Vulnerability: What Are You Risking if You Don’t?
*Originally published May 6, 2019*
Over the past couple of years, the topic of vulnerability has been an interesting subject for me on a more personal level. In the past year or two, I had to start facing some hard truths about myself and how they have impacted all of my relationships.
No one likes hard truths, otherwise, they’d be called ‘easy’ truths, or ‘manageable’ truths. What makes a truth ‘hard’ is the fact that it’s a truth that you either don’t want to believe or will require you to make some frightening changes. Of the hard truths that I had to face, what is probably the most important is this:
I still don’t trust people.
Surprisingly, it’s a truth that isn’t necessarily new but I was under the belief that I had “fixed” this. It’s very disheartening when we truly believe that we have overcome an obstacle, only to be faced with it again several years later. A lot of times we may believe that we have gotten over a challenge but it’s not always the case. The facing of this hard truth ties into the final portion of this series on vulnerability: What we risk when we fail to make ourselves vulnerable.
I went over this in the first portion of the series, but it does bear repeating until we are able to apply it. When we fail to make ourselves vulnerable or allow ourselves to be seen, we run the chance of sacrificing true connection with others.
“When we don’t acknowledge how and where we’re tender, we’re more at risk of being hurt.”
The idea of blocking ourselves off or creating a wall is counterproductive. We do it because we want to feel safe, we want to keep ourselves protected from possible hurtful situations, possible hurtful words, and possible hurtful people. But what we fail to acknowledge is that these are all possible outcomes, not definite. Brene’ Brown even gets technical about the false association of vulnerability and weakness. When defining the word vulnerable, it derives from the Latin word vulnerare which means ‘to wound’. The definition of vulnerable is when we are “capable of being wounded” and “open to attack or damage”. However, the definition of weakness is “the inability to withstand attack or wounding”.
To put it simply, the words ‘vulnerable’ and ‘weak’ are not synonymous but a lot of us have the tendency to associate these words together. Vulnerability is an optional action while weakness is an optional response to that action. To put this in context with connection: vulnerability is a major building block in creating trust. This means that when we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we do not build genuine trust. And when we do not build genuine trust it makes for a friendship, relationship, marriage, etc that is basically incomplete on the mild end and dysfunctional on the severe end.
Times I Should Have Been Vulnerable
There was an incident a few years back. To make a long story short, my inability to be open about a situation caused things to escalate to a point in which I lost a good friend, and the relationship with another friend has never been quite the same. In actuality, the problem I was having started several months before it escalated to that point. At that point, I was very used to the idea of ‘solving my own problems’. I viewed sharing my issue as “unloading my problems to someone else” or “making things messy”. Even though I was ridden with burden and shame I kept quiet about it and convinced myself that: It was not that bad….I can deal with this…No need to make a mess of things….I’m responsible for my problems….I’m not a victim.
That type of mentality can only last so long before one reaches a breaking point, which I did. For the first time in the four years we had known each other, I cried in front of this friend. Actually, I bawled. She was aware of the fact that I don’t wear my emotions on my sleeve. She knew that I hated crying. She knew that I hated hugs. But at that moment she held me and she let me know: I don’t hate you. I know it’s not your fault. I know that wasn’t your intention. I believe you. But in addition to that, she also let me know this:
I wish you would have said something. Honestly, I’m kind of hurt that you thought you couldn’t come to me about this.
Out of everything that we discussed that night, that stuck with me the most. And it made me question myself. Why didn’t I say anything? Why didn’t I believe that my friend would offer a safe place?
I didn’t really have a comfortable answer for that. I realized that, despite knowing I had very good friends, I somehow still had trouble putting that level of trust in others.
Vulnerability is admitting you have a problem that you can’t fix on your own.
Vulnerability is sharing your pain with someone who has earned the right to hear about it.
Vulnerability has many difference faces. A lot of times people view it as something dramatic like revealing a deep, dark secret. Or sharing information that could cause a relationship to become uncomfortable. Sometimes the moments are a lot less ‘intense’ but still necessary. There are times when it could just be speaking up when you’re the odd one out.
I’ve struggled with this type of problem for a while. Without realizing it, I grew a habit of assuming that only “important” voices should be heard in the context of a business meeting. In a workplace example, I noticed that the way my team operated seemed…off. There was something about our process that made me think: There has to be a better way of doing this; there’s no way all of these issues are simply ‘okay’. But, to my knowledge, I was the odd one out. I assumed that I was the only one who had this type of opinion, but more important I assumed that the way I felt didn’t matter because I didn’t feel I had the credibility to back up these opinions. I didn’t think too much of it at the time.
