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The Power of Vulnerability

The power of vulnerability

Author: Michael Hofmann, Grad. Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy


When we hear the word vulnerability we immediately tend to associate weakness, lack of confidence, low self-esteem and reduced assertiveness with it. All those terms indicate a rather negative perception of vulnerability and create a fear in us that others might take advantage when we are “suffering” from vulnerability.

From a very young age we were taught skills of how to disguise or fight our vulnerability. Signs of weakness and anxiety weren’t acceptable, especially not for boys and young men. They were taught how to be strong, capable and brave. But also girls and young women often had to learn early how to play certain roles in the family and society which left not much room for vulnerability.

Showing vulnerability is also often referred to as letting “the guard” down. But what do we mean by that? When we expose our vulnerability we allow somebody to see us fully. Not only our strength and capability but also our anxiety, our weak spots, our hurt and other “imperfections” will be perceived by another human being. From my experience as working as a therapist and from my own personal experience I know that this can be a truly terrifying thought. Loosening our protective layer which we had tightly wrapped around us for a substantial amount of time in our lives can be a huge challenge.

But why is it so difficult to let “the guard” down? Well, first of all, it is really important to understand that vulnerability is normal and an essential part of being human. Feelings of anxiety, hurt and weakness are experienced by absolutely everybody, no matter how strong and confident somebody might appear from the outside. And this is where the difficulties begin: We often tend to compare our inner vulnerability with what we perceive form others or respectively with what others want us to see. Most of us have felt at least at some stage in their lives that others are coping better with life or seem to be stronger and braver than we are. But is this true? Do we really know what is going on inside the persons we are comparing ourselves to?

Our tendency to compare our “inside” with the “outside” of others is one of the most significant reasons why it can be so difficult for us to show our vulnerability. This vicious comparison can also trigger feelings of inadequacy which can be a breeding ground for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Also the fear of being taken advantage of and getting hurt is often at the core from what stops us letting “the guard” down.

So what is the pay off? What can we really gain from being fully seen by someone?

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and expressing our vulnerability helps to maintain and improve our mental health and can help us to feel better about ourselves. It also plays a substantial part within the recovery process of mental health issues such as depression. It also improves our relationships with others and supports living a more fulfilling life.

Do these statements sound strange to you? Do they even contradict your perception of vulnerability? I would like to invite you to park your opinion about vulnerability for a moment and reflect on the text below with an open mind and heart:

I am sure you have heard about the expression that someone has “bottled up” a lot. By this expression we commonly understand that this person has lot of sorrows, issues etc. and keeps these to him/herself.  Most of us are aware that “bottling up” is rarely helpful and can even worsen the situation. We often wish that this person would talk to someone because we feel that this process would help the person to deal with the issues.

This process describes exactly expressing vulnerability. It requires that the person shares so called weaknesses, flaws and feelings such as grief, hurt, fear, guilt, shame etc. with another human being. Opening up “the bottle” or letting “the guard” down is often the first and most important step to recovery from mental health problems. But this step is probably the most difficult one because of the reasons I mentioned earlier. When we look at expressing vulnerability from a therapeutic perspective we realise that the expression provides relieve to the person in distress. It is like as if we slowly open the cap of the bottle to release whatever is inside the bottle. The pressure will literally be taken off almost immediately and the person will feel a huge sense of relieve. I made this observation numerous times in my work as a therapist.

But we don’t have to struggle with mental health issues to benefit from being vulnerable and expressing it. Another big area where we can gain from it is our close and romantic relationships. Imagine for a moment how you might be perceived by your partner or somebody else who is close to you if you were showing them only our strong and capable side. Surely this person might we feel safe and supported by you but does this person really know you? Would this person be able to connect with you in a deep and meaningful way if he/she only knows one side of you? I like to compare this scenario with a huge rock which represents strength and steadiness. But this rock is very clean and even and it has nothing to hold on to. However, if this rock had gaps and holds, which represent vulnerability, we could hold on to those and connect. We would be perceived more fully and we wouldn’t need to invest our energy in disguising our vulnerability anymore which often has a very liberating effect.

Being vulnerable and expressing it shows courage and strength and not weakness. It sometimes also means taking a risk but it can be very rewarding.  However we do need to be careful to whom we express our vulnerability to and a certain level of trust in the other person is crucial. Doing it step by step and observing the changes in the relationship is often a sensible approach. If we feel that our sorrows and issues are too much to bear for the people around us we can also start the process by talking to a qualified counsellor or therapist.

By Michael Hoffmann