“Appreciate what we have, love with our whole hearts and believe we’re enough” – Brene Brown.