What Does It Mean to Be Vulnerable?
What exactly is vulnerability and can it help us in daily life?
There are a lot of ways to define vulnerability. The term, ‘vulnerable’ means to be susceptible to harm. Another way to describe vulnerability could be “at-risk”. At the root of it, this harm comes from your emotional experiences. Being emotionally vulnerable involves the process of acknowledging your emotions, especially those that are uncomfortable or painful.
Acknowledging painful emotions can be difficult because it is human nature to avoid experiences that hurt us. Oftentimes, instead of fully experiencing and acknowledging an unpleasant emotional experience, we may do things that help distract us. For instance, when you feel sad, you may call a friend for emotional support and ask for advice. When you feel angry, you may blow off some steam through healthy (e.g., going for a run) or unhealthy (e.g., drinking) habits. When you feel anxious, you may prepare for worst-case scenarios.
Emotional vulnerability can be thought of as a two-step process.
The first is simply observing your emotion(s). For example, observe that you are feeling anger, sadness, or anxiety, without thinking about it or acting on it.
The next step is validating your emotions. Validating your emotions would mean reminding yourself that it is okay to feel whatever emotions you’re going through. This means that there is no judgment or self-criticism.
Emotional acceptance and vulnerability
Emotional acceptance is an active process that involves turning towards one’s emotions and deeply engaging with those emotions. Importantly, emotional acceptance is not a passive resignation to one’s emotions or one’s situation. It’s just acknowledging the existence of something and trying not to mentally fight it.
Contrary to intuition, engaging with emotions via emotional acceptance does not exacerbate these emotions. In fact, emotional acceptance can meaningfully improve people’s emotional experiences over time (e.g., Ford et al., 2018). That’s because it is often better to acknowledge our painful emotions than try to avoid them. It’s important to note, however, that it is not realistic to always do this. You would be emotionally exhausted if you reflected and pondered upon every single emotion and mood during the day.
The Benefits of Vulnerability
1. It can ease your anxiety.
You may be thinking that encountering painful emotions is a recipe for increasing anxiety, but in fact, it can do the opposite. Many people who suffer from chronic anxiety have the belief that feeling bad is harmful, and that negative emotions are to be feared. When you begin practicing vulnerability, you send a different message to your brain. When you begin acknowledging your emotions and allowing yourself to experience them, it’s a signal to yourself that negative emotions are not all that bad, which can reduce your overall anxiety.
2. It can strengthen relationships.
Vulnerability can strengthen relationships by building trust and intimacy. The first step is to be open and vulnerable to yourself by acknowledging your emotions, and then you can work your way up to being vulnerable with your loved ones, such as friends or a romantic partner.
3. It can help you become more self-aware.
By acknowledging your emotions and thought patterns, you begin to recognize your defense mechanisms and emotional blind spots. It is often the case that the more we try to push away painful emotions, the stronger they get, so becoming aware of emotions is often helpful.
How to Be More Vulnerable
1. Label your emotions.
Try to describe how you’re feeling in the simplest of terms. Instead of resorting to vague descriptions, such as “I’m feeling a bit stressed”, be concrete and say, “I’m feeling angry and hurt from the fight I had yesterday with my partner”. Imagine you were describing how you were feeling to a child.
2. Try Journaling.
Journaling can be a powerful tool to help you become more vulnerable. Try using emotion-focused journaling to help you articulate how you are feeling and acknowledge those emotions. This will help you express your emotions to yourself, which can help you slowly build up to expressing them to other people.
3. Seek professional help.
Therapy or counseling is an amazing opportunity for you to practice expressing your emotions on a regular basis. Not only do you have to articulate how you feel, but your therapist may also help you acknowledge painful emotions that you may have repressed in your past.
Vulnerability can be a difficult thing to experience. But, it's important to do so as being vulnerable can help you grow and improve your relationships. Hopefully, this article offered some strategies that will help you manage the experience of being vulnerable with more ease.
Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2018). The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. Journal of personality and social psychology, 115(6), 1075-1092.