People are talking a lot about vulnerability these days due in no small part to the research of Brené Brown, her books and TED Talks. We both love vulnerability and fear it. We absolutely love to see raw truth displayed by others but are afraid to let others see it in us. Vulnerability is a two-edged sword that can cut both ways. It is only when we are most vulnerable that we can experience the connection with God and others that we were designed for, but it is also exactly when we are most vulnerable that we can get hurt the most.
But vulnerability is not just being open. Think of people who say, “Ask me anything,” or “I’m an open book.” But these statements don’t really draw you to them, and they don’t make you want to take your clothes off and jump in the truth or dare pool with them either.
These people are open about the facts of their lives (and the lives of others) but don’t really make themselves vulnerable. They don’t expose themselves to the possibility of getting hurt. The real truth is, they aren’t really being vulnerable if you can’t get hurt in the process. Openness used in this way is not about connecting with other people—it’s about getting attention.
Vulnerability is taking the risk to expose yourself emotionally. It feels uncertain, but there is no other path to the most meaningful experiences you will ever have. We were created for the purpose of connection to God and others, and vulnerability is the requirement for achieving that purpose.
Vulnerability is the state in which we all enter the world. From the very first moments, you were vulnerable, and how well you connected to others around you while you were that vulnerable determined how you felt about yourself then, and continues to define your sense of self today. Our very identity is dependent on our relationships with those who care for us. Because we are fundamentally relational beings, we are fundamentally vulnerable. Psychologists no longer talk about humans having an individual self, we talk about having a sense of self in the context of our relationships. For you to be you, you need God and others.
A common myth is the notion that vulnerability is a weakness. It’s true that vulnerability can hurt you—that’s the very definition of vulnerability. But getting hurt doesn’t mean you are weak. Getting hurt emotionally isn’t the same thing as getting hurt physically. Physical hurt can indicate a weakened condition with compromised physical strength. But getting hurt emotionally can indicate the exact opposite. It is actually through our painful emotional experiences that we learn life’s greatest lessons. Our most important insights, most intimate connections and our most crucial skills come in the emotional valleys, not during our mountaintop experiences.
Avoiding physical pain is a good thing; avoiding emotional pain is not. Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). And He wasn’t kidding. This wasn’t just a metaphor for Jesus, because He ended up dragging His cross to His own crucifixion. Jesus taught a lot about joy and love, but He never taught His followers to avoid pain. Quite the opposite, it was central to Jesus’s teachings that facing suffering well is a crucial element in developing a mature character and that our vulnerability to suffering is not only not a bad thing but is the best path to finding a clear picture of who God really is. To Jesus, vulnerability was certainly not a weakness but was actually a sign of spiritual strength.
Another false notion is that having needs makes you needy. This myth has been reinforced by the idea that “I can’t make you feel anything. If you are angry, that’s your problem.” This is bad psychology. To be the best version of you, you need other people. If you hurt other people, you should feel bad about that. You have a moral and psychological responsibility to others, and you need an emotional connection to them to be psychologically healthy. I am not saying that every time someone’s feelings get hurt that it is your fault, but it is in your best interest to care about it.
We are made by God for relationship with Him and others, and we are hardwired from birth to seek out relationships. Having emotional needs doesn’t make you needy, it makes you human. Rather than pretend you don’t have needs, you should try to uncover what those needs are so you can find a way to share them with others in ways that connect you to them. Needs are not something to be ashamed of; both your needs and the needs of those you love are the substance of your most important relationships.
When I talk about vulnerability, I am talking about being vulnerable to feelings. Feelings are what create connection, and feelings are what we fear when we are vulnerable. When a situation arises where you need to be vulnerable, you have to ask yourself, “What are you afraid of?” The answer is: feelings. You are going to feel something uncomfortable, and learning to deal with that discomfort will make you a better person.
Fear is the uncomfortable feeling that signals impending danger. It’s a good thing. Fear triggers our natural fight, flight or freeze response. Fear is usually not a problem, but your response can be.
The people we typically think of as fearful are almost always dealing with another problem that lies hidden out of sight. In almost every case, it’s shame. People who get stuck in fear get trapped because they see fear as evidence of a shameful weakness. They don’t see fear as crucial information alerting them to danger; they believe fear is a confirmation of weakness that is now being exposed to everyone.
Shame is a self-conscious emotion, and it causes people to be self-focused. Shame directs your attention onto yourself in ways that make it difficult for you to care about what other people are feeling around you. Shame-proneness causes people to mismanage fear. Rather than using fear to direct your attention outward to an approaching problem, shame forces your attention inward toward a bigger problem—painful feelings of inadequacy. Shame-prone people tend to respond to fear by either trying to hide it or to forcefully overcome it. But the best response to fear is neither of these strategies. The best response to fear is to face it, with vulnerability.
This piece was adapted from Overcoming Shame: Let Go of Others’ Expectations and Embrace God’s Acceptance by Dr. Mark W. Baker. Used with permission.
Dr. Mark W. Baker has received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a master’s degree in theology, as well as a certificate in psychodynamic psychotherapy. He serves as the executive director of the La Vie Counseling Centers in Pasadena and Santa Monica, CA. He is the author of several books, including Jesus, The Greatest Therapist Who Ever Lived (Harper One), which has more than two million copies in print. His newest book, Overcoming Shame: Let Go of Others’ Expectations and Embrace God’s Acceptance is available for purchase now.