Those of us who are in the helping profession are quite well acquainted with the concept of vulnerability. When you enter into a clinical relationship with a provider – be it for medical, mental health, or related services, you are asked to provide deeply personal information to a relative stranger. The context of the professional relationship requires a pretty quick disclosure of vulnerabilities – unlike a friendship or conventional relationship, there is not necessarily the time to build and develop the trust necessary to divulge. While medicine, therapeutic techniques, and interventions are all powerful tools, vulnerability is a powerful agent for help, too. We are here to break down what vulnerability is, and how using vulnerability strategically can help with relationships, as well as self-esteem.
Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW is a well-known researcher who often studies the concept of vulnerability. She has described vulnerability as emotional exposure, which also includes a level of embracing the unknown, and the risk of sharing your emotional self with another. Vulnerability includes courage, and bravery, but it also requires a level of self-knowledge, and self-awareness. Not all people are safe to be vulnerable around. Not all situations are appropriate for vulnerability. The ability to discern the right and safe time to take the risk of vulnerability can be tricky, but can also be learned.
Vulnerability comes in many shapes and sizes. It may include a self-disclosure – sharing something personal about yourself or a loved one. It may come along with asking for help, though not always. It almost always includes a level of imperfection – and that is actually where some of the fear of being vulnerable comes from. We worry about this risk, as we worry that we may be viewed as weak, helpless, or shameful. However, that is usually an internal worry. When others are vulnerable with us, we recognize their courage, and it helps to drive connection.
Human beings thrive on connection. Our social structures are arranged around these connections, and the connections are often forged through vulnerability. When you are vulnerable, you are sharing an aspect of yourself and creating openness, and that openness creates the space for connection to form. Along with vulnerability comes trust, and it trust is the root of all types of relationships. Understanding this key part of human connection and relationships allows for vulnerability to move from a place of shame, to a place of power. We can use our own openness and trust in others to create relationships that can sustain and support us.
The impact of vulnerability is powerful. Studies of resilience will often look at vulnerability as a factor. For example, a recent study related to community disaster found that those who had lower social vulnerability tended to have less resilience, and require more aid after a disaster. This is sadly ironic, as it translates that the people who most need the help are the ones least likely to ask for it. Thankfully, researchers are aware of this trend, and as aid and disaster planning continues, we now have the awareness that cultures that value vulnerability lower may need more assistance than a more open and vulnerable community.
On a more local scale, we can use this knowledge in our daily relationships. If we are looking to cultivate trust, we may need to share our own vulnerability. Sharing with genuineness, openness, and courage will help create a foundation of trust that works mutually, and will likely lead to a stronger interpersonal connection.