Revealing Is Healing: The Power of Vulnerability
Vulnerability in relationships is more often a strength than a weakness.
Posted Dec 23, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
I read a story in The Atlantic magazine recently, written by a waiter in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, who reported that men choking in restaurants will sometimes, out of fear of embarrassment, hide in the bathroom where they'll die because they can't get help.
I mentioned this to an audience in Washington, DC, shortly after reading the story, and a fellow raised his hand and said he'd once done exactly that, and the only reason he was still around to tell the tale was that someone happened to follow him into the bathroom and administer the Heimlich maneuver.
Another guy a few rows back then raised his hand and said he ran a mortuary and that the same is true of men who are having chest pains in public.
Then a woman behind the two of them spoke up and said that some men probably wouldn’t even make it to the bathroom because they don’t know where it is, and men of course would rather die than ask for directions.
The truth is, asking for help is just a subset of an almost universal fear—vulnerability—which provokes in us everything from embarrassment (including apparently fatal cases of it) to terror. And with good reason. We equate it with weakness and submission—danger, even—because vulnerability is the capacity to be wounded, and a wounded animal doesn't stand much of a chance in a survival-of-the-fittest world.
Our fear of being vulnerable and our worship of strength—which we inherit in countless ways—are acted out in every arena, from the political to the personal. They're at the core of war as well as the individual barricades we erect around ourselves. And the more injurious we perceive the world to be, the more we defend ourselves, and the less inclined we are to reveal so much as a hairline crack in those defenses.
But if we're tempted to rush to the ramparts, we're also possessed of a countervailing impulse, bluntly stated in a poem by Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down.” Thus we face the classic conundrum of walls: They keep others out, but they also keep us in.
Granted, if your castle were being besieged by an enemy army and you had a breach in the walls, that kind of vulnerability would, in fact, be weakness. But I'm not talking about warfare, even if you believe life to be a battleground and relationship a game of survival. I'm talking about the kind of vulnerability that’s life-affirming rather than life-threatening, the volitional acts of vulnerability, the choice to show your cards, lower your defenses, and allow yourself to be seen and known, even in the face of your fears of rejection, betrayal and losing control.
There’s a reason that when we feel love or adoration for someone or something, we talk about having a soft spot for them. We reflexively equate love with vulnerability. In order to love, we’re telling ourselves, we need to have a soft spot. And in this sense, strength is not necessarily power. Not if it’s the kind of strength we muster to push our emotions down or armor over our soft spots.
Much of the recent research on vulnerability comes to us through the work of author and academician Brene Brown, whose primary finding was that those who experience a sense of belonging to others practice acts of vulnerability often, and it's no coincidence that she arrived at this conclusion by way of studying shame. As in allowing others to see what you're ashamed of. Which builds intimacy and trust, cornerstone virtues in healthy relationship.
Love without the pretense of invulnerability opens us to deeper love than we can know when we're armored up, because when we stop distancing ourselves from others, there's more of us available. We bring more of ourselves to the table. And if you're willing to reveal your authenticity in all its messy humanity, and find yourself loved anyway, you will then know one of life's deepest satisfactions: being loved for who you are rather than who you're pretending to be. You're also communicating to yourself that you're acceptable as you are.
It's no coincidence that the Catholic church calls confession the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and that Alcoholics Anonymous (which has licensed the 12-Step model to more than 600 groups) asks every newcomer to introduce him/herself with a vulnerability: “Hi, I'm Brad. I'm an alcoholic.”
My own father, shortly after quadruple bypass surgery, cried openly in front of me—something I had never seen before—and confessed that “For 20 years I’ve wanted to hold you in my arms.” After finally doing so, amidst much manly blubbering on both our parts, he added, “This is the medicine I’ve needed.”
Revealing is healing.
Another researcher, James Pennebaker, a pioneer in what’s called writing therapy, conducted studies at Southern Methodist University in the 1980s in which he had students write about either traumatic or superficial experiences. Those who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to a trauma showed a 50 percent drop in visits to the university health center.
