Emotional Vulnerability as the Path to Connection
How vulnerability becomes strength in loving relationships.
Posted February 24, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
A decade ago, no one spoke much about emotional vulnerability. Being vulnerable emotionally was generally compared to being weak, or at least easily hurt or frightened. Maybe it was never discussed much, because it is a natural, daily, unavoidable part of our existence as human beings, and frankly it feels bad. If you’ve ever felt the unease of being the first to say ”I love you” or of asking for a raise at work, you know the feeling. You may be more familiar with the uncertainty of waiting for a phone call with test results from a doctor or reaching out to a friend who just lost a loved one. It is uncomfortable, unsettling, and anxiety-provoking. It’s about as welcome a subject as death or getting taxes filed. So why talk about it? Because allowing ourselves to be emotionally vulnerable is also a tremendous source of strength and the only way we can truly connect in our most personal relationships. Let’s begin with a definition.
What is emotional vulnerability?
Emotional vulnerability is most often felt as anxiety about being rejected, shamed, or judged as inadequate. It has been defined by Brene Brown as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (2012).
Think about that for a moment. Uncertainty is a given in every day of our lives. It is deeply tied to anxiety. In fact, very often those who suffer from chronic anxiety have particular difficulty accepting the uncertainty in their daily lives. Risk: For example, the risk of feeling rejected if the object of your love does not love you back. Or, that your boss will not only deny the raise but will also tell you why you are not worthy of it. Emotional exposure: You’ve decided to partner with someone, and you begin to feel the fear that this person will get to know you better than you know yourself.
These situations are more frightening to some of us than to others, depending upon our personal histories, our cultural backgrounds, and our basic personality traits. The feeling of shame is a particular risk for many individuals, especially if they were raised in a shame-based culture. However, nearly everyone struggles with emotional vulnerability to some degree every day. (The exceptions are those with no desire to feel connected, such as extreme narcissists and sociopaths.)
How can vulnerability be a strength?
It is only through allowing ourselves to be vulnerable that we can understand, feel empathy, forgive each other, and know that we are worthy of love and belonging. Emotional courage is sharing our feelings with those who are important to us and accepting their feelings as valid and important. Being vulnerable allows us to create new ideas and to see fresh possibilities that were previously blocked from our minds. We take the risk that our creations will be judged poorly or rejected and that we may feel shame or inadequacy as a result. However, we risk failure in order to have the chance of success.
How does vulnerability improve our close relationships?
Generally speaking, emotional vulnerability is different for men than it is for women. More accurately, it differs for those who identify as male or female, largely due to social and cultural expectations of these genders. (Hopefully, this dichotomy will be less relevant in the future as gender identity and gender roles become more flexible.) As Brene Brown pointed out in her 2012 TED Talk, “Listening to Shame,” men and women experience shame differently. Women generally feel that they must “Do it all; do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat!” Men tend to feel that they must follow the rule: “Do not be perceived as weak.”
As Dr. Brown noted, it is not the other men (teammates, coaches, etc.) in men's’ lives who reinforce this message as much as it is the women in their lives. What does this tell us about how male-female couples might improve their relationships? It requires a good amount of empathy to understand each other’s sources of shame and to overcome our fear of being emotionally vulnerable. She does not need him to solve her problems, but only for him to hear them and show caring. She wants to know that what she does, and who she is, “is enough” and worthy of being loved. He is not likely to talk about his feelings nor empathize with hers if he is not allowed to show his weakness. He wants to know that he is loved for who he is and that it is okay to feel afraid or uncertain.
I’ll end with a personal story which I hope to be helpful to my female readers and the men whom they love. My dear father was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s when he was 60 years old. He was told that he would gradually lose all muscular control, and so in effect become paralyzed over the next 6 to 8 years.
I recall the fear in his expression when he told our family of the diagnosis, knowing that the illness would impact his ability to do even the simplest self-care routines. He was facing the loss of his health, his independence, and his role as the family provider. He had the courage to tell us that he was afraid of what was to come. I was afraid also. Actually, I was terrified. I wish I had found the courage to share my fear with him in that moment. It might have made my reassurances more meaningful to him.
Embrace your own vulnerability and that of the people that you love. Be open to sharing what you feel and taking those risks when your sense of judgment tells you that the risk is well worth it. To quote Brene Brown once more, “Dare Greatly.”
Brown, Brene (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Gotham Books.