I grew up in a culture where opening up emotionally, or being vulnerable, was seen as weakness. It was for the gullible and naive - not the courageous.
Men were discouraged from ever showing sadness or fear. If they did, they were called names and made fun of for being “weak.” The only “negative” emotion that was socially acceptable to show was anger. If the men dared to show any sign of emotional vulnerability, their masculinity (a core identity for many) was instantly placed under public scrutiny.
Likewise, women were labeled as “overly emotional” if they cried in public. Women who were emotionally “stable” were the ones that cried in private and didn’t “make a fuss.” Another way of putting this is that they silenced their hearts and didn’t let others know how they really felt.
Many parents discouraged their children from crying in public to avoid embarrassment around onlookers. Parents cared more about the opinions of other adults than attuning, or being considerate, of the emotional needs of their children. Often children were punished for showing sadness, fear, or anger in any setting. If not explicitly punished, they were told to go to their room to calm down. This was usually so their parents wouldn’t need to “put up with” their moods. As a result, many children were discouraged from opening up to not only their parents, but also internalized that they couldn’t open up to others outside the family. They were told indirectly that others couldn’t handle their emotions and it was foolish to open up to others and expect otherwise.
The lie that vulnerability is weakness is something that vulnerability and shame research, Brene Brown, has talked extensively about. She states: “Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness.”
As human beings, we are emotional in nature. We have a wide array of feelings. We typically try to avoid feeling the painful emotions of fear, anger, sadness, powerlessness, or embarrassment. Most of us would prefer to never feel those feelings and to keep them tucked away in the corners of our minds. However, neuroscience has shown us that we can’t prevent ourselves from feeling some feelings and not affect our bodies in a negative way.
Sometimes we want to avoid expressing not only our painful and conflicting emotions, but also the positive ones as well. To show any kind of emotion to those around us can be risky. If we genuinely show others we are hopeful for something, our hopes could be disappointed when things fall through. To tell someone you love them could either end up in them saying they feel the same way, or they could reject you. So the expression of positive feelings can sometimes come with an underlying tone of fear that the negative ones will follow.
To attempt to shut down or suppress our feelings (whether positive or negative), is to attempt to shut down parts of ourselves and hide our true selves from others. We may attempt to handle our emotions on our own and it might seem to work for a while. It isn’t a long-term solution to our healing, though. By keeping our emotions to ourselves, we prevent ourselves from experiencing healing in community and feeling like others truly see us for who we are.
Brown states: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” When we allow ourselves to have the courage to be vulnerable and open up to those around us, we open ourselves up to risk. We also open ourselves up to the possibility of true belonging and acceptance.
Being vulnerable with others can be scary, especially if we’ve been burned in the past. However, it’s only through taking small emotional risks with safe people that we can heal those past wounds. Counseling can be one of those places where you can take the risk of being vulnerable about where you have been and where you are hoping to go. It’s through taking the risk and developing stamina for risking in your other relationships (as well as support) that you will be able to feel more connected to those around you.
Vulnerability is not for the gullible or naive. It’s for the brave of heart and those that dare to take ownership of their own healing.
Brown, B. (2013). DARING GREATLY: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. London, England: Portfolio Penguin.
Danielle Nelson | MA, LLPC