Emotional vulnerability is an exercise in openness.
This act, which is distinct from vulnerability as a result of circumstances out of one's control, can be truly empowering. It means showing the world who you are and trying something even if the outcome is uncertain. Experts say it can boost our careers and research shows it aids in making better emotional connections.
And yet, many of us still find ways to live behind walls and avoid being vulnerable. We instinctively run from it out of fear of looking soft, according to Robert Stolorow, a psychoanalyst and author of the book Trauma and Human Existence.
“It is pervasive in our culture to regard vulnerability as something shameful,” Stolorow told The Huffington Post. “It’s seen as an abhorrent weakness to be kept hidden and evaded, or counteracted through some form of reactive aggression.”
This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a good thing to open and be unashamed about it. And it's not too hard to crack the code of being emotionally vulnerable. Below are just a few ways vulnerable people live their lives differently than everyone else.
1. Vulnerable people try new experiences.
“Probably the most important characteristic [of vulnerable individuals] is openness to experiences in which outcomes cannot be known in advance,” Stolorow said.
This could be as small as trying a random art class or asking someone on a date to bigger life choices like moving to a new city where they don’t know a single soul. And it turns out they may be happier for it: Research shows experiences ― more than material possessions ― can boost a person’s sense of happiness.
2. They don’t avoid negative emotions.
It’s valid to have anxiety about the unknown or have a fear of rejection (who wouldn’t when you’re about to ask someone out or ask for a raise?). But instead of running from that, vulnerable people put themselves out there in spite of it.
“Courageously facing life’s challenges does not mean being fearless; it means bearing vulnerability rather than fleeing from it,” Stolorow said.
3. They accept that bad things happen in life.
This goes along with not running from their emotions. Vulnerable people acknowledge that life is full of ups and downs, and there’s nothing they can do to change that, Stolorow said.
“Because we are mortal beings, vulnerability to trauma is a necessary and universal feature of our human condition,” he explained. “Suffering, injury, illness, death, heartbreak, loss ― these are possibilities that define our existence and loom as constant threats.”
4. They value relationships that have more emotional intimacy.
As pointed out above, being vulnerable can improve a partnership. But those who are vulnerable also thrive in bonds where the other person shares those same values.
“[Vulnerable people] seek relationships with people who are capable of dwelling with one in such feelings, rather than requiring one to ‘suck it up and get over them,’” Stolorow said. “Vulnerability can be better tolerated when it is shared rather than suffered in solitude.”
5. Vulnerable people connect with strangers.
Open individuals have a way of putting themselves out there, Stolorow said. Even if it’s striking up a conversation with a stranger waiting in line for coffee.
Research suggests this might not be such a bad behavior. A 2012 study found that making smiling at strangers increases feelings of social connection (and thus, joy).
6. They make great leaders.
When you’re more open as a manager, you will ultimately create a better work environment, according to Emma Sepala, the science director at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research.
“Here’s what may happen if you embrace an authentic and vulnerable stance: Your staff will see you as a human being; they may feel closer to you; they may be prompted to share advice; and ― if you are attached to hierarchy ― you may find that your team begins to feel more horizontal,” she wrote in Harvard Business Review.
7. They’re kind to themselves.
In a 2010 TED Talk on vulnerability, researcher and speaker Brené Brown explained how being vulnerable also means accepting all of your emotions. That means not shaming yourself for the ugly ones. She said:
You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then, we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
The act of being vulnerable doesn’t just happen with other people ― it’s also internal.
8. They embrace their vulnerability.
Brown also touched on another crucial point in her TED Talk: Vulnerability is at the center of all progress. It is “the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love,” she explained.
In other words, embracing vulnerability is to experience all aspects of life. Even if it means doing so without certainty or guarantee that something is going to work out.
“To be human is to be excruciatingly vulnerable,” Stolorow said.