Every so often a word bubbles to the surface of our cultural consciousness and then it’s seemingly unavoidable. This year, in addition to the term “trauma,” it’s “vulnerability.” (Both are apt for a time of widespread social inequality, illness and unemployment.)
It’s been ten years since Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work, helped bring the word vulnerability into many mainstream conversations. She got there by studying shame. After looking at hundreds of interviews and focus groups, she came to the conclusion that those with a strong sense of belonging to a greater community (including friends and family) all had one thing in common: they made choices to be vulnerable. Examples included saying ‘I love you’ first, taking a risk, or investing in a relationship that may or may not work out.
“They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating” she during a 2010 TED Talk at the University of Houston, about individuals who experienced a strong sense of belonging. “They just talked about it being necessary.”
Dr. Brown went on to write a book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” in 2012, which ushered the term into popular culture. Her stated aim was to start a global conversation about vulnerability. “I’ve been very strategic and tenacious around this goal, I guess. It wasn’t accidental,” she said.
It continues to be true that when “we’re talking about vulnerability, we’re talking about shame,” Dr. Brown said. What has changed in the past decade is the way “we’re using the words.”
Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, a public academic, writer and lecturer, said that vulnerability in practice means allowing others to see what you are ashamed of — showing uncomfortable truths ranging from not being able to afford rent to simply feeling lost. In a culture that places an extremely high value on nearly unattainable perfection and likability, these revelations can be quite terrifying. But “it can benefit us greatly to let down walls that can often be exhausting to maintain,” Ms. Cargle said.
What does vulnerability mean?
To understand the dichotomy inherent in vulnerability, Natasha Labbé, the head of the classics department at the Germantown Friends school in Philadelphia, pointed to its Latin roots.
The noun vulnus means to wound — but in Virgil’s Aeneid, Ms. Labbé said, the word often has two meanings. When the word is applied to the tragic heroine Dido, for example, the implication is doubled: “One is that she is literally wounded because she was struck by Cupid’s arrow and the other is that falling in love with Aeneas is a wound,” Ms. Labbé said.
The Merriam-Webster definition of vulnerability, “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded,” tracks closely to the ancient dual one Ms. Labbé described. The racing heart or stomach drop that accompanies honest and unfiltered conversations is not something we typically want to lean into — it is like opening a wound. On the other hand, Dr. Brown said, that opening up can make way for courage, love, joy and creativity.
Dr. Jessica Clemons, a board-certified psychiatrist based in New York City, said: “When I’m using the word ‘vulnerable’ in a therapy session with a patient who has put a wall up in terms of connecting with others because of their experience in life, I’m asking them to allow themselves to be in a state of possibility.”
How does one be more vulnerable?
Right now, Ms. Cargle said that “sometimes the most vulnerable we can be is with ourselves.” For her that means writing in her journal, as well as slowing down to sit and process her own thoughts.
For Jordan Rice, the lead pastor of Renaissance Church in Harlem, that meant working with a therapeutic professional after his late wife, Danielle, was diagnosed with cardiac sarcoma. “Developing the tools to have open, honest, albeit difficult, conversation was extremely helpful,” he said.
Now he often weaves the topic of vulnerability it into his weekly Sunday sermons, including one that explored the essence of faith. “Vulnerability means intentionally putting yourself in a position that allows yourself to be hurt but for the purpose of gaining something better,” he said. That better thing is a sense of connectedness, both to oneself and others. “I can’t see any group of people thriving without vulnerability,” he said.
Dr. Clemons also believes therapy is a great, but that it is not the only way to work to trust another person by sharing emotional experiences in a safe environment. Setting goals, like running a marathon or hiking more, can also be a great way to exercise vulnerability. “I would encourage a person to test themselves physically, that can be a really great measure to make you see how powerful you are,” she said.
Dr. Brown and Dr. Clemons believe that often, vulnerability begins with becoming aware of how we may have behaved in hurtful or threatening situations, in understanding our own defenses. (Dr. Brown called this “learned patterns of self-protection or armor.”)
Those defenses come from a real place, and show that there is a risk in being vulnerable. But, Ms. Cargle said, even having one tough conversation or moment of honesty, “leaves ourselves open to more connection, more clarity, and more unexpected opportunity to experience life in freeing ways.”