The word “vulnerability” has been labeled as many things in recent years. For example, vulnerability has been expressed as being a necessary part of the human experience. It has been argued as being the driving force behind authentic human connection as well as being coined a necessary ingredient for lasting relationships.
Perhaps most notably, Dr. Brene Brown has coined vulnerability as, “…emotional risk and exposure to uncertainty that fuels our daily lives as the most accurate measurement of courage.”
However, this was not always the case. As recently as a couple decades ago a stigma surrounded the word vulnerability as one of emotional helplessness and something to be avoided. Vulnerability was associated with shame, triggering feelings of incompetence and weakness in men and fears of being seen as imperfect and flawed in women.
Nowadays, there is less of a stigma attached to the word in which being vulnerable is embraced as courageous and empowering. To be emotionally vulnerable is an incredibly powerful experience that shapes individuals for personal growth and can strengthen our bonds within intimate relationships.
For those who have a history of pushing away vulnerable experiences or emotions or only allowing ourselves to experience “feel-good” emotions, vulnerability can be challenging to understand and even more challenging to relate to. According to Dr. Brene Brown in a 2012 TED Talk titled, “Listening to Shame”, she points out how feeling vulnerable can have us experiencing cognitive dissonance where on one hand we’re striving for empowerment through experiencing vulnerability, while on the other hand we’re pushing away vulnerability which limits our empowerment.
Signs of a Fear of Vulnerability
From time to time, all of us have experienced a fear of being vulnerable with our own feelings or of the feelings in others. These fears can show up in different ways, yet the overarching theme is that when fear is involved, behavior is often avoidant or distracted in order to escape emotionally uncomfortable experiences.
John Bowby’s groundbreaking work on infant and young children’s attachment styles has extended to adult romantic relationships where it has been found by researchers that fearful-avoidant, anxious-avoidant and dismissive-avoidant attachments seen in intimate relationships displayed similar behavioral tendencies as infants and children separated from their primary caregivers.
These behavioral similarities may account for commonly seen signs when experiencing a fear of vulnerability which can include:
Over-Committing Ourselves. For example, some may struggle with being alone or with moments of quiet or calmness. When we jam-pack our schedules with work, the gym, classes at the local university or extracurricular hobbies in order to limit, or even eliminate having any downtime, we are also limiting the chance of feeling vulnerable. While this may work in the moment, over time the habit of avoiding vulnerability by over-committing ourselves causes more problems, further separates us from being aligned with our own emotions and the emotions of others, and perpetuates a cycle.
Emotions Are Downplayed. When we struggle with feeling vulnerable and comfortable with ourselves and our own emotions, we also struggle with recognizing and accepting the emotional experiences in others. This may come across as appearing emotionally disconnected or indifferent to how we feel or what others may be feeling. We may also create an emotional wall to keep others’ out while protecting ourselves from feeling hurt or vulnerable. Emotional distance is used to keep others at arm’s length but it is also a self-sabotaging behavior that ultimately hurts us, too.
Living for Others. This may present itself as taking on other’s opinions or values that truly aren’t aligned with who we are at our core, yet we feel uncomfortable having our own thoughts or attitudes because of feelings of shame or of a fear of being judged. Living for others may also present itself as being stuck at a job that doesn’t fulfill us or stuck in a lifestyle that we don’t know how to get out of or change. For example, if our partner encouraged us to get an office job when our passion is fieldwork, we may feel unfulfilled, or bored or even resentful being stuck doing work that does not satisfy our purpose or growth.
Shallow Relationships. Because the hallmark of most relationships include some level of emotional vulnerability, relationships may be reduced to casual acquaintances or intimate relationships may be superficial and based on “doing” instead of “experiencing”. For example, relationships based on “doing” often include full schedules of activities with little time for intimate conversation or emotional connection. Contrarily, relationships that are based on “experiencing” are ones based on emotional vulnerability, authenticity and mutual trust and understanding where doing “things” is not as important as shared experiences.
Overcoming Fears of Vulnerability
Acceptance and Worth. At the source of fearing vulnerability are the feelings of shame that accompany it. Toxic shame is our inner critic that tries convincing us that we are unworthy – not our thoughts, not our limitations, but us as a person. When we lack a sense of feeling worthy or valued, we will continue to struggle with feelings of vulnerability because it will trigger shame, which keeps us stuck in a loop. Change and empowerment begin with reaching acceptance; once a place of acceptance is reached, we can then begin recognizing and building our value and worth.
Honesty. Being honest with our partner, family and friends means being able to trust them before we can disclose our needs and feelings. If we don’t trust the people closest to us in our lives, we will not be able to reach a place of acceptance or vulnerability with our situation. However, if we have an established foundation of trust with those in our lives, we should come from a place of honesty in explaining our struggles with vulnerability and in asking them for their support in helping us overcome our fears.
Allow Yourself To Cry. Or to get angry, or to even momentarily break down. Dr. Brene Brown has publicly spoken about her struggles with vulnerability and her emotional breakdown as a result. It is not always healthy to be happy or positive because this can often mask deep pain and anger. The fact is, bonding and connection usually happen over intimacy and vulnerable experiences, not when things are perfect. A need for constant happiness is often used as an excuse – if we look happy and perfect, we must feel happy and perfect. Ultimately, all this does is keep denial at the forefront and keeps us trying to push away our emotions.
Recognize Your Patterns and Habits. Avoidance and escapism are common behaviors when we are distracting ourselves from feeling vulnerable. For example, we may become workaholics, or spend excessive hours at the gym, self-medicate, or develop toxic relationship patterns to avoid feeling vulnerable. By recognizing our emotional triggers, we can also make connections to our habits and patterns that are self-sabotaging or limiting our personal growth and then establish healthy behaviors that foster positive change.
Bowlby, J., 1982. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Avery. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=en#t-1204933
Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.