Vulnerability: The Pathway to Change

By PCS - 01/23/2017


From childhood on, we’re taught to be “brave,” to hide our feelings, and to avoid appearing weak and vulnerable. We learn to associate vulnerability with feelings of exposure, embarrassment, or discomfort and go to great lengths to avoid it. After all, why would we want to experience something that the dictionary defines as “the quality of being easily hurt or attacked”?

In reality, however, vulnerability is a crucial aspect of human existence and one that’s vital to authenticity, growth, happiness, and true intimacy. Without ready access to our emotions, especially some of the most uncomfortable ones, we can’t develop the emotional intelligence we need to forge meaningful connections with others or make constructive life decisions.

In the book Daring Greatly, author and research professor Brené Brown draws upon more than a decade of research to reexamine and redefine vulnerability. The book’s title comes from a 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt in which he famously said, “It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the man who…strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

Dr. Brown emphasizes that vulnerability is the opposite of weakness. Instead, it is properly understood as the necessary catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. “If we want to reclaim the essential emotional part of our lives and reignite our passion and purpose, we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it,” she says. “Only by opening ourselves up to exposure, uncertainty, and emotional risk can we attain a wholehearted life replete with authenticity, creativity, joy, and love.

The key to embracing our vulnerability is shame-resilience, according to Dr. Brown. Early in life, we begin crafting a variety of masks or shields to avoid feeling shame and to protect ourselves from being hurt, diminished, or disappointed. Some of us become perfectionists, hoping that if we do everything “right” we can inoculate ourselves from shame. Others resort to numbing strategies in order to deaden the pain and discomfort they feel about their imagined inadequacies.

Fortunately, there are effective antidotes that can protect us from becoming infected by these self-defeating behaviors. Dr. Brown suggests several strategies we can employ to help us remove our masks and fully engage with others. First and foremost, we can develop a sense of self-worthiness; the fervent inner belief that “I am enough.” Second, we can learn to set reasonable boundaries and defend them when necessary by firmly saying, “I’ve had enough.” Third, we can develop the courage to take reasonable risks, to believe that “showing up, taking risks, and letting myself be seen is enough.” Collectively, these three strategies empower us to “transform from turning on each other to turning toward each other.”

Here are two prescriptions for putting these strategies into practice that I’ve found to be particularly helpful in my work with clients.


Recite the Vulnerability Prayer

When Dr. Brown first started giving her celebrated TED talks, she buoyed herself up by reciting the vulnerability prayer: “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”

This requires asking ourselves the critical question that transformed her life and informed much of her research: “What’s worth doing even if I fail?” For many of us, failure is never an acceptable option. When we’re younger, we blithely assume that things will ultimately work out. We might make mistakes now and again, but we’re confident there’s plenty of time to fix them.

This perspective changes as we grow older and the stakes of failure increase. We fear losing what we have, even if it does not fully satisfy us. However, if we want more for ourselves, then risking failure may well be the only option. As Dr. Brown reminds us, failure isn’t the end of the story. If we own our stories, we can write the endings.


Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

“Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”

“For some folks,” she explains, “…perfectionism is compulsive, chronic, and debilitating – it looks and feels like an addiction.”  Perfectionism, she adds, is not the same thing as striving for excellence or working towards healthy achievement and growth. At its core, perfectionism is about trying to earn approval from others. It’s a self-protective mechanism that’s strongly correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, life paralysis, and missed opportunities.

Dr. Brown provides several strategies to help perfectionists navigate the journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough.” These include developing and practicing the skill of self-kindness, which means being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. We must learn to recognize that our feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience. We can also practice mindfulness techniques that enable us to observe these uncomfortable feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them.

In order to create meaningful connections with our children, spouses or partners, fellow workers, and the community at large, we must be honest, constructive, courageous, and engaged. In other words, we must Dare Greatly, because a durable sense of self-worthiness has the power to set us free.


By: Ilisa Keith, MA, LAC
PCS Staff Therapist

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