Embracing Vulnerability

Most of us have spent a good part of our lives trying to avoid feeling vulnerable.  But learning to instead embrace that feeling can actually bring us closer to experiences that add purpose and meaning to our lives, according to Brené Brown, PhD.

Brown, author of Daring Greatly, writes that vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Admittedly, those features don’t make it sound too enticing.

But in addition to our innate fear, part of the reason we tend to avoid feeling vulnerability is that we are taught to believe a few myths, Brown explains.

The most widely accepted myth is that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. “When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on,” she explains.

When you believe vulnerability is a weakness, you believe that feeling is a weakness, Brown explains. “To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.”

The second myth is that you can opt out of vulnerability. Brown says that’s just not true.  “Life is vulnerable.” 

The third myth is that vulnerability is really just oversharing or purging emotions, or indiscriminate disclosure.  It’s not; rather it requires boundaries and trust, according to Brown.

The last myth –that we can go it alone – is the cultural equivalent of rugged individualism. Independence is great, but we have to learn to be helped in order to know how to help others, Brown says.

How can you learn to move past those myths and accept or even gain strength from a certain level of vulnerability?

Brown says there is definitely a positive side to vulnerability. It sounds like truth and feels like courage. It’s taking off your mask and hoping the real you isn’t too disappointing. It’s the place where courage and fear meet, a place of letting go of control.

But while vulnerability may at first feel awkward if not downright scary, not learning to feel vulnerable or fearing vulnerability can take something valuable away from you, writes Brown.  In fact, ever since childhood we have learned to use three shields to protect ourselves from being hurt, diminished or disappointed:

  1. Foreboding instead of joy. When we start to feel joy, we wait for the other shoe to drop. We’re sure something awful must be just around the corner. The antidote for that, or “daring greatly” as Brown calls it, is practicing gratitude.
  2. Perfectionism. It’s self-destructive and addictive. We somehow think that if we are perfect, we can minimize shame, judgment and blame. The “daring greatly” approach is “learning to go from “what will people think?” to “I am enough.”
  3. Emotional Numbing. We do this because of our shame, anxiety and disconnection with others. The “daring greatly” approach is setting boundaries, finding true comfort, and cultivating spirit.

In addition to helping adults learn to take away their three shields, she offers advice to parents who may be interested in helping their children learn to be vulnerable early in life. She encourages parents to tell their kids that they are worthy of being loved; teach them to practice courage; share their struggles; practice compassion, (with both themselves and others); know joy; face uncertainty, fear and grief; and take time to laugh, create and live wholeheartedly.

For leaders, “daring greatly” is about humanizing the environment and creating a safe space for vulnerability and growth, Brown writes. She suggests leaders be true to themselves and open about who they are; give respectful feedback; take risks and embrace their vulnerabilities; promote connection, curiosity and engagement; and understand the human need for purpose and meaning.

Above all, Brown wants everyone – adults and kids – to practice daring greatly.  “It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It’s even a little dangerous at times,” says Brown.

“But nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous and hurtful as believing that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like it I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”

Learn more: Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, PhD. Gotham Books, 2012.