The Risks and Rewards of Vulnerability
Soon after college I scheduled my first appointment as a therapy client. I still remember the uncertainty, anxiety and confusion I felt sitting outside the office waiting for my name to be called. Sharing our personal lives with another person is always a leap of faith, we face potential embarrassment, shame, rejection, criticism… the list goes on.
Often I meet with clients who fear that exposing vulnerable emotions in our sessions will once again lead to them feeling rejected and alone. Unfortunately, throughout our lives we all receive messages that can lead us to feel unloved and unacceptable. Attempts from parents, teachers, friends, relationship partners and others meant to provide comfort end up teaching us that emotions like anxiety, sadness and anger are not valued or make others uncomfortable.
Sadly, the less authentic and open we become in relationships the less likely we are to come into contact with fulfilling, meaningful human experiences.
Generally, we tend to be more comfortable responding to others in distress than opening up about our own fears and insecurities. Vulnerability with ourselves and others is scary. Often we act based on shame and fear instead of risking being misunderstood or ignored. From fear of making eye contact to fear of making mistakes to fear of caring about others more than they care about us, at an early age people learn to protect themselves emotionally in ways that ultimately foster disconnection, loneliness and isolation.
Imagine for a moment your best friend is going through a rough breakup or just recently experienced a family member’s death. My guess is that most of us would react with caring and concern, while also likely feeling honored and privileged that someone we care about would feel comfortable enough to share their lives with us. Usually we end up feeling closer to that person, along with potentially feeling safer opening up to them in the future.
Ironically, what creates safety and security in relationships is often what people fear the most, exposing our own authenticity and vulnerability.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines vulnerability as having the courage to “dare to show up and let ourselves be seen.” She describes vulnerability as the uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure we all experience in everyday life, and discusses what drives our fears of being vulnerable, the ways we protect ourselves from vulnerability and the price we pay for shutting down and disengaging, as well as how to embrace our vulnerability to “transform the way we live, love, parent and lead.”
Although in our culture vulnerability is often mistakenly seen as a sign of weakness, Brown argues that the ability to share emotional openness with others is instead an important measure of courage and strength. Whether in friendships, romantic relationships, connections with family members or working with a mental health professional, opening up to others can help us to develop intimacy while taking the chance we will be met with acceptance and care.
When sitting with clients I often think about the fear and ambivalence I experienced on that morning of my first therapy session. Being vulnerable involves both the courage to allow ourselves to be truly seen and the resilience to cope with feeling hurt and disappointed if we are not met with understanding and support. Although ruptures in close relationships can contribute to emotional pain and suffering, when openness is met with love and acceptance we develop our capacity to connect more deeply with others.
True intimacy involves being comfortable enough with ourselves to show our strengths along with our insecurities and vulnerabilities. While this type of emotional exposure can certainly be scary, it is through healthy connections that we can learn to more fully love ourselves.
So whether it’s asking a family member for emotional support, letting a relationship partner know they hurt our feelings, inviting a new friend to spend time together, or even reaching out to a therapist to schedule a counseling session, it is the risks we take in life that can ultimately lead to true closeness and connection. Having the courage to show our imperfections and giving others an opportunity to see who we really are isn’t easy, and certainly has its risks. On the other hand, by taking the chance to be understood for who we truly are, we can create healthy, loving relationships and find the connection and love all of us deserve.
* Originally published on "Therapy Matters (Mental health experts writing on matters of the heart & mind)" website - January 9, 2017