“What happens when people open their hearts?” the writer Haruki Murakami asks. “They get better.” Inhibition takes effort, and holding up defenses is hard labor, and they're draining. The constant vigilance required to inhibit self-expression weakens the immune, heart and nervous systems, and puts people at risk for disease.
But let's not start with confession, or even opening your heart. “Please” and “Thank you” are perfect examples of vulnerabilities that are strengths. One confesses the desire for help and is a reaching out; the other is an acknowledgment that someone has met that need and that you’re momentarily beholden to them. And both help build bridges, strengthening the bonds between people.
So, too, “I’m sorry.” I vividly remember the look of satisfaction, if not astonishment, that bloomed on my mother’s face when my grandmother, her ex-mother-in-law, apologized for “all the things I did to you” during the years my mother was married to my father. My mother’s mouth dropped open, her eyes welled up, and she said: “I never thought I’d live long enough to hear you say that.”
Vulnerability as strength—peace-making, ice-melting, soul-restoring.
Same with “I don’t know.” As a public speaker, I’m keenly aware that the willingness to say “I don’t know” boosts my credibility in people’s minds, rather than diminishing it, and allows me to turn my energies toward learning rather than pretending to be learned. And every speaker can appreciate the power that sharing vulnerabilities has to help build trust and rapport.
Same with asking for what you want. It's vulnerable because you may not get it, but it's salutary because you're helping to educate someone about what you want or need, teaching them how to please you and understand you.
In fact, a German study inspired by Brown's work found that vulnerability feels like weakness when it's experienced on the inside, but looks like courage when it's viewed from the outside. When we see it in others, we're inspired. When others lower their drawbridges, it gives us permission to lower ours, allowing us to cross the moat between us, whether this involves apologizing, asking for help, admitting a mistake or insecurity, being the first to confess your love for someone, or the first to make up after a fight.
How you feel about being vulnerable, of course, also depends on how it's received by the person you're revealing it to, whether your declarations of love, fear or insecurity are met with validation or dismissal, reciprocation or not. Some of this you have no control over, but some of it you do. Start by being vulnerable with yourself, admitting how you really feel. Or keep a journal, a place to admit feelings before going public with them. When someone asks how you are, tell them how you really are. When sharing vulnerabilities, do it in a measured way—not a gut-spilling, dirty-laundry-airing kind of way—and monitor the response you get so you know how to meter yourself.
If you're on the receiving end of someone's vulnerability, don't try to rescue them from it. It's a lovely human impulse to want to comfort those in pain, but it can short-circuit their full-on experience of it, pull them prematurely out of the healing anguish of authenticity, the sharp growing-edge of it—which you may be as uncomfortable with as the person who's being vulnerable. Don't tell someone it's not so bad, you're not alone, I've been there myself, and here's a tissue. Don't rush to respond, reorient them, change the subject, or cheer them up. Don't diminish the rawness of their vulnerability. It's a hard-earned blessing.
If the shift from fear and discomfort with vulnerability to celebration of it—or just practice of it—feels like an uphill climb, it's because it is. And it's much bigger than what transpires between you and someone else. It's the struggle of humanity to supplant fear with love and judgment with compassion.
During couples counseling years ago with my ex—during which I was struggling mightily to learn to default to vulnerability rather than anger or defensiveness—I became frustrated at my lack of progress. The therapist said, “You need to see yourself as a child learning to walk. If your child falls down a hundred times, you pick him up and keep encouraging him. You don't say, 'What a weenie. I can't believe you can't figure this out.'
“Besides, we're talking about learning how to walk on two feet,” he said, “going from crawling on all fours to walking upright. How long did it take humanity to figure that out? A couple of million years? And this kid's doing it in a couple of months. It feels superhuman, but it's not. People can do it. You can do it.”