The phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” from Kelly Clarkson’s version of the song Stronger has been running through my mind the last few days. I think it apropos when the subject of vulnerability has also been on my mind as of late.

Stronger through vulnerability

If you asked any group of people what their definition of vulnerable means, chances are they’d describe it as some form of weakness. At one time perhaps, it may have been perceived as something that could simply be avoided by staying out of harm’s way, however, in recent years the focus has been on emotional vulnerability. Either way, it is seen as being weak.

Vulnerability can be crippling when it results in shame. If we always think we’re not good enough or, as in my case, some intangible thing that was wrong with me that made me not belong anywhere, we will always feel the need to conform to what we think other people want us to be. I liken it to always having to hold your breath, lest the wrong words come out and we feel disapproval. What joy when finally able to exhale!

To be vulnerable is to risk rejection. In my case, I became physically strong believing this would segue into becoming mentally strong as well. I’ve had enough rejections – why would I (or anyone) want more? I would be tough. I was convinced that was the route to success.

This turned out to not be the case. Two things sprung up that contradicted what I – and many others – believed. Firstly, to avoid rejection and thus, appear weak, I was going to have to avoid relationships. That didn’t mean I could not be with anyone – it just meant I couldn’t throw myself wholeheartedly into a relationship. That doesn’t sound like the recipe for anything lasting, does it? Close relationships allow us to be authentic – we want to be accepted with all foibles.

Secondly, I had to be careful what I said lest I express an opinion that was not in agreement with those with whom I was speaking. But I’m supposed to be tough; doesn’t that mean I should be able to speak up when I feel the need? But what if people reject me? They might bully me!

I could not continue this masquerade. I wanted to simply be me, but I was too insecure to take the risk. It didn’t make sense to me that I had to be someone I’m not in order to not be seen as vulnerable. I was rejecting myself in order to avoid rejection. Slowly, I began to unpeel the layers I was hiding behind. It probably helped that I was also recovering from surgery that required me to depend on someone’s help to get around. And, yes, as I allowed my authentic self to blossom, some people looked askance, but more people let me know how much they enjoyed my company – once I didn’t worry so much about fitting in I could be really funny. I discovered that’s who I am.

Over the past year, I’ve begun to explore vulnerability and have come to the conclusion that vulnerability is not a weakness, but, rather, a strength! I read Dr. Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly (Dr. Brown is the foremost researcher in the field of vulnerability) and understood that I was on the right track. The most basic human need is to connect with others, and we’re denying ourselves that joy so that we don’t appear vulnerable. We are afraid to be authentic – to express ourselves and just be. Is it no wonder that so many people appear to be walking around angry and resentful?

As a life coach, I enable my clients to see that being vulnerable is human. After all, do we not take risks nearly every day? Entering into a new venture, trying a new activity, traveling to a new destination – there is no guarantee we will achieve the desired outcome. We admire the person who takes risks; we call them leaders. And when someone who appears to have everything fails at something – is it possible that that satisfaction we feel that makes us feel guilty is not because we’re happy to see them fall? Could it be that we feel this way because we know these people are human beings just like us?

As I’ve already alluded to, I did not understand the true value in allowing oneself to let their vulnerability show. I believed that anything I undertook must be done well, if not perfectly, the first time; if not, others would see my imperfections (horrors!) and know I was someone unworthy of their friendship or company. Ten fingers are not enough to count the number of activities I missed out on because of that fear.For instance, I went boating one day some years ago with a friend and several acquaintances – they had such fun water skiing, and although I wanted to try it, I nonchalantly said “no thanks, I didn’t really feel like it.” What if they discovered I didn’t know how to water ski?!! – what would that say about me? I’ve never had the opportunity since, and I wonder if I ever will.

As I was writing this, something came to mind. It may be I’ve heard or read this somewhere previously. We’ll find ourselves willing to connect more freely if we allow vulnerability into our lives. We no longer have to play at being cool! We no longer have to say “oh, it doesn’t matter, I didn’t really expect to get that job” or “if he or she doesn’t like me, that’s okay”. We can express our disappointment because we really did want something that we didn’t get. We can be powerful in our vulnerability.

~ Coach Jen Mason