Being vulnerable sounds like something we all want to avoid, but it’s essential for our relationships and for our self-image.
Whether it’s with friends, a parent, someone you’re dating, or a work colleague, being vulnerable lets us communicate authentically. This builds stronger relationships and can help us overcome many of our deepest fears.
We’re going to look at what vulnerability means, why it’s important, and how you can learn to open up and live as your authentic self.
What does being vulnerable mean?
It can sometimes be difficult to understand exactly what we mean by vulnerability when we’re talking about psychology and wellbeing.
Author and vulnerability expert, Brené Brown’s definition of vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
This means accepting that you can’t control how others respond to you but deciding to trust them with your authentic self anyway. You’re exposing yourself to the risk of emotional pain by letting down your defenses. Although this might sound scary, it’s essential if you want to form deep, loving relationships.
Being vulnerable is about being honest with yourself and the people you trust about who you are, how you’re feeling, and what you need. It means allowing others to see the real you without any defenses, barriers, or protections.
When therapists or psychologists say that it’s good to be vulnerable, they’re not saying that you need to be completely vulnerable with everyone. For example, it might not be safe to be vulnerable around a toxic boss or an abusive ex-partner. It’s OK to be careful about who you are vulnerable around and to decide for yourself just how much vulnerability you’re comfortable with in a specific situation.
Why should I try to be more vulnerable?
Being vulnerable is an act of courage. By allowing others to see your authentic self, you’re giving them the capacity to hurt you, but you’re also giving them the ability to connect deeply with you, understand you, and fulfill the needs you might normally keep hidden.
We can’t form close, intimate relationships without being vulnerable. If we keep our barriers up, we’re keeping the people we love at arm’s length. Being willing to be vulnerable greatly increases our degree of closeness with significant others.
We often talk about vulnerability in terms of intimacy and sex, where being honest about our needs is essential. But being vulnerable can actually help us in lots of different areas. For example, being able to tell your boss when you’re feeling overwhelmed can head off issues at work. Being able to tell a friend about your dreams for the future lets them share your enthusiasm and joy.
How to be more vulnerable
Even once you understand that daring to be vulnerable can transform your relationships, it can be difficult to know how to open up your authentic self.
Here are the most effective ways to be more vulnerable with the people you care about.
1. Understand that not being vulnerable hurts you
Trying to become more vulnerable is difficult and scary, and it can be hard to keep working at it. Paying attention to the ways that your fears and barriers are hurting you can help you keep going when you want to hide your authentic self.
Try to think about times when you’ve missed out on connections or pulled away from someone because you didn’t feel able to open up to them. Imagine what it would have felt like to be fully seen and understood in those moments. Studies show that being able to be vulnerable, and being met with love and compassion, can help heal deep hurts and fix damaged relationships.
2. Reduce your fear of emotional hurt
Many of our barriers and defense mechanisms appeared when we were children and couldn’t deal with emotional pain such as anxiety or rejection. We built strong walls around our hearts because we needed to protect them.
As an adult, you have the strength and resources to deal with emotional pain in a way that you didn’t when you were younger. If you think back, you can probably remember feeling like you wouldn’t be able to cope with the pain of a breakup or other upsetting situation. But you did. It probably wasn’t easy, and it most likely hurt a lot, but you got through it.
If you feel yourself pulling away from others or being afraid of emotional pain, try reminding yourself that you are strong enough to cope. Journaling can help here. Re-reading things you wrote about being hurt in the past can help you see just how strong and resilient your mind is now.
3. See vulnerability as an act of courage
Being vulnerable isn’t a weakness. It’s actually a sign of courage. Making yourself vulnerable to others means opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt, knowing that you’ll be OK even if it goes wrong.
If you’re afraid of being vulnerable, try reminding yourself that you have all the strength and courage you need. You’re facing your fears to try to build healthier relationships. Be proud of that.
4. Ask for what you want
As a child, you might have been told something along the lines of “‘I want’ doesn’t get.” While this might be helpful in preventing tantrums in the grocery store, it’s not a helpful rule for life. Learning to ask for what you want is a key way to become vulnerable with people you care about.
Lots of us find it much easier to tell others what we don’t want than to say what we do. It often feels less personal to say “I don’t want to be taken for granted” than “I want to feel important, noticed, and cared for.” It’s easy to feel afraid of being needy if we ask for love, affection, or care.
