How to Be Vulnerable in Life and Therapy

How to be vulnerableStanding at the front of the church, giving my father’s eulogy, I felt equally vulnerable and empowered.

The situation was bigger than me, and the vulnerability I experienced was not so much a coping mechanism as being authentic.

Why is it that many of us only show our vulnerable side at the most extreme times?

After all, vulnerability can help us not only build relationships, but also experience our feelings more deeply (Brown, 2015).

In this article, we learn why vulnerability is not about weakness, but rather confidence and inner strength. Then we explore some tools, exercises, and techniques that offer help in therapy and beyond.

The Importance of Vulnerability

Most of us don’t like to feel vulnerable in life or even in therapy.

Rather than respecting those who are courageous enough to show their vulnerability, we tend to criticize them, becoming judgmental. Yet vulnerability is at the core of all emotions and feelings; to see it as a weakness would be to conclude that feeling is failing (Brown, 2015).

 

Vulnerability should not be confused with weakness.

Instead, according to Brené Brown (2015), writer and vulnerability researcher, “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” It gives us hope, provides a sense of belonging, enables us to feel empathy, and provides meaning in our lives.

When Brown asked people to fill in the statement “Vulnerability is ______,” she received many answers, including (and there are many more):

  • Sharing an unpopular opinion
  • Asking for help
  • Initiating sex with a partner
  • Going on a first date after a divorce
  • Falling in love
  • Getting fired
  • Waiting for a biopsy to come back

Far from being weakness, vulnerability is very much a part of life.

Yet, we all seem to struggle to share our vulnerabilities. Typically, our reluctance boils down to the following thinking:

  • I want to experience the vulnerability of others without sharing my own.
  • Vulnerability is courageous in others, but it is an inadequacy in me.
  • I am drawn to the vulnerability of others but repelled by my own.

 

We are unwilling to be vulnerable.

Many of us don’t want to do vulnerability; it’s not who we are.

As Brown puts it, “regardless of our willingness to do vulnerability, it does us.” It isn’t a choice; the only decision we have is how we respond (Brown, 2015).

 

Isn’t vulnerability more about oversharing?

No, it’s not about the social media star who shares every intimate detail about their lives. Vulnerability has boundaries and requires a trust that must be earned.

After all, we have no guarantees when we share, which is why we would not offer our darkest secrets on a business call with a newly appointed colleague.

Indeed, in the absence of boundaries, oversharing leads to a failure to connect and even distrust and disengagement.

 

But why can’t we go it alone?

All too often, we are encouraged to go it alone.

But why? After all, it’s another way of feeling lonely and disconnected from the world around us. We need people close by who accept us when we fail and support us when we are fearful. It’s okay, and even to be encouraged, to ask for help. Not only do we often need it, but it is essential to what Brown calls wholehearted living – letting others in to get to know who we are and what we do (Brown, 2015).

 

Where does shame fit in?

Brown (2015) describes shame as that “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” And research has confirmed that emotional distress hurts in the same way as a physical injury (Kross, Berman, Mischel, Smith, & Wager, 2011).

Yet, embracing vulnerability can help us overcome that shame. For example, the book you have been working away on in private has only limited value if it is not shared. But what if someone criticizes it? What will we have left of our self-worth?

“Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid,” says Brown (2015). Daring greatly, on the other hand, banishes shame and embraces vulnerability.

 

So, what does vulnerability have to do with our mental health?

How we experience emotions comes down to how we talk to ourselves. When we feel shame, we tell ourselves that “we are bad” or “we are worthless” (Tangney & Dearing, 2004).

And this feeling of shame is linked to poor mental health and hurtful and damaging behaviors such as (Brown, 2006; Dearing, Stuewig, & Tangney, 2005; Ferguson, Eyre, & Ashbaker, 2000):

  • Violence
  • Aggression
  • Addiction
  • Depression
  • Bullying
  • Eating disorders

Shame is a response to a lack of self-worth (Brown, 2015).

Opening up to vulnerability makes space for positive emotions such as love, hope, joy, optimism, and gratitude. It readies us for sharing and is crucial for success in therapy (Larsen, Buss, Wismeijer, & Song, 2017; Leroux, Sperlinger, & Worrell, 2007).