It wasn’t until months later when our team lead called in a meeting to discuss our process of operations that I realized I was 100% right in my doubts. Everything that I was concerned about was brought to light by our team lead, and I was surprised to see other people’s heads nodding firmly in agreement. I sat there like….where was all of this a few months ago? There’s no way none of you felt this way a few months ago. Where was the rebuttal then? Why didn’t anybody say anything?
Very likely the same reason I didn’t. And even then, the reasoning was still unclear. Logically speaking, we know that it’s not likely we will be publicly shamed and scrutinized just for expressing an opinion that differs from literally every single person in the room. Unless your boss or manager is an absolute skid mark of a person, they’re probably not going to berate you in front of everyone; especially if you were respectful about it. And if you are the type of ‘leader’ to do that, you’re atomic trash. Even though I knew this, the thought of expressing that opinion or sharing that idea with absolutely no authority/credibility felt wrong. I’m not one who springs at the opportunity to be recognized or honored, but I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t have been an awesome feeling to know that I could have been someone who sparked that conversation about change.
Vulnerability is making your voice heard in a place where you feel as if your voice doesn’t matter
Vulnerability is daring to put ideas out there despite the opposition.
My last example involves a guy whom I liked a lot. The best way to describe it is that I had somewhat of an ongoing off-and-on crush on this person over a time span of about 4 years. There are reasons why I never pursued anything with this person but it boils down to three factors: timing, fear, and the hard fact that our lives were likely going to be pulled in very different directions anyway because of our own dreams and goals. So when he asked to meet up with me sometime after work one day, I didn’t think too much of it. After all, I had spent years telling myself that nothing could ever happen between us and that he was likely not attracted to me to begin with.
However, come to find out that I was completely wrong about it all being one-sided. In fact, the period of time in which we realized our feelings for each other fell within the same timeline. But, like me, he never pursued it. As he was telling me this I was obviously very happy, but also terrified. This is something that I wanted, but I definitely had doubts when it came to the logistics. Is he thinking this all the way through? Does he know what this means? Why now? What about this? What about that? What about his plans? What about my plans?….. What’s happening?
I have quite an obvious ‘thinking face’, and as he looked me in my eyes he could see the wheels turning. His response:
“What’s wrong? Do you think I’m playing a game with you? I’m not. What’s on your mind right now?”
And at this point, the board members in my brain were all gathered into an emergency meeting to come up with how I was going to respond to this.
Now, what does this situation have to do with vulnerability? It takes a certain level of vulnerability to be real with yourself, as well as with other people. When my brain was on fire and I had my doubts, I should have expressed myself then and there. I should have explained that while I obviously appreciated the gesture, that I truly didn’t think he was taking the proper things into account. Maybe he hasn’t thought this all the way through of what this could mean for our friendship if things were to not work out, or maybe he was just being impulsive. But I didn’t do that. I extinguished the flames in my brain and decided to just run with it.
I do want to make this clear: he most definitely was not playing a game with me. His intent was in the right place, and his feelings were definitely genuine. However, as time went on he did come to those realizations and figured out he was, indeed, acting on impulse. And while the process of ending things before they actually began was emotionally painful (and low-key humiliating), that probably could have been avoided if I had just been vulnerable in that moment. I should have been real with him, and let him know that this was likely not going to work. Thankfully, I am in a place where I don’t have to be bitter or resentful towards this friend for making an honest mistake.
Vulnerability is being realistic in times when it is highly called for.
Take the Risk of Being Vulnerable
When we weigh out the pros and cons of practicing vulnerability, the pros definitely have a stronger argument. In the case of being vulnerable, the very most we’d be dealing with in a lot of cases is hurt feelings and outcomes that probably needed to happen regardless of how we felt about it. However, when we make the decision not to be vulnerable we take a lot more risks. We risk healthy relationships, friendships, emotional stability, genuine connection, and trust. When I think about the times that I was not vulnerable when I should have been, I am plagued with regret. But when I think about the times that I was vulnerable, I remind myself that the world didn’t come crashing down and that my life wasn’t ending. I only remember being lifted from the burden of carrying the weight that comes with keeping myself and my feelings hidden. Vulnerability isn’t always pleasant or enjoyable, but it’s a highly necessary component if we ever want to build trust with other people and keep ourselves in a healthy emotional state.
And with that being said, this concludes my series on vulnerability. I hope it’s been as helpful for you as it has been for me!