Vulnerability as a Keystone Quality

We Need To Be Vulnerable To Be Life Affirming

While it is not obvious on first glance, vulnerability is an incredibly important quality. Several essential life affirming qualities require some level of vulnerability to be present. When carefully deconstructed, it becomes absolutely clear that a certain amount of vulnerability is always present when people experience and express qualities of trust, compassion, spiritual openness, generosity, collaboration, intellectual curiosity, wonder and that elusively defined little thing called love, among several other qualities. Granted, the amount of vulnerability needed to fully access these qualities is pretty small in some cases, but it’s got to be there.*

Popular author and researcher Brené Brown talks about many qualities of vulnerability. In my mind, and I think in the general public’s mind, she most often links it with shame and courage. What I don’t think gets highlighted enough in her work is: 

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Brené Brown, from Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

So some researchers know about this connection, and some of us know about it (and apply it) intuitively.

Yet, if you look up synonyms for the word vulnerable right now (using any American reference source you want), the entire list will consist of fear inducing things every one wants to avoid. Contrast the ideas of being undefended, under attack, conquerable, threatened, and endangered with the very positive and life affirming qualities of ideas that require some level of vulnerability for a person to experience, such as: love, collaboration, trust, generosity, deep learning and interdependence.

The only neutral synonym linked with vulnerability listed in any online synonym reference site is “open.” The larger culture conceives of vulnerability as entirely negative, in the same ways that those in the grips of trauma based reactions do.

Compassion And Vulnerability Are Linked

So before looking at the two main barriers to vulnerability, let’s make the connection between compassion and vulnerability as clear as possible. In a nutshell, it’s this: In order to actually show kindness (compassion) to others, we have to trust them, at least a little. Specifically, we need to trust that being nice to them will not get us killed or lead us to otherwise end up at a significant disadvantage.  In other words, we have to be willing and able to be at least a little vulnerable in order to truly be kind (compassionate) toward other people.

Why It’s So Tough For Us To Be Vulnerable


Vulnerability and Trauma

First off, it is absolutely normal to not be comfortable with being vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of trauma.  As mentioned in another article, trauma can be defined as a really bad thing happening to us that we have no control over.  In the aftermath of trauma, knowing that really bad things can and do happen when we don’t have control naturally makes us want to stay in control of things, and it also makes us pretty unwilling allow ourselves to become vulnerable.

Let me say it once more for clarity: Unwillingness to be vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of trauma is a completely normal reaction. But it needs to fade with time. Unfortunately that often does not happen.

Male Gender Norms and Socialization

Secondly, In the U.S. and many Western cultures, we have socialized everyone, but especially men to not be vulnerable, or show vulnerability.  Half of the population is actively told to not engage in vulnerability, and the other half is also asked to do this at times as well.  But clearly, in many countries, men are supposed to be strong, confident, and in the U.S. they are expected to be Ram tough, just like their big macho, trucks. In our traditional ways of socializing males, the message is loud and clear: Real Men don’t do vulnerability, they are supposed to be self reliant and self sufficient. This is encoded into the U.S. and its ethos of rugged individualism.  It’s what America is built on, and how the West was won.

This is obviously not news, many others have observed how limited traditional masculine emotional lives end up being-and in fact are supposed to be- due to this kind of socialization. Men’s socialization and the lack of ease with vulnerability -even in the 21st century- make it difficult for them to turn to compassionate responses as  “go to” strategies in social situations. Having said that, the protectiveness quality that men have been socialized to embody is a helpful, but not sufficient substitute for true compassion between equals.

Vulnerability and Avoidance

For people in the grips of (conscious or unconscious) trauma based reactions, the mere thought of becoming vulnerable can be enough to trigger avoidance. And because we want to avoid being vulnerable, we often go to the polar opposite: meaning we double down on focusing on safety and with that, ensuring our power. When we are not willing to be vulnerable, and instead focus on safety, we typically focus on maintaining power and control so we can be safe. We “need” to feel secure, and to do that we prioritize control over respectful compassion. Lacking the ability to trust, we stay consumed with fears about others, with fears of losing our sense of power and control, and with losing our senses of security.  