Asking for what we want might be scarier, but it’s also more likely to get a positive response. In the example above, the other person might feel attacked at the suggestion that they’re taking you for granted, but asking to feel cared for brings out their compassion.
If you’re trying to be more vulnerable with someone in your life, look for ways to ask for things you really want. Daring to ask for your authentic needs can transform your relationship. You might be surprised at how much other people appreciate knowing how they can help you.
5. Be honest when others hurt you
Telling a friend or loved one that they’ve hurt you isn’t easy, but it is important. You might be tempted to bottle up your feelings to avoid an uncomfortable situation or to protect their feelings, but that means hiding who you are and how you feel. It’s also not allowing them the opportunity to fix their mistakes.
Telling someone that they’ve upset you can leave both of you feeling anxiety or shame. Try using some of our suggestions on how to tell a friend they’ve hurt you to make sure the conversation goes well.
6. Understand how vulnerability feels to you
We talk about vulnerability as an emotional feeling, but emotions also have physical feelings associated with them. Getting used to the physical sensations associated with being vulnerable can make it easier for you to open up to others. Here’s a mindfulness exercise to help.
Try paying attention to how your body feels when you start to feel vulnerable. Your breathing might become faster and shallower, you might feel tension in your shoulders or neck, and you might even notice an unusual taste in your mouth. Try not to worry about these feelings. They’re completely normal.
As you pay attention to these physical sensations, you’ll probably notice that they start to go away or at least reduce. That’s good because it hopefully makes them a little less scary next time.
You might find that everything’s too intense when you actually feel vulnerable for you to step back enough to notice your physical reactions. That’s OK. To make the exercise less intense, you can try the same exercise by just thinking about a time when you felt vulnerable.
7. Get to know yourself
Opening up to others is scary, but it can sometimes be almost as difficult to really get to know ourselves. We might fear giving others power over us by becoming vulnerable, but we can also be scared of not liking what we see when we really look at ourselves.
Ultimately, we can’t open up to others and show them our authentic selves if we don’t really know who we are. Spending time on mindfulness, compassionate self-reflection, and curiosity about ourselves makes it easier to be vulnerable with others as well.
Journaling is a great tool to help you understand yourself better. Make sure you keep your journal private. When you know that no one else will see it, it may be easier to be completely honest and vulnerable in your writing.
8. Practice vulnerability daily
Becoming confident in being more vulnerable isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight, and it really shouldn’t be.
You’re aiming to become intentionally, courageously vulnerable. If you try to push too far or move too fast, it’s easy to make decisions that you regret. Remember that being vulnerable isn’t the same as being a doormat, and letting down your barriers doesn’t mean that you don’t get to have boundaries.
Try to take small, safe steps towards more authenticity and vulnerability every day. Be proud of your progress. We also have more thoughts and suggestions on how to be more vulnerable with friends, which could help.
Why it’s so hard to be vulnerable
If being authentic and vulnerable brings us so many advantages, it can be hard to understand why we find it so difficult. Here are some of the things that can get in the way of allowing you to be vulnerable with others.
1. Not being nurtured in childhood
Children are naturally completely authentic and vulnerable. Babies don’t worry about whether it’s socially acceptable to cry. They just cry. At some point, however, many of us absorb the idea that our authentic self is somehow unacceptable, not welcome, or not good enough.
Not forming secure attachments in childhood can leave us with an insecure attachment style as adults. Typically, people with an insecure attachment style don’t trust other people with their inner selves. They create barriers or push people away when they feel vulnerable.
2. Fear of being seen as weak
We’ve already mentioned that vulnerability is courageous, not weak. It can still be hard to remember that when we’re about to open up.
Think carefully about who can be trusted with your vulnerability. People who see vulnerability as weakness or something to be mocked might not be healthy people to spend time with.
3. Numbing your feelings
You can’t be authentic and vulnerable around others if you don’t know how you really feel. Lots of people practice avoidance by trying to numb strong emotions, especially with alcohol or drugs.
Numbing your feelings in this way might help you to cope in the short term, but it’s not a healthy long-term strategy. Practicing mindfulness or learning to sit with strong feelings can help you get in touch with your true emotions.
4. Overwhelming emotions
It’s not just numb emotions that can get in the way of being vulnerable. If your feelings are so strong that they become overwhelming, you’re also unlikely to be able to open up about what’s going on for you.
Are there gender differences in vulnerability?
It is sometimes more socially acceptable to be vulnerable as a woman than it is as a man. Despite this, both men and women need to be vulnerable in order to form meaningful connections with others.