How to Feel Comfortable Being Vulnerable
The past year and half showed that even the strongest of us have a tipping point when it comes to how much we can carry. And with many still struggling to keep it together, with this pandemic continuing to rage on, it is important to communicate to our friends and loved ones --- and more so to ourselves ---that it is really "okay to not be okay." Openness to vulnerability lessens the emotional repression that compounds distress, and being comfortable with our fragility and needs leads to help-seeking and access to support.
Daniel Goleman, one of the proponents of Emotional Intelligence, considers awareness of both strength and limitations as key to successfully regulating emotions. Actualizing Therapy argues that people who can both comfortably feel and positively express the polarity of strength and weakness tend to be more actualized individuals --- that is, they are happy and live up to their utmost potential. And Attachment theorists are in a consensus that secure relationships mean that partners feel safe enough to ask each other for help, because they have the certainty that help will be provided. Organizational Development practitioners even posits that leaders who are more comfortable with vulnerability create more psychological safety at work.
Having difficulty feeling and expressing vulnerability? Consider the following ways to start.
Examine your attitudes about vulnerability.
A lot of toxic attitudes about vulnerability exists in society, reinforced by cultural stereotypes and expectations ingrained from childhood. Do you subscribe to the maxim that "men don't cry", "leaders can't be weak" , or "children always have to see their parents as the pillar of strength"? Do you believe that vulnerability equates to weakness (it doesn't) or to being pathetic. Or have you been burned in the past, that vulnerability for you is equivalent to being taken advantage of?
Paradoxically, vulnerability is a show of internal strength. It is a recognition that we are all human beings capable of mistakes, failures, and with limitations in time and energy. When we admit our vulnerability, we allow ourselves to get better in touch with our humanity, which prompts us to be more responsive to life challenges.
As University Professor Brené Brown puts it: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it's our greatest measure of courage.”
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it's our greatest measure of courage.”
Identify feelings you’re afraid of showing. There are those who don’t have a problem feeling vulnerable per se. But they have specific emotions they’re uncomfortable disclosing. There are those who can open up about their sadness, but not about their anger. There are those who will say no when they’re physically fatigued, but not when they’re emotionally overburdened. Others cannot admit that they can't do it anymore or would need a rest, thinking that one bad day means a bad life.
Perhaps it will help that all emotions are amoral; they are neither right or wrong. They are simply our body's way of responding to the situations that we're in. Sadness is our body's way of helping us acknowledge a loss, while anxiety is our body's way of acknowledging danger or risk. And there is a way to feel these emotions while still being in control. Mindful attention, for example, to our emotions, but responding rationally or with the "wise mind" as DBT founder Marsha Linehan would call it, is key.
Know the roots of your discomfort. Personal history can play a big role in the difficulty in feeling vulnerable. If you grew up in a family that isn’t big on showing tears, then chances are you’re simply not used to being vulnerable. If you had been forced to a position of authority from an early age, say you’re a parental child, then you might think that showing weakness will cause you to lose authority and slack off on your responsibility. If an episode of weakness on your part ended in tragedy, you might still be feeling guilty and responsible. Get to know your demons, so that you can exorcise them once and for all!
Understand what vulnerability can do for your relationship/s. Vulnerability is a pre-requisite for authentic intimacy. Vulnerability provides the platform for your loved one to show the he or she accepts everything about you, which in turn gives you the confidence to also be authentic to who you really are. More importantly, when you’re more at home with yourself, you feel less pressured to maintain a façade. Vulnerability produces empathy and compassion, reaching out and caring, as well as patience with other people’s limitations.
And while it's true that not everyone in our circle will respond well or favorably to our disclosure of vulnerability, we also have an opportunity to teach our loved ones what kind of support we want or need. Most of the time, people we disclose our emotions to sincerely wants to help, but they don't know how. Advising and problem-solving is reflex for many, and we may have to also take time to let our support system know know we could use just empathic listening and holding space.
Practice in simple ways. Feeling and expressing vulnerability comfortably is a skill, which means anyone can learn it. And if going all out is a challenge, take baby steps towards.
Here are some ways you can practice:
Acknowledge your feelings of vulnerability to yourself. You can start by completing the following statement "Today, I feel ___________" and practicing mindful self-assurance "...and it's okay to feel this way."
Practice body exercises. One way to get in touch with one's vulnerability privately is to explore the body language of weakness. You can practice the feeling of falling, and having someone catch you as you fall. You can act out a posture of begging and asking for help. Or you can slowly transform your “rigid” body language, such as high shoulders and haughty expressions into one of submission. Awareness of what it feels like to pose weakness is one way to learn how to get comfortable with vulnerability.
If you can't say it right out yet, try communicating vulnerability in indirect and non-verbal ways. Lean your head on your partner, or ask for a hug. When others respond positively to your gestures, this may be the encouragement that you're looking for.
Solicit assurances from your loved ones. For you to be comfortable with vulnerability, you must first be in an environment where it’s safe to express fragility. What kind of assurance do you need from the people around you? A promise of confidentiality? Active listening? A vow of non-judgment? Identify what you need and ask for it. If it can help you become closer to the people who matter to you, then it’s something worth asking for.
Get to know people who are happy with imperfection. Lastly, find role models that can show you how vulnerability doesn’t necessarily equate to something bad. You don’t have to look far; perhaps a church mate is a cancer survivor who lives life big while taking the needed support and off days, or you have a co-worker who has benefitted from sharing about their journey from depression to recovery. The world has plenty of people who don’t hide their vulnerabilities --- and yet remain strong.