By Adam J. Pearson
Vulnerability–the feeling of risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure–is not weakness. It’s a source of inner power and a source of vitality. When we feel vulnerable, we feel alive.
The connection between vulnerability and the feeling of aliveness is natural since, as shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown points out in her fantastic book Daring Greatly, life itself is vulnerable and all of our emotions are born out of a space of vulnerability.
This idea might sound surprising. We usually recognize the ‘unpleasant’ feelings that come out of vulnerability, like shame, fear, worry, and loneliness. However, we don’t often see that vulnerability is also the core of our deepest moments of joy, creativity, and excitement. When we are feeling great joy, for example, there is often a nagging sense that something could go wrong and the joy could vanish; we may even try to “brace ourselves” for this future vanishing and end up missing out on the full richness of our joy as a result. Bracing ourselves in the midst of joy is really just a way of trying to shut out vulnerability in order to try to protect ourselves from pain or disappointment. The ironic truth is that this attempt to protect ourselves actually hurts us; the only way to feel the deepest form of joy is to dive into its vulnerability.
When I think about all of the moments that we feel most alive–when we do something risky like parachuting out of an airplane, when we fall in love, when we feel uncertain and worried about how we will survive, when we lose someone we love, when we feel our happiest and most fulfilled–I can’t help but notice that we are vulnerable in all of these situations. We are in a state of risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. Our whole nervous system is in a state of intense activity and even if we are afraid, we still feel intensely, deeply, and robustly alive.
Vulnerability is the core of the feeling of aliveness. It is the core of all of our feelings. If we numb our vulnerable feelings, we numb all of our feelings for this very reason. To repress and numb our vulnerability out of a desire to escape shame, fear, and anxiety actually ends up shutting us off from the feelings we yearn for the most like love, joy, creativity, and genuine belonging.
If we want to get the most out of life and feel on the deepest possible level, we need to embrace our vulnerability with bravery rather than try to run away from it. We need to be all in, fully present, fully grounded in the truth of what we’re experiencing. To be all in can hurt, but it can also help us to unlock a level of fulfillment that we never thought possible while living in a state of numbness. The more we are willing to be present in our vulnerability, the more vibrantly alive we tend to feel.
Vulnerability is certainly the core of all love. The vulnerability of love is clearest in cases of sacrificial love where a hero gives up their life out of love for someone else. However, all forms of love place us in a vulnerable position.
Parents feel the vulnerability of love when they look at their children and wonder if something bad will happen to them and when they see just how vulnerable their children really are.
People feel vulnerable in romantic love when they realize that their beloved could leave, betray them, or pass away.
Whenever we love something impermanent, we feel vulnerable. And because all things are impermanent, all love makes us feel vulnerable. However, the vulnerability of love is not something we can avoid because it’s a feature of the terrain of love itself; to love is to be vulnerable. The vulnerability of love is something we need to accept and even embrace.
Love is strong and flows like a river, but it’s also fragile like a flower. And as in the case of a flower, this fact only adds to its beauty.
This article is part of a series on shame, vulnerability, and resilience.
For a discussion of why seeking approval fails to silence the voice of shame, see “Silencing the Praise: Why Seeking Approval Fails to Fill Our Inner Void.”
For a detailed and practical explanation of shame-resilience, see “Finding the Calm Within the Storm: Shame Resilience in Practice.”
For tips for discovering and questioning the assumptions that lie at the heart of shame, see “The Heart of the Void: Finding the Assumptions at the Core of Shame.”
For another author’s take on extreme people-pleasing and its effects, see “From Parent-Pleasing to People Pleasing.”
For a short discussion of vulnerability in romantic relationships, see “Love Fueled by Resilience: Reflections on Powerful Relationships.”
For a guide to liberating yourself through the transformative power of forgiveness, see “Forgive and Be Free: The Liberating Power of Forgiveness.”