If there is one topic I have come across within the literature that has had the biggest impact on my own well-being, it is the topic of vulnerability. Having an intellectual understanding of its importance, as well as developing the courage to practice it daily in my own life, has made my life richer and changed the person that I am for the better.
What is vulnerability?
Vulnerability is the simple (yet extremely challenging!) act of being and sharing all of you. It involves stepping into the uncertainty and risk associated with sharing our true and imperfect selves with others, including our deepest feelings, doubts, fears and truths.
Understanding vulnerability and its importance starts with an understanding of what so often gets in the way of us being vulnerable more often: we want others to like us.
We all care so deeply about others liking us because this is essentially what makes us human. Connection with others and the sense of belonging it brings invites love, joy, purpose and meaning into our lives.
The really big problem with wanting everyone to like us
The problem comes when we sacrifice vulnerability and trade in who we really are to be someone we’re not, in an attempt to meet our need for connection and belonging. We can so easily fall into the trap of hiding our deepest feelings, fears, struggles and truths to be liked and fit in, presenting ourselves to others in the way we think we should be, instead of risking the possibility of being rejected for who we truly are.
Yes, I’m well aware that fitting in and hiding parts of ourselves feels like the easiest and safest thing to do. But there are two significant downsides we’re rarely told about that come with choosing this approach.
First, when we hide who we truly are and how we truly feel, we almost always experience either anxiety, depression, addiction, blame, resentment, grief, or a multiple of the above. These emotions and behaviours arise when we pretend to be someone we’re not, or do not fully open up and be vulnerable by sharing our deepest selves to those around us.
Second, when we sacrifice who we truly are in order to connect with others, what we actually sacrifice is, ironically, the opportunity to experience true connection.
The beauty of your imperfections
Being vulnerable and sharing all of you – including your deepest emotions, insecurities and imperfections – is actually at the very core of meaningful, human experiences. When we share all of ourselves with others, we create the opportunity to cultivate a sense of connectedness that is far deeper and richer than we would ever experience by substituting who we are for the hope of fitting in. And when we open up and share ourselves, we also invite and help those around us to do exactly the same, too.
Understanding and practising this has (and still is) changing my life. Before, I had spent much of my life sacrificing and hiding parts of who I truly was, using my achievements and ‘successes’ as a shield. The sad thing with this is that it was all in an attempt to build a sense of connection, yet all I was actually doing was restricting true connection from occurring.
3 steps to being vulnerable
Of course, the journey from fear and fitting in to risk, uncertainty and vulnerability is a difficult and scary one, and one that I still constantly struggle with. But after much thought and reflection, I think that it begins with these 3 steps:
- Learning to be completely okay and accepting of all of who you are, and reminding yourself that you are enough, exactly as the person that you are right now. You must remember also that once you see this, others will easily see it, too.
- Remembering to define yourself as so much more than the image someone else may have of you. And if you are judged, remember that it is only a reflection of the one doing the judging, and does not mean that you are wrong.
- Letting go of the unhelpful belief that you need to be loved, or well liked, by everyone in your life.
The gift of rejection
It is essential to understand that when we share our deepest feelings, fears and truths that some people may like us less, or even run away, and that this is perfectly OK. After all, just because someone rejects you for who you truly are, does not mean that there is anything wrong with you. And just because someone is not willing or able to love you as you, does not mean that you are not loveable.
And the magic of this rejection is that it opens the door to connecting with another because of, and not despite of, who you truly are. And I think that connecting with another because of who we truly are is possibly the most magical experience that there is in this life: it trumps any achievements, awards, money or fame that we will ever have, and feels so much richer than when we connect with another only because we are hiding a certain part of us.
One final thing
When you are next faced with the opportunity to either hide a part of yourself, or to be vulnerable, authentic, and share who you truly are and how you truly feel with someone that is important to you, I find that it helps to remember this:
The more of your true self that you share with another, the more of you that there now is for them to connect with and love about you.
And when we have people around us that do truly listen, empathise and love us unconditionally and without judgement when we are being all of us, it’s important to not take them for granted, and to tell them just how much gratitude we hold in our hearts for knowing and having them in our life.
For people like this are surely the greatest gift that we can ever receive, and my experience is that it hurts deeply when they are no longer around.
[Note: Hat tip to Dr Brené Brown and Jules O’Neil, whose research, work and teachings have collectively inspired this post. If you want to learn more about vulnerability and connection, I highly recommend Brown’s text Daring Greatly. It’s a brilliant, insightful and thought-provoking read.]