 

4 Fascinating Psychology Theories & Research Findings

Vulnerability TheoriesVulnerability is an exciting area of study in psychology and a priority for mental wellbeing.

  • A 2017 study of nurse education confirmed the theory that peer assessment greatly benefits teachers’ development. Yet, actively inviting review requires making oneself vulnerable to fellow teachers and establishing trust.

Such openness leads to increased mutual learning, encourages both individual and team growth, and results in more accountability for the nursing curriculum (Tanner, Rosenau, Clancy, & Rutherford, 2017).

  • A report in the Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences explored the idea that nurses’ own experiences of vulnerability and suffering positively influenced their capacity to provide exemplary patient care.

They found that the nurses’ experiences with vulnerability and suffering helped their patients gain the courage to face their own vulnerability and suffering in turn, and ultimately shaped their ability to engage in care (Thorup, Rundqvist, Roberts, & Delmar, 2011).

  • Stephanie Lopez (2018) at Seattle Pacific University recognized in her research the importance of organizational leaders who are willing to be vulnerable with those they lead. Her study confirmed that courage is essential to that vulnerability, driving further connections and progress to company goals.

  • Those of us who believe ourselves invulnerable to the influence of others may be in denial. Research found that people who thought advertising campaigns did not influence them were the most susceptible.

Our sense of invulnerability is an illusion and may undermine the mechanisms that offer genuine protection (Sagarin, Cialdini, Rice, & Serna, 2002).

 

3 Real-Life Examples of Vulnerability

Greta Thunberg

Greta was right; she shouldn’t have been up there, standing in front of the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit in New York City. She should have been at home, in school.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said to the world leaders. She was standing there, a 16-year-old, vulnerable yet empowered, telling the people of the world they were failing her generation (NPR, 2019). And she was right.

Her courage and her vulnerability made people sit up and listen.

The next two examples also exemplify the extraordinary power of combining vulnerability, courage, and determination.

 

Childbirth

Every day countless women worldwide give birth in various, often dangerous, circumstances (in hospitals, with family, and, some, alone). While the act may seem commonplace, women’s vulnerability and courage are awe inspiring to most partners left helpless on the side lines (Lyberg & Severinsson, 2010).

We should never underestimate a woman’s capacity for pain, acceptance of vulnerability, and determination to make their child safe.

 

Tank man

While there may have been others blocking the long line of army tanks making their way through the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989, only one was caught on camera.

While his identity is unclear, his vulnerability and courage blocking the progress of the military were undeniable. The protestor’s fate is unknown, yet his vulnerability and legacy were to become a symbol of hope in one of the most iconic images of all time (Tank Man, 2020).

 

3 Ways to Motivate Clients to Be Vulnerable in Therapy

Vulnerable clientsDuring emotion-focused therapy, clients must be encouraged to be vulnerable, sharing their innermost thoughts, feelings, memories, and emotions to maximize the process (Leroux et al., 2007).

Several simple approaches can assist the path to vulnerability in a therapeutic setting.

 

Capturing thoughts

For therapy to work, clients must be able to open up about and disclose their thoughts, especially those that are troubling or unwanted.

The Capturing Thoughts worksheet can be used to encourage and capture a client’s thinking.

Review the completed form with the client, focusing on their concerns and the rational and irrational beliefs behind their thinking.

 

Anxiety record

We can feel vulnerable when asked to share what is making us anxious.

And yet, it is crucial that we understand what is causing our anxiety and learn appropriate coping skills.

Use the Anxiety Record worksheet to capture anxieties, triggers, and their effects.

 

Understanding emotions

The situations we face in life are often unpredictable, and the emotions that result are unexpected.

Learning to recognize, understand, and talk about each emotion can improve our ability to be vulnerable.

Use the Understanding Emotions worksheet to record and reflect on some of the emotions experienced.

 

Helpful Exercises

Vulnerability worksheet

Brown (2015) says that by daring greatly, we make ourselves vulnerable while putting a stop to shame. Why not embrace asking for help and support when we need it most and share what we have created with those whose opinions we value?

Use the Vulnerability worksheet to explore three instances when you felt vulnerable and experienced uncomfortable feelings. Then consider how, in the future, you could approach the situations more openly.

