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The Heart of Vulnerability

What do you think of when you hear the word vulnerability? In my younger years, I thought of it as weakness; and definitely something I should try hard to avoid. These days I am much more inclined to see my natural human vulnerability as a beautiful aspect of who I am, and my ability to embrace it as a great strength. 

The Collins English Dictionary defines vulnerability as: “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or hurt”

It’s not surprising, given this definition, that I didn’t want to be vulnerable. Why would I want let myself get wounded and hurt? But this definition says nothing of the value in embracing our human vulnerability, or the consequences of denying it.

It is a natural part of the human condition to be vulnerable. Our physical bodies are vulnerable; it is a normal part of life to become sick and injured, and of course the inevitability of death is the ultimate vulnerability. And human beings are emotional beings, some emotions feel good to us and others are painful, so we are naturally vulnerable to emotional pain.

We can reduce our physical vulnerability by making healthy choices – eating well, keeping fit, staying out of harm’s way – by avoiding things that are not good for our body. So the idea of doing whatever we can to avoid our emotional vulnerability might at first glance seem to have a sound logic to it. But in my experience (along with many others – see research on vulnerability by Brené Brown,) it just does not work.  

My strategy for avoiding my own vulnerability was to deny the parts of me that felt it. When I looked in the mirror, I was willing to see the confident, happy parts of myself, but much less willing to acknowledge and accept the parts that felt scared and not good/beautiful/loveable/whatever enough. I saw those parts as flaws and weaknesses in an otherwise mostly acceptable me. So I reinforced myself with affirmations of how good and beautiful I was (and felt) and showed the world my confidence, cleverness and carefreeness – which were real parts of me, but not the whole picture. I was very good at hiding my vulnerability, even from myself, so those parts were rarely met; they did not receive love and connection. The longer I lived like this, the more lonely and distant from myself I became. I was loved by those around me, but the love couldn’t sink in deeply enough to reach the parts that I had left out in the cold – because I considered them not even worthy of existing. It was only when I reached a point of hopelessness and exhaustion from trying to hold together this edited version of myself that I finally broke open. I admitted to myself, and supportive others around me, that there were parts of me that felt deeply insecure and scared, and that I was trying hard to be liked and loved by everyone, just to feel OK – and it wasn’t working.

At first this was terrifying. I dropped the masks of confidence that I had long hidden behind, and let my friends see me. I faced them eye-to-eye, without the strategies that I believed kept me “safe” from being rejected. I allowed myself to feel my fear. I was terrified, but I also felt love pouring into the parts of me I had disconnected from in my attempt to be “perfect”. Rather than finding myself rejected by others, many people expressed their appreciation of being able to see, and love, more of me. I began to realize that these parts of me are loveable, so I was free to just be myself, as I am. And it was OK to feel not good enough, it didn’t mean it was true. I no longer felt such a strong need to “protect” myself by denying how I sometimes felt. I even began to feel more of my beauty as I let more of my whole self be felt and seen. Embracing my vulnerability was, and will always be, the only way I could experience true, deep, loving connection with myself and others. For me, this is what is at the heart of vulnerability.

There is vulnerability in writing this, and letting it be seen. But my courage and passion to be fully who I am and allow myself to be seen is far more powerful than the fear that wants me to hide. Today, at least.

Nicola Williams