A lack of ability or willingness to be vulnerable leads to real difficulty in fully experiencing a full range of emotions, such as the ones listed above, resulting in those kinds of emotions typically becoming undervalued. So compassion and love, and generosity and trust are seen as “less important” than safety and power. Sound familiar to anyone?

If we are unable or unwilling to be vulnerable, the lack will keep us disconnected from others. Some posit that trauma’s most devastating result is it keeps us in a state of disconnect from others. The discomfort with vulnerability certainly contributes to that sense of disconnect, and I would argue is at its root.

I would also argue that the spiraling dynamic of avoiding any sense of vulnerability is substantial part of what leads to entire cultures into becoming obsessed with  “power”, (and all the empire building, colonizing, needless competition and other things associated with having “power over” others).

Seeing Others Isn’t Really Possible Without Being A Little Vulnerable

Some level of vulnerability is also needed to fully take another’s perspective“.  Many times we think we are taking another’s perspective, when in reality we are just putting our (fully armored)** selves in what we imagine to be their shoes. This is not the same as taking another’s perspective. But we fool ourselves into thinking we are really understanding the situations another faces.

The art of -really- taking another’s perspective is almost as tricky to describe as it is to do, so be forewarned: it may not make a lot of sense on the first couple of read throughs.

In order to really enter another’s perspective, we have to recognize that not everyone has had the same prior experiences and resources as us. So we have to be willing to try to imagine both their true prior experiences, and then attempt to understand (and feel) how those experiences might affect us. That’s an important point,…and… and… Let’s be honest, our amygdalae can smell the dangers in doing that from a mile away. Even the most intentional racists or sexists or homophobic folks know that (fill in the name of any oppressed group here) have been trampled on for hundreds of years, and that must have hurt them. That knowledge then triggers a “not fully conscious” trauma alert, (with the amygdala shouting “I don’t want to hear it! That will cause me pain”) which then leads us again to… avoidance. And avoidance has a surprisingly important role to play in PTSD, so please do read that article at some point.

To be fair, for some, the issue may be an inability to engage in the higher level of abstract thinking needed (to fully imagine another person’s prior experiences and differences in resources). But for many, I would bet dollars to doughnuts that if they were put into an MRI machine, the limbic areas of their brains would light up like a fireworks show when first asked to take another’s perspective. Then that area would shut right down due to successfully moving into avoidance.

Regardless of where our troubles with vulnerability come from, our collective unease with being vulnerable has contributed to many profound cultural issues. By trying to eliminate vulnerability, we’ve not only robbed half the population from having easier access to several life affirming and positive emotional states, but we’ve also lost sight of how important compassion and kindness really is to our species.  We’ve lost sight of the very qualities that are needed to actually resolve our problems and learn to thrive in the Anthropocene.

*Some might argue that “openness” is really what’s needed for these emotions. If only that were true! Openness leads to a partial experience of the emotions listed.  It leads to the “polite recognition” level of the experience, of say, love or generosity. But it does not allow for the full experience. Openness is a willingness to tell your story, and vulnerability is telling it, then letting others transform it. It is a profoundly relational way of being egoless in a (usually shared) state of being. (I believe this is a Brené Brown definition or quote). In other words, vulnerability is being able and willing to not use defensive strategies while fully experiencing a situation.

**Brené Brown talks about how we “put our armor on” to shield ourselves from feeling vulnerable. This is such a great turn of phrase! While I admire her work immensely, I again think it’s unfortunate (for the cultural ramifications) that her work on vulnerability tends to be mostly paired with shame, another super scary state of being. In the larger culture, it is clear that the many positive and life affirming qualities that a dollop of vulnerability allows us to access are still quite thoroughly hidden from view.