 

Changing Physical Habits worksheet

According to Brown, improving how we see our vulnerability – acknowledging our risks and exposure to them – can positively influence our adherence to a healthy lifestyle (Brown, 2015).

Complete the Changing Physical Habits worksheet for further insights into your physical vulnerability and the steps you can take to treat yourself with more care.

 

Mind the Gap

Many of the problems that exist in families are a result of disengagement from one another. We withdraw to protect ourselves from vulnerability but also shame and a lack of purpose.

The Mind the Gap worksheet looks at what we aspire to be (or aspire our children to be) versus what we do.

While we can’t be perfect all the time, minding the gap and aligning our values will improve engagement.

 

How to Be Vulnerable in Relationships: 2 Activities for Couples & Friends

Frustration Ladder

Couples vulnerabilityFrustrations are found in all friendships and relationships.

The Frustration Ladder, while originally designed as part of Imago Relationship Therapy, is a great tool to capture and organize frustrations with another person.

Work your way through the frustrations, starting with those lowest in priority (Luquet, 2015).

The form can be completed outside of a therapy or counseling session and then discussed at the next appointment.

 

Marble jars metaphor

In her book Daring Greatly, Brown (2015) uses a jar full of marbles as a metaphor for the amount of effort we put into and take out of friendships and relationships.

When someone gives you support and encouragement, sticks by you, or keeps your secret, imagine throwing a handful of marbles into the jar. When people are mean, break your confidence, or are disrespectful, picture taking out some of the marbles.

With trust and vulnerability, you will keep important people close enough that the jar will never empty.

It is worth considering not only the effect of others’ actions on your jar, but how you affect theirs. It may cause you to be both more vulnerable and considerate.

 

A look at Brené Brown’s TED Talk

While preparing for her highly successful TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown watched several incredible speakers. She realized she would have to give up on the idea of being like everyone else. “I would have to be me,” she said, “vulnerable and open” (Brown, 2015).

 

Surprisingly, Brown asked the studio managers to bring up the lighting to see the audience and make eye contact. Seeing people rather than an audience enabled her to connect.

She asked the people whether they struggled with vulnerability because they felt it showed weakness and whether they thought those on stage were courageous. The answer was a resounding yes, to both questions.

People connect with raw truth, and yet we are afraid to show it.

Her talk is terrific: funny, witty, and insightful. Brown explains, based on her years of research into shame and vulnerability, that the way to live is with vulnerability and without controlling or predicting.

Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear but also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.

 

3 Books and 4 Quotes on the Topic

Brené Brown (2015) provides some wonderful quotes on vulnerability:

Vulnerability is not weakness. I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives.

To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.

Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us most vulnerable.

The following books are essential reading for both vulnerability and shame:

 

1. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead – Brené Brown

Daring Greatly

Brown offers an extensive and fascinating account of her research into shame and vulnerability.

She explores what it means to face uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure as we embrace that vulnerability and why it is at the heart of positive and negative emotions such as fear, anger, hurt, love, empathy, and joy.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

 

2. The Gifts of Imperfection – Brené Brown

The Gifts of Imperfection

Social scientist Brené Brown provides 10 signposts to wholehearted living.

They help us not only transform our lives, but also avoid damaging and harmful expectations along the way.

As Brown says, “choosing authenticity and worthiness is an absolute act of resistance.”

Find the book on Amazon.

 

 

3. Daring to Love: Move Beyond Fear of Intimacy, Embrace Vulnerability, and Create Lasting Connection – Tamsen Firestone and Robert W. Firestone

Daring to Love

Could your lack of vulnerability be stopping you from building intimate, long-lasting relationships? And rather than seeking love, could we be actively pushing it away?

Tamsen and Robert think so. In Daring to Love, they provide techniques to understand how we remove defensive patterns of thinking and behavior and embark on future romantic journeys with more openness and self-knowledge.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources

  • A Gratitude Letter can be the ideal way to express thanks to others and can have a significant effect on wellbeing.

  • Using the Naikan Reflection to think about what you have received, what you have given, and what trouble you have caused can be a useful exercise in vulnerability.

  • Mindful Speaking can help us to speak both authentically and with vulnerability.

