Changing Narratives: On Vulnerability

Stop apologizing for vulnerability. It is by far the strongest superpower, empirically and historically. It allows for connection, cooperation, transparency, self-care, longevity, and mental health.

Today, reading an end-of-year article in a major journal aimed at men, about vulnerability, the opener was: please hear me out. The last line was allow yourself to be weak. Even when speaking about vulnerability as significant, the status quo is to apologize for it.

Vulnerability is not a weakness. Neuroscience, clinical psychology, mindfulness based and interpersonal therapy all show that vulnerability is a necessary ingredient for maintaining relationships, mental health, compassion for self and others, and even physical health.

For clinical research on vulnerability, see Brene Brown’s research.

What is emotional vulnerability?
The term, ‘vulnerable’ literally means to be susceptible to emotional or physical harm. Synonym for human. As such, emotional vulnerability would mean being susceptible to emotional pain or damage. At the root of it, this harm comes from past emotional experiences. Being emotionally vulnerable involves the process of acknowledging your past emotions, especially those that are uncomfortable or painful, and how they may still be with you in the present.

Acknowledging vulnerability.
The acknowledging piece is important because it is human nature to avoid experiences that hurt us or bring pain. We are consummate escape artists, and our trunk of defenses is greater than Houdini’s.  Instead of fully experiencing and acknowledging an unpleasant emotional experience, we may do things that help us feel better. 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 workout or run) or unhealthy (e.g., shopping or drinking) habits. More subtle, we may tend to focus on others and avoid our own wounds.

Emotion regulation and vulnerabliliity.
In psychology, the term emotion regulation refers to the various ways we influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express these emotions. These can range from cognitive (our thoughts) to behavioral (activity), or avoidance/numbing.

Vulnerability requires practice.
In order to become vulnerable (with self and others), we have to take it incrementally.  Emotional acceptance of vulnerability 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 (e.g., obsessing or perseverating on negative emotions) or one’s situation (e.g., accepting discrimination or bullying as ‘okay’). Contrary to intuition, engaging with vulnerable emotions does not exacerbate these emotions. In fact, emotional acceptance can meaningfully improve people’s emotional experiences over time.

Vulnerability is a workout.

Related posts:
The Importance of Vulnerability
Superhero Therapy and Mental Health

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