Once a little-known concept, vulnerability is, today, becoming a part of everyday conversation. Professor and author, Brene Brown, defines it as risking emotional exposure without knowing the outcome. In a patriarchal culture that advocates ‘silent strength’, learning to be vulnerable can help us lead braver, truer and more creative lives. However, it is also true that concepts like vulnerability are intangible. So, at times, what looks like vulnerability – in ourselves or in others - can be something else.
Recently, a relative told me her boyfriend had started to uncharacteristically text her every morning. “I miss you,” he’d say. “Life without you is one big blackhole.” He had always been emotionally impenetrable. So she found these admissions thrilling. Later she saw it more clearly. She had changed jobs and gotten busier. Her social circle had expanded. Threatened by her new independence, her boyfriend was using emotions strategically (and maybe unconsciously, in his defence) to bind her closer to him. “It looked like vulnerability,” she said. “But when I asked for time to sort out my new busy life, he would get angry and say I wasn’t responding well to his ‘vulnerability’. I was confused. For a while I thought I was the problem.”
Let’s go back to Brown’s definition. Vulnerability is risking emotional exposure when you do not know the outcome. So, logically, offering emotional exposure with an outcome in mind isn’t vulnerability. It can be manipulation. Or selfishness. Or self-pity. Subsets of neediness. But this is only human. We all act this way. The problem is when we convince ourselves that by doing so, we are bravely risking emotional exposure. We're not. We're only bludgeoning someone with our insecurities in the hope of gaining control, or sympathy, or an ego boost. That's not a risk. And it's not vulnerability. We owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to be aware and learn how to be vulnerable. Not knowing how to be vulnerable injures the person we are being vulnerable with.
So, how do we go about it? There are a lot of useful resources on the net to help us. But, for starters, we can make a conscious choice to share emotions with no agenda. This is tough because we have a picture in our minds of how people ought to be, and what we ought to be getting from them. That picture is the enemy of vulnerability. Let's try and take down the picture from the drawing-room of our mind. Then we may experience vulnerability’s secret gifts: discovery of self and other, true connection, never-before psychological freedom, synergy between what we feel and what we want, and self-love.