What do you think of when you hear the word “vulnerability”? Someone who’s weak and can’t look after themselves? Many people think being vulnerable is something to avoid. But in fact, vulnerability is strength, not weakness. Let me explain.

Why Vulnerability is Strength instead of Weakness

Lots of people think that showing your emotions is a sign of weakness. Vulnerability is about rejecting this idea and finding strength in being honest about how you feel. If you’re struggling in life, it’s a much better demonstration of your strength of character to ask for help than it is to pretend you can manage on your own.

When I was finishing my Ph.D., I was extremely stressed. I never had enough time, I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly, and I felt exhausted and miserable. I didn’t want to burden my friends with these problems, as many of them were in grad school at the time. I ought to be able to handle it myself without asking for help, right?

Eventually, though, I realised I couldn’t continue on my own. I asked two close friends to help me out, and they did so in spectacular fashion. They took care of some of my work, brought me food, and most importantly, they supported me and cheered me up.

Not only was this extremely helpful for me, but it also strengthened those friendships. My friends weren’t annoyed that I asked for favours, and they didn’t think I was selfish. They were glad to help, just as I was glad to return the kindness later on.

By being vulnerable and admitting I needed help, I acquired both practical support and stronger friendships.

More than Just Honesty

It’s tempting to equate vulnerability with honesty. The two aren’t necessarily the same thing, though. Vulnerability is more about the reasons why we share something, not just sharing every feeling we have. A vulnerable thought is an honest thought, but just because you share that thought doesn’t mean you’re demonstrating vulnerability.

Imagine that John and Stewart are best friends, and they both have a big job interview today. John panics and comes across as a bumbling fool, while Stewart keeps his cool and ends up landing the job.

John feels it’s unfair that Stewart did so well simply because he was calm. He might say something like “Your successes make me feel like a failure. I feel worthless because of you.”

Showing that vulnerability is strength

Voicing a feeling like this certainly seems like vulnerability. (It’s honest, at least.) In reality, John is simply dumping his problems onto someone else instead of taking responsibility for his own emotions.

To transform this into a “vulnerability is strength” moment, John might admit that he has this feeling, tactfully voice his envy to Stewart using Nonviolent Communication, then understand that he has the ability to change if he wants to. Stewart might even give him some tips on how to keep calm in his next interview.

Emotional Vomit vs. Vulnerability

One common issue when people first start trying to embrace the “vulnerability is strength” mindset is that they over-correct and land in emotional vomit territory.

Emotional vomit is where you share all your feelings all of the time, to the point where every situation becomes about you. Everyone knows “that guy” who pours out their intimate secrets to someone they just met on the bus. Such behaviour is frustrating for those around you and can push people away instead of bringing them closer.

If you find yourself in emotional vomit territory, don’t worry: you’re not failing at vulnerability. It’s common to enter a kind of adjustment period where you over- or under-share as you attempt to find the right balance. It’s all part of the journey.

All you need to do is take steps to rein in this tendency to make everything about you. Don’t force yourself to share in the name of vulnerability; just make sure you aren’t hiding behind a façade of false bravery and let the sharing come naturally.

Being Vulnerable without Being Inappropriate

The key to being vulnerable without emotional vomiting is to know what’s appropriate. The feelings you might talk about with your best friend are different from what you would talk about with a teacher. Make sure that you’re sharing your feelings in a way that suits the relationship you have with that person.

Consider these questions when deciding what you should share with whom:

  • Am I close enough to this person that they want to hear about my feelings?  
  • Do we have a reciprocal relationship where we both share?  
  • Is now the right time for me to unload? Is the other person in the right mental space, or are they absorbed in their problems?  
  • Is this the right setting and the right place to have an in-depth talk about our feelings?

If you pick the right time, place, and person to talk about your feelings with, you’ll find there is great strength in vocalising your struggles. I didn’t walk up to a random friend at a party and tell them about my stress issues during my Ph.D. program. I waited, I chose a quiet location, and I talked with people I trusted.

Living a Vulnerable Life

Vulnerability comes in a variety of forms, not just sharing a hardship or internal struggle you’re experiencing. Other aspects of vulnerability include:

  • Admitting when you don’t know something
  • Taking responsibility for the decisions you make
  • Speaking up when someone hurts you
  • Telling people around you that you care about them
  • Putting yourself out there, and taking risks even if you face rejection

The key to cultivating the “vulnerability is strength” mindset is to take note of these behaviours and gently steer in a more productive direction. One conversation at a time, one moment when we stop emotional vomit before it occurs. Those are the steps to getting stronger through vulnerability in your own life.

Most of us know something in our lives we should be speaking about but aren’t. Whether it’s fear of failure, a feeling of being lost, resentment of others, or feeling inadequate, chances are there’s something you’re keeping to yourself.

Challenge yourself to be vulnerable about one thing you’ve been keeping hidden. Choose the right time, place, and friend in your life, then see how the people around you support and help you.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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