What does it mean to be “vulnerable?”

The word vulnerable has many meanings depending on your interpretation. Some are scared of the word or perceive it as a weakness. One of my clients stated, “I hate feeling vulnerable, I don’t want to feel that.” Others embrace vulnerability and view it as a strength. But what does vulnerable actually mean? According to Merriam-Webster, vulnerable derives from the Latin word, vulnerable which means “to wound.” The definition states, “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.” While this is correct according to the meaning and definition applied to the word, I think we can dig deeper into how it impacts us as people.

 

During my first group therapy session at Insight Health and Wellness, I prepared the topic of vulnerability. I opened the session with a brief icebreaker where I had the group write down one word to describe themselves. Then asked them for their interpretation of what vulnerability means to them. As you can imagine, everyone had a different answer. Also, the one-word description icebreaker ended up being light-hearted. One client described himself as the “wild card.” It’s always great to have a laugh during sessions. As for vulnerability, clients described it as, “doing something that makes you feel insecure,” “trusting someone completely,” “letting your guard down,” “showing someone your strengths and weaknesses.” It led to an open, interesting, thoughtful discussion. Honestly, I was expecting someone to say that it was a “weakness” because, throughout my life, I’ve heard people talk about vulnerability this way. You probably have too. However, I think the group understands what real vulnerability means, which leads us to a pioneer social worker, Brené Brown of the University of Houston.

 

Brené Brown is research of shame and vulnerability. I presented her first TED Talk to the group at the end, which summed up everything we discussed. I encountered her a few years ago when I was very much into watching TED Talks. After that, I purchased her books and binged the rest of her lectures. One of the great aspects of Brené Brown is that her knowledge of shame and vulnerability is based in real, viable research from thousands of interviews with various populations. It feels easy to trust what she says. At the same time, it is important to think critically anyway, but here are several quotes:

 

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure.”

 

“Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”

 

“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

 

“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”

 

“Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.”

 

What are your thoughts on vulnerability after reading these quotes? Did your interpretation change or stay the same?

 

From these quotes, we can see that vulnerability gives us the space to be our real selves without feeling shameful about it. It is not meant to tell you to be perfect, happy, positive, fully enlightened and sterilize life into pure bliss. It appears that Brené Brown’s research shows that it’s rooted in honesty and awareness. How can you be authentic without being completely honest with yourself? Especially during the worst moments of your life. It’s about being compassionate and accepting reality when things go wrong. She also illustrates how similar we are to each other. Everyone has problems, character flaws, strengths and simply “crap” they’re dealing with. When looking back at the original definition, “to wound,” it implies harming yourself or others. I think we can refine that a bit according to Brené Brown’s research – maybe it is more about dealing with what is real and “showing up” the best you can. It can be scary to open up. But… it’s not like we need to now spill our emotions and vulnerabilities everywhere. There needs to be balance. Brené Brown also states in one of her lectures that we share our stories with the ones that “deserve” to hear them. 

 

We’re not going to be our best selves all the time. Perfection is a myth. Be accountable, be honest, and most importantly, be compassionate with yourself and others. Take it easy!

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