Can you think of a time when you needed to ask someone for help? What about a time when you were faced with admitting that you were afraid, or that you made a mistake? Can you remember the first time you wanted to tell someone that you loved them, or listened to someone say that they loved you? Can you remember the feeling you had in any of those moments? That is the feeling of vulnerability, and it can be pretty uncomfortable.
As uncomfortable as it may be, when Brené Brown, a researcher who studies courage, shame, vulnerability, and empathy talks about it, people pay attention. Her TED talk on the power of vulnerability has been viewed over 50 million times between the TED and YouTube websites and is one of the most watched TED talks in the world. She is the author of multiple New York Times Bestsellers, like Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Rising Strong, and her new Netflix special, Brené Brown: The Call to Courage , is well worth the watch. Infused with wisdom and humor, her audience is laughing and crying while Brené Brown makes the case that courage is vulnerability, and as hard as it may be, it behooves us to risk being vulnerable.
In this blog, I summarize some of the key take-aways from The Call to Courage, and end with a few thoughts on vulnerability and psychotherapy.
Vulnerability is the feeling we get when we feel uncertain, at risk, or emotionally exposed. Vulnerability is at the core of the feelings of shame, fear, grief, and scarcity. But it is also the birthplace of feelings of love, belonging, and joy, and it is critical to our work lives.
We are neurobiologically hardwired to connect with others. To experience love and intimacy is to be seen by others and to see them. Vulnerability is the path to being seen.
True belonging is being true to yourself, just as you are, and being who you are with others. That takes vulnerability.
It also takes vulnerability to feel joy, because it can often be difficult to let ourselves feel joy without being afraid to lose it. Gratitude helps with this.
We spend much of our lives at work, and vulnerability is critical to a healthy and productive work life. Vulnerability is the catalyst for empathy, trust, innovation, creativity, inclusivity/equity, hard conversations, feedback, problem-solving, and ethical decision making. There is no creativity without vulnerability. If you are not willing to fail, you cannot innovate. Hard conversations in a work culture that rewards only perfectionism and has zero tolerance for vulnerability will not be productive. Brave leaders are not silent around hard things. They are willing to say the things that are not being said.
The Myths of Vulnerability
- Vulnerability is weakness – Recall the definition of vulnerability: uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure. Courage always requires these three things. There is no courage without vulnerability.
- “I don’t do vulnerability” – Knowingly or unknowingly, you do it. It is part of being human. When you don’t acknowledge your vulnerability, you are taking your own pain and offloading it onto other people. Don’t cause pain to other people by not acknowledging your own.
- “I can go it alone” – We are neurobiologically hardwired for connection with other people. In the absence of connection, love, and belonging, there is always suffering. You can’t go it alone.
- You can engineer the uncertainty and discomfort out of vulnerability – without uncertainty and discomfort, it is no longer vulnerability.
- Trust comes before vulnerability – Vulnerability and trust is a slow stacking over time. Start with little things and build over time. You share yourself and your story with people who have earned the right to hear it.
- Vulnerability is disclosure – Vulnerability is not measured by the amount of disclosure. It is measured by the amount of courage to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome. Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability.
It is clear that to have the courage to be vulnerable is to do the hard and scary thing, to make the difficult choice of facing some of our deepest fears about ourselves and about others. For many of us, we barely know what would be the first step. For many people that step is therapy, because you can’t go it alone. I say frequently how courageous it is to come to therapy. By design, it is an experience that involves delving into the uncertainty and emotional exposure. What makes therapy special is that it is a relationship with a professional who understands the profound challenge of being vulnerable and who can help guide you through the depths of being seen and helping you see yourself with special attention to the pace of working with the discomfort involved. In therapy, you get to practice and experiment further with what it means to access your vulnerability and to answer the call to courage outside of the therapy room, developing a greater capacity for depth, range, and stability of interpersonal relationships so that you may experience more love, more belonging, and more joy in your life.