  • Our vulnerability can be reflected both mentally and physically. Visualizing the Bodily Experience of an Emotion can promote our emotional awareness.

  • Part of vulnerability is speaking up when we feel uncomfortable doing so and having limits for what is acceptable as a request. Try out My Boundary Response Plan to remain calm when boundaries are neared or crossed.

  • From My Way – No My Way to OUR Way can help guide a couple from self-centered thinking to cooperative problem solving.

  • The EQ 5-Point Tool provides a socially intelligent approach to initiate a conversation on tough subjects while retaining vulnerability.

  • To open ourselves up to be vulnerable, we must be sure that we are being heard. The Active Listening Reflection Worksheet can help.

 

A Take-Home Message

We should not hold back from being vulnerable. To dare greatly is to feel more deeply and thoroughly, and grasp at the very nature of being (Brown, 2015).

In therapy, vulnerability gives the client the capacity to share their innermost thoughts, beliefs, and concerns openly. It provides them with the opportunity to grow, heal, and move on from their past (Leroux et al., 2007).

In life, vulnerability removes barriers, enabling us to form vital, more authentic connections while experiencing living to its fullest.

Vulnerability is not weakness, but strength. And it is very much a part of existence. It is the ability to expose who we are and what we do, and to challenge ourselves and how we live while making room for growth.

Try out the exercises, either yourself or with clients, and dare to live greatly in the absence of shame. The possibilities for finding greater meaning in life are available to us all, along with the fullness of joy, love, sorrow, sadness, and awe.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you wish to learn more, have a look at our Positive Relationships Masterclass©.

The Positive Relationships Masterclass© is a complete, science-based training template for practitioners and coaches that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their personal and professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their mental wellbeing and vulnerability.

  • Brown, B. (2006). Shame resilience theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame. Families in Society, 87(1), 43–52.
  • Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Avery.
  • Dearing, R., Stuewig, J., & Tangney, J. (2005). On the importance of distinguishing shame from guilt: Relations to problematic alcohol and drug use. Addictive Behaviors, 30(7), 1392–1404.
  • Ferguson, T. J., Eyre, H. L., & Ashbaker, M. (2000). Unwanted identities: A key variable in shame–anger links and gender differences in shame. Sex Roles, 42(3–4), 133–157.
  • Kross, E., Berman, M. G., Mischel, W., Smith, E. E., & Wager, T. D. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(15), 6270–6275.
  • Larsen, R., Buss, D., Wismeijer, A., & Song, J. (2017). Personality psychology: Domains of knowledge about human nature. McGraw-Hill Education.
  • Leroux, P., Sperlinger, D., & Worrell, M. (2007). Experiencing vulnerability in psychotherapy. Existential Analysis, 18(2), 315–328.
  • Lopez, S. O. (2018). Vulnerability in leadership: The power of the courage to descend (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Seattle Pacific Library, Industrial-Organizational Psychology Dissertations https://digitalcommons.spu.edu/iop_etd/16
  • Luquet, W. (2015). Short-term couples therapy: The Imago model in action. Routledge.
  • Lyberg, A., & Severinsson, E. (2010). Midwives’ supervisory styles and leadership role as experienced by Norwegian mothers in the context of a fear of childbirth. Journal of Nursing Management, 18(4), 391–399.
  • NPR (2019, September 23). Transcript: Greta Thunberg’s speech at the U.N. Climate Action Summit. NPR. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit?t=1607597051871
  • Sagarin, B. J., Cialdini, R. B., Rice, W. E., & Serna, S. B. (2002). Dispelling the illusion of invulnerability: The motivations and mechanisms of resistance to persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(3), 526–541.
  • Tank Man. (2020). Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tank_Man
  • Tanner, J., Rosenau, P. A., Clancy, T. L., & Rutherford, G. E. (2017). The courage to be vulnerable: Exploring experiences of peer and self-assessment of teaching in nursing education. Nursing: Research and Reviews, 7, 17–28.
  • Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2004). Shame and guilt. Guilford Press.
  • Thorup, C. B., Rundqvist, E., Roberts, C., & Delmar, C. (2011). Care as a matter of courage: Vulnerability, suffering and ethical formation in nursing care. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 26(3), 427–435.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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