Vulnerability. Does the word make your teeth set slightly on edge?
I feel like vulnerability might be one of the most ill defined words in the English language. Because if you look at a dictionary definition you’re going to get something along the lines of “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” That’s bad right? Reading that probably makes you feel tense. Maybe you immediately think of a situation in your life when you’ve experienced that – or where it could happen – and the walls start going up. Vulnerability? No thanks mate.
I would very much like to alter this dictionary definition – or at least add to it. While it does have a measure of accuracy when it comes to the challenges of vulnerability it’s also totally missed out the next step. If you’re a human being out in the world interacting, loving, connecting, trying, hoping then there’s always a risk. But vulnerability isn’t the helpless state of exposure that whoever wrote that definition seems to think it is. To me – and anyone who has ever really immersed themselves in it – vulnerability may be one of our greatest strengths.
While the dictionary definition of vulnerability seems rather passive if you look elsewhere (or consider your own life) that’s often not the case. This is how I define vulnerability on my podcast Notes on Vulnerability:
Showing up and letting yourself be truly seen when you can’t control how other people are going to think, feel or act in response to that.
Vulnerability is closely linked to the old definition of courage – telling the story of who you are with your whole heart (which comes from the original latin word for courage ‘cour’). It’s not an easy place to be, I’ll agree with the dictionary definition there, but it’s inherently positive because it’s authentic and it’s brave and you’re not deviating from the path of you.
The people pleasing trap
People pleasing might be the opposite of vulnerability – trying to give everyone you come across the version of you that you think they want so that you won’t end up being rejected or judged. I’ve done that – I think we all have at times. It does work for a bit but you can only ever really make superficial connections this way because you’re not actually letting anyone see who you really are. The fulfilling, magic, joyful connections are the ones that come in relationships where there is a willingness to be vulnerable.
Why aren’t we all happy to be vulnerable all the time?
Because it’s uncomfortable AF! Vulnerability always involves uncertainty and unpredictability when it comes to forces and people outside of ourselves and that’s not something that we’re often prepared to accept. If you show up as yourself you might not get the reaction you want, which is why it’s often so tempting to show up as a different, slightly hidden, version of yourself instead.
Being vulnerable almost always involves risk – the risk of rejection of abandonment or hearing hard things or failing. And don’t get me started on the emotional exposure – the vulnerability of asking someone out, saying I love you first, requesting a promotion, giving a speech, raising a child, asking for forgiveness, writing a novel.. yeah let’s not pretend that any of those things don’t make you feel totally raw.
So, why bother with vulnerability?
I mean in all honesty, for most of my life I didn’t. I was terrified of rejection and it defined all of my interactions for at least two decades. Being vulnerable was not an option – the risk was too great. And yet.. I reached a point where I suddenly began to realise that actually the risk was too great not to. I was missing out by not being willing to be vulnerable. I was “safe” but stuck. Hidden from rejection but still lonely, disconnected and plagued by a feeling that I just didn’t belong. I was doing work I didn’t enjoy, living with a partner who loved someone who wasn’t really me and making connections that just weren’t genuine. All because I wasn’t able to grasp vulnerability by the horns and let the spotlight shine on the real me.
And then one day I did. I felt like my skin had been flayed off. It took a week to recover. And then I did it again. And again. And then it started to be a habit, something I sought out. I probably went a little overboard at first but it was such a revelation to realise how much good stuff was on the other side of vulnerability if I was just willing to be brave. Sometimes I only had to do it for six seconds. Sometimes I didn’t get the response I’d hoped for an it was hard to bear. But I didn’t stop.
The power of vulnerability
This progress went hand in hand with some therapy that helped me to come to terms with the parts of me that I thought were totally unacceptable – the bits that allowing myself to be vulnerable would reveal. For me that was the right way round to approach it – the fear of being vulnerable without processing that first was too great – but for some people it’s the experience of being vulnerable that then triggers self acceptance.
When you begin to realise how powerful vulnerability is you can see with certainty how much that dictionary definition needs to be amended. Vulnerability is the route to all the things we want in life, whether that’s conneciton with others, personal growth, physical change, real adventure, finding our purpose or growing a family. You can try to do all these things without it but you’ll find them muted or superficial as a result.
You can feel vulnerability in any moment where you’re just not quite sure what’s going to happen next and you kind of want to run away and hide. But (most of the time) if you stand there and let yourself be seen magical things can happen.
Coaching is inevitably – and powerfully – a vulnerable process but you’re always in control of how deep you go. Book a discovery session to find out more.