How to Be More Vulnerable and Authentic
Your ability to face unpleasant feelings could matter most.
Posted Aug 15, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
I spoke in earlier posts about two defining elements of emotional strength—one is feeling capable (involves dealing with unpleasant feelings), and the second is being resourceful (involves acknowledging your needs and limitations and asking for help).
More specifically, feeling capable of dealing with life’s challenges comes from knowing that you can effectively experience, move through, and express eight unpleasant feelings (sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, and vulnerability).
Why these eight feelings? Because they are the most common, everyday, spontaneous feeling reactions to things not turning out the way you want or perceive you need.
Both aspects of emotional strength are intertwined with the experience of vulnerability.
I’m quite grateful for the work of Dr. Brene Brown, noted research professor, for moving the discussion of vulnerability into our everyday consciousness. From my perspective, vulnerability is the most unique of the eight feelings, in part because of the interplay with the other seven difficult feelings mentioned above.
Think of vulnerability generally as an awareness or sense that you could be hurt.
I am proposing two different kinds of vulnerability—one that is innate and has to do with protection and survival, and another that we choose to lean into. I am also suggesting that there is a dual nature to vulnerability, such that it can be considered your greatest emotional strength and likewise be associated with emotional weakness.
This kind of vulnerability is best explained by the idea of "neuroception," named by Dr. Stephen Porges, a renowned psychologist, neuroscientist, and researcher. "Neuroception" is our subconscious ability to detect safety, danger, and life-threatening situations. It is hard-wired into us as an innate, biological protective response; I call it “non-conscious vulnerability."
Non-conscious vulnerability is tied to the notion that, at some level, we are all vulnerable, all of the time. We are not in control of it. It functions without our attention, and we generally try to keep this type of vulnerability out of our awareness, because it means being aware of dangers or threats to our life. Yet, we all experience this, which means that vulnerability is always present . . . for everybody.
We experience this non-conscious vulnerability as we become more aware of life circumstances that can change on a dime. The real-life events and encounters that alert us that we could be hurt intensify and magnify feelings of vulnerability.
Anytime you witness or experience sudden, unexpected tragic or traumatic events—no matter whether you are exposed to them in real life or merely on-screen—your awareness of your own vulnerability becomes heightened. However, in the absence of such threats, that awareness is typically not something you consciously think about on an hourly or even a daily basis.
Yet, knowledge or images of people suffering or dying in other locations often evoke responses of empathy and vulnerability, especially if circumstances in your own life parallel what you observe (e.g., you enjoy attending big musical performances, and you know lives have been lost or forever altered because of the shooting in Las Vegas).
If you are a witness from afar to natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, mudslides, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.) or man-made ones (gun violence, rape, war, etc.), you aren’t necessarily physically more vulnerable in those moments. Instead, what changes for you is the degree to which you are aware that you are vulnerable.
If you understand the impact of the last point, it can make a big difference in how you make decisions for yourself going forward. Think about this . . . it's not that you are necessarily physically more vulnerable in situations you have witnessed; instead, what has changed is the degree to which you are aware that you are vulnerable. By way of example, many choose to decrease watching distressing news broadcasts or 'scary' movies because of how vulnerable they feel watching them.
At this time, based on our collective experience of the pandemic, economic downturn, social unrest, and political instability, many people have described feeling very anxious and that this anxiety has been unrelenting. Instead, I believe these collective influences have all coalesced and resulted in a heightened sense of vulnerability. Your “non-conscious” vulnerability is now conscious. Not only do you actually “feel” more vulnerable, but your awareness of your own vulnerability has increased as well.
Conscious Vulnerability: Decide to Be Vulnerable
“Conscious vulnerability” is a vulnerability you choose to lean into. When you get serious about taking a personal, professional, or social risk, you open yourself up to being hurt (laughed at, ridiculed, teased, or embarrassed). Embarrassment and helplessness are the feelings most often identified with vulnerability.
Think about activities that relate to performance: public speaking, engaging in athletic competition, acting, singing, playing a musical instrument, or sharing a piece of writing or art. Even acting in front of friends in the social game Charades can elicit feelings of vulnerability.
Expressing yourself, whether they are sentiments of disappointment, sadness, or anger, or sentiments of caring and love, are all ways to be consciously and deliberately vulnerable. Also, allowing yourself to share important elements of your personal history requires conscious vulnerability, and doing so will help you develop deeper emotional connections and greater intimacy with others.
You are at your greatest emotional strength when you make a choice to be vulnerable.
What remains fascinating is that it is easier to keep taking these conscious risks to pursue what you want when you have the sense you can handle the eight difficult feelings mentioned above.
Conscious vulnerability is choosing to be vulnerable. In other words, you are choosing to put yourself in a situation where you could get hurt.
What does being hurt mean? If your efforts don’t turn out the way you desire or prefer, being hurt means experiencing one or more of the seven other feelings.
Choosing to be vulnerable means facing: sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, embarrassment, disappointment, or frustration.
Choosing to be vulnerable means you can tolerate the other seven feelings. That is what it takes. Why? Because these are the feelings that most commonly result when things don’t turn out the way you want. And if you can handle these seven feelings, then you can handle being vulnerable, whether at a conscious or non-conscious level.
Two Sides of Vulnerability: Ties to Emotional Strength and Weakness
Paradoxically, vulnerability has a connection to both emotional strength and weakness. As described, you are at your greatest emotional strength when you consciously choose to “put yourself out there”—to take risks to pursue what is meaningful to you.
Yet, if you think about or refer to yourself as emotionally weak, it is typically because you feel vulnerable and either: a) you do not believe or have the sense that you have the emotional resources to handle such hurt (the seven other feelings); b) you are aware you could be hurt but are not willing to risk facing unwanted emotional outcomes, like sadness, anger, disappointment, or embarrassment; or c) you don’t or won’t more openly express what you think or feel.
Any attitude or behavior that leaves you disconnecting from, distracting from, or suppressing your unpleasant feelings renders you more vulnerable. When you behave in this manner, you don’t have access to the thoughts, feelings, needs, perceptions, or other streams of information that can help protect you.
As a result, you’re more likely to be hurt (i.e., feel emotionally weaker), because you have fewer emotional resources to respond to difficult situations and events in an authentic and beneficial way.
Remember, dealing with non-conscious or conscious vulnerability means you can tolerate the feelings of sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, embarrassment, disappointment, or frustration. That is what it takes. Why? Because these are the feelings that most commonly result when life circumstances, events, or situations don’t turn out the way you want. And if you can handle these seven feelings, then you can handle being vulnerable, whether at a conscious or non-conscious level.
Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. New York: Avery.
Porges, S. (2004). Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to three, 24, no.5: 19-24.
Rosenberg, J.I. (2019). 90 seconds to a life you love: How to master your difficult feelings to cultivate lasting confidence, resilience and authenticity. New York: Little, Brown Spark.