How Vulnerable Should You Let Yourself Be?
Being willing to let yourself be vulnerable takes great courage. Here’s why.
Posted Jan 03, 2018
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained”
The moment a situation makes you feel vulnerable, your knee-jerk reaction is to do everything possible to escape it. After all, the impulse to ward off—sometimes, at all costs—whatever threatens your sense of safety is only natural. It’s an inherent aspect of our survival instincts. The question, though, is what might be the ultimate consequences of not confronting what you may only construe as hazardous. For if avoidance is your go-to response whenever anything starts making you feel uncomfortable, it’s unlikely you’ll ever come close to reaching your potential in life.
So, is your personal evasion of vulnerability so advanced as to “earn” you a Ph.D. in it? And if so, how might you transcend this possibly lifelong habit? What, inside you, would you need to cultivate to successfully overcome your powerful tendency to react to others and the world self-protectively?
Most of us would agree that the quality essential here is courage. For that’s precisely the characteristic that enables us to confront circumstances that feel precarious. And paradoxically, such behavior can’t actually be seen as courageous unless your first reaction to an uncomfortable situation is anxiety. For what defines courage is its ability to enable you not to back down because of any immediate flash of fear.
Courage is categorically regarded as a strength because it’s what motivates you, despite such feelings of apprehension, to act judiciously, in ways that truly represent your (and hopefully others’) best interests. Or, in instances where avoiding action is what’s initially felt to be the bigger risk, to determine not to act. For there are times when refusing to take action has nothing to do with getting cold feet—just the opposite.
Moreover, it’s essential to grasp that courage is not to be confused with foolhardiness, typically regarded as acting impulsively, without taking into account the possibly adverse consequences of your behavior. Frequently, such daring looks like courage. But any poorly considered action is much more accurately understood as rash or reckless.
So what are the dangers of standing up to a heightened sense of vulnerability—vs. having these troublesome feelings compel you to shrink away from whatever seems too intimidating? And what must you do to stand up to something once it evokes in you this wary sense of trepidation?
Consider what, specifically in an interpersonal context, I discussed in an earlier, closely related post, “The Power to Be Vulnerable” (Part 1). For in that piece, I noted that our anxiety over allowing ourselves to be vulnerable could:
". . . relate to sharing ourselves in a way that exposes us to the other’s indifference, disapproval, or anger. When we confide our thoughts and feelings in another, we may also fear that our sharing won’t be reciprocated. Or that it could be used against us. Or that it won’t be empathized with, or validated. And our deepest sense of vulnerability arises when we find ourselves in situations that tap into primal fears of abandonment. Or evoke its opposite, engulfment—where our personal boundaries feel so threatened we fear losing our very self."
But as I’ve already suggested, what needs to be examined is whether a pressing need to protect yourself—and possibly across a broad range of circumstances—really benefits you. And unless you live in some sort of war zone, that’s questionable.
So, ask yourself:
- Is my fearful reluctance to confront difficult circumstances rooted in ancient, and never updated, notions about people or situations that earlier evoked anxious feelings I’m still vulnerable to?
- As opposed to the past, where I felt obliged to back down because of feelings of vulnerability, might I since have developed the qualities I lacked earlier to get beyond these feelings? Might I now have resources such as a better intellectual grasp of different situations, greater assertive capabilities, increased self-esteem, or resilience?
(And it might be added that the ingrained habit of self-protection links closely to self-esteem deficiencies—which in fact they’re an integral part of.)
In short, can you be objective enough to decide whether this or that present-day situation really warrants your suspiciousness, or anxious hesitation? If past detrimental experiences have led you to overreact to (seemingly) analogous events in the present, it may be crucial to perform a reality check. For only then will you be able to determine whether the anxiety you’re feeling today makes any logical sense. Or whether it’s an unfortunate holdover from things that once happened to you, or that you were cautioned about—possibly from your family when you were still a child. Or whether perhaps your anxiety emanates from adverse circumstances with your peers, or from your school, religion, etc.
Of course, if you were deceived or taken advantage of earlier, you’d likely have cultivated a certain cynicism. And that’s just reasonable—and overall, probably prudent as well. The problem is when past experiences were sufficiently disturbing to have led you to overgeneralize a mistrust or fear of others. So, if as a result, you’ve managed your life with a wariness that’s prevented you from living life fully, how willing might you be now to work on diminishing these chronically uncomfortable feelings?
Again, I’d suggest that whenever you react strongly to some perceived threat, you explore whether your inferences about it might be exaggerated or distorted. And if, because your emotions are too stirred up, you can’t trust yourself to be objective, can you ask a trusted friend—or therapist—how they would evaluate that person or situation?
Odds are that if you’re overreacting, you haven’t yet emotionally resolved a scary, harmful, or antagonizing experience that happened to you earlier. But until you’re courageous enough to revisit that time, place, or person—however uncomfortable, even painful, such a review might be—you’ll remain hopelessly chained to it. And as long as you remain negatively sensitized, anything that (however fortuitously) resembles it today will disallow your availing yourself of opportunities otherwise ready to offer themselves to you.
It’s one thing to feel vulnerable and quite another to let yourself BE vulnerable. For the latter hints at both a recognition and acceptance of the fact that, in one way or another, we’re all vulnerable. And much more importantly—and paradoxically—it implies that through the very act of being with your vulnerability (vs. anxiously endeavoring to escape it), you can thereby transcend it, moving forward anyway with your objectives, plans, and desires.
In this sense, retreating because of your vulnerability must be viewed as a weakness, boldly standing up to it a strength. So whenever, initially, you experience heightened anxiety, can you trace your sudden uneasiness or unrest back to its source(s) where you likely took things more personally than was justified? For if you can amend the meaning you formerly ascribed to your experience, your life can finally be “liberated” from the past. You can now feel a control—and self-control—that eluded you earlier.
Through such a thoroughgoing, more adult, reassessment of your history, you’ll be much better able to moderate possibly exaggerated feelings of vulnerability. And this will open up decision-making options that really weren’t available to you before. Choices that never felt tenable till now will no longer be “banned” by what happened to you earlier. For the elaborate set of defenses you generated back then to help you better govern your fears and uncertainties will no longer interfere with living life as fully, as richly, as possible.
Or, as I put it a bit differently in one of my earlier vulnerability posts: “Once [your] vulnerability is ‘regulated’ by an abiding self-acceptance, [your] sense of personal power is almost unassailable. It can no longer be threatened by some external force beyond [your] control.”
Besides, there’s nothing inside haunting you that keeps you from living courageously—from “going for it,” from approaching any number of things that in the past you felt compelled to avoid. And these are the things that offer you exciting challenges and creative opportunities, which in turn can vastly increase your sense of personal vitality. (And isn’t this what make life—any life— most fulfilling?)
As mortals, our vulnerability is inevitable. It’s simply part of the unalterable framework of human existence. Still, if our foremost desire in life is to keep ourselves safe and secure—as invulnerable as possible—we’ll miss out on so many of the gratifications and joys that otherwise await us.
NOTE: This post has focused mostly on the non-intuitive why of making yourself more vulnerable. In the last two parts of my expansive “The Power to Be Vulnerable” set of posts, I center on key aspects of how to make yourself more “comfortably vulnerable.” Part 2 centers on developing your ability to self-validate, mostly in the face of others’ disapproval, whereas Part 3 focuses on ways to self-soothe in situations that can hardly help but ruffle your emotional feathers.
Other posts closely complementary to this one include: "Courage in Relationships: Conquering Vulnerability and Fear" and "3 Reasons Intimacy Might Feel Too Dangerous for You."
© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.