Vulnerability: Definition & Tips (from Brene Brown & Others)
Is being emotionally vulnerable the same thing as being weak? What exactly is vulnerability and can it help us in daily life? Keep reading to find out.
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What Is Vulnerability? (A Definition)
There are a lot of ways to define vulnerability. The term, ‘vulnerable’ means to be susceptible to emotional or physical harm. Another way to describe vulnerability could be “at-risk”. In the current article, you will be talking about emotional vulnerability, which is a large umbrella term that captures a few elements.
What is emotional vulnerability?
If we take the definition of vulnerable that you just read, emotional vulnerability would mean being susceptible to emotional harm or pain. At the root of it, this harm comes from your emotional experiences, especially the ones that are painful. Being emotionally vulnerable involves the process of acknowledging your emotions, especially those that are uncomfortable or painful.
It is less about acknowledging hedonically pleasant emotions, such as love and joy, and more about unpleasant emotions, such as anger, shame, anxiety, loneliness, and others. This is because unpleasant emotions are often, but not always, uncomfortable to acknowledge and reflect upon.
The acknowledging piece is important because it is human nature to avoid experiences that hurt us or bring pain. Oftentimes, instead of fully experiencing and acknowledging an unpleasant emotional experience, we may do things that help us feel better. For instance, when you feel sad, you may call a friend for emotional support and ask for advice. When you feel angry, you may blow off some steam through healthy (e.g., going for a run) or unhealthy (e.g., drinking) habits. When you feel anxious, you may remind yourself that it’s all in your head and try to look at the situation differently.
Opposite of vulnerability
In psychology, the term emotion regulation refers to the various ways that we influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express these emotions (Gross, 1998). These can range from cognitive (e.g., reappraisal) to behavioral (e.g., situation selection).
Here are a few common forms of emotion regulation:
Many of these strategies aim to reduce the negative emotional experience, which is not what you want to strive for when being emotionally vulnerable. There is, however, one strategy that may be aligned with emotional vulnerability… Can you guess which one? If you guessed emotional acceptance then you are correct.
Emotional acceptance and vulnerability
Emotional acceptance is an active process that involves turning towards one’s emotions, and deeply engaging with those emotions. Importantly, emotional acceptance is not a passive resignation to one’s emotions (e.g., perseverating on negative emotions) or one’s situation (e.g., accepting discrimination as ‘okay’).
Contrary to intuition, engaging with emotions via emotional acceptance does not exacerbate these emotions. In fact, emotional acceptance can meaningfully improve people’s emotional experiences over time (e.g., Ford et al., 2018).
It is important to acknowledge our painful emotions sometimes, instead of trying to avoid them or reduce their impact. It’s important to note, however, that it is not realistic to always do this. You would be emotionally exhausted if you reflected and pondered upon every single emotion and mood during the day.
Vulnerability is also not the same thing as rumination -- you don’t want to be obsessed with your uncomfortable feelings. This can be just as harmful as avoiding them.
Instead, try to meet yourself in the middle when it comes to emotional vulnerability. Now that you’ve read about what vulnerability is and isn’t, let’s get into what exactly it feels like.
What Vulnerability Feels Like
Think back to a time where you felt vulnerable. What did this feel like? Were you anxious, scared, maybe a bit self-conscious? These are completely normal to feel when being vulnerable. In fact, it is part of the whole experience. If there was no threat of potentially experiencing emotional harm or pain, then you would not feel apprehensive or uncomfortable.
Being vulnerable means that you’re taking the time to acknowledge difficult emotions instead of acting on them right away.
Emotional vulnerability can be thought of as a two-step process.
Brene Brown Vulnerability Ted Talk
Vulnerability in Relationships
Not only is it hard to acknowledge your emotions on a personal, private level, but it is even more of a challenge to do this with other people. Nevertheless, vulnerability is incredibly important in relationships (e.g., friendships, romantic partners) as it can help build intimacy and trust. Relationships are built on trust and communication, which explains why emotional vulnerability brings people closer.
Even if you can trust your friend or partner with simple things (e.g., being kind, on time, respectful), there is a deeper level of trust that is needed for a relationship to survive: emotional trust. This is built through being vulnerable with one another. If you cannot trust yourself or your partner to acknowledge and work through difficult emotions, there will be a lack of intimacy. So even though it may be hard to open up, the challenge is worth it to help the relationship grow stronger.
Remember, if you are willing to open up and share difficult emotions with your partner, it signals to them that it is okay for them to do the same. By challenging yourself to be vulnerable, you are helping them be vulnerable in the future too.
The Benefits of Vulnerability
1. It can ease your anxiety.
You may be thinking that encountering painful emotions is a recipe for increasing anxiety, but in fact, it can do the opposite. Many people who suffer from chronic anxiety have the belief that feeling bad is harmful, and that negative emotions are to be feared. When you begin practicing vulnerability, you send a different message to your brain. When you begin acknowledging your emotions and allowing yourself to experience them, it’s a signal to yourself that negative emotions are not all that bad, which can reduce your overall anxiety.
2. It can strengthen relationships.
As mentioned above, vulnerability can strengthen relationships by building trust and intimacy. The first step is to be open and vulnerable to yourself by acknowledging your emotions, and then you can work your way up to being vulnerable with your loved ones, such as friends or a romantic partner.
3. It can help you become more self-aware.
By acknowledging your emotions and thought patterns, you begin to recognize your defense mechanisms and emotional blind spots. For instance, when I was younger I had stage fright and had difficulty overcoming my anxiety for class presentations. These feelings of anxiety were often ignored or repressed and contributed to my feelings of social anxiety. Even after I had gotten over my stage fright, I found myself still getting nervous or anxious when I would go to social gatherings. I couldn’t quite understand why this was, but when I realized I had never fully acknowledged and freely experienced the feelings of anxiety from when I was younger, it made sense. It is often the case that the more we try to push away painful emotions, the stronger they get.
How to Be More Vulnerable
1. Acknowledge your emotions by labeling them.
Try to describe how you’re feeling in the simplest of terms. Instead of resorting to vague descriptions, such as “I’m feeling a bit stressed”, be concrete and say, “I’m feeling angry and hurt from the fight I had yesterday with my partner”. Imagine you were describing how you were feeling to a child.
Journaling can be a powerful tool to help you become more vulnerable. Try using emotion-focused journaling to help you articulate how you are feeling and acknowledge those emotions. This will help you express your emotions to yourself, which can help you slowly build up to expressing them to other people.
3. Practice being assertive.
What do vulnerability and assertiveness have in common? They are both difficult and uncomfortable to practice. By being assertive in your daily life (e.g., telling the waiter your food isn’t to your liking, voicing your preferences with friends), it can help your brain realize that you are capable of doing challenging things. You begin to cultivate confidence in your ability to express difficult things, which can then help you feel equipped to express and acknowledge painful emotions. This, in turn, may help you become more emotionally vulnerable.
4. Seek professional help.
Therapy or counseling is an amazing opportunity for you to practice expressing your emotions on a regular basis. Not only do you have to articulate how you feel, but your therapist may also help you acknowledge painful emotions that you may have repressed in your past.
Quotes About Vulnerability
Articles Related to Vulnerability
Want to learn more about topics related to vulnerability? Here are some more articles to read.
Books About Vulnerability (From Brene Brown)
Want to keep learning about how to be more vulnerable? Here are some good books to check out:
Final Thoughts on Vulnerability
Vulnerability can be a difficult thing to experience. But, it's important to do so as being vulnerable can help you grow and improve your relationships. Hopefully, this article offered some strategies that will help you manage the experience of being vulnerable with more ease.