We human beings are social creatures. For the most part, we like to spend time with people, and we want people we like to spend time with us. The problem is that we all get tied up trying to project a version of ourselves that we think people will find attractive.
We want to appear successful, interesting, in control, to be seen as winners. To keep up this image, we work hard to hide away the parts of ourselves we aren’t sure about or feel don’t work so well. The last thing we want to do is appear weak, or somehow insufficient. So, we go for projecting some kind of perfect version of ourselves that will ensure we are loved and wanted.
The truth is that it’s impossible to keep this act together. A moment inevitably comes, when something gets to us so strongly that we can’t pretend any longer. We appear as we actually are: flawed, brave, struggling, and absolutely human.
This is the moment when we can experience vulnerability as a superpower. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, not pretending, not hiding—we are simply present with whatever is going on inside us. Ironically, it is this very feeling of authenticity that draws people to us, not the brittle effort of perfectionism.
For many of us, our upbringing did not teach us to be vulnerable; we had to learn as we faced the challenges life put in our way.
I can remember my mother urging me to hide my feelings from other people, to never ever let them know when I was hurting or in pain. She warned me that if I did, then I would be seen as showing weakness, and then I would be fair game to be taken advantage of, and ultimately, made a fool of.
She was my mother, and she was trying to protect me by instilling in me values she herself had grown up with. It took me years—and sometimes I still fall back—to realise that the voice in my head, urging me not to make a fool of myself, to keep my distance, was my childhood internalisation of my mother’s fears.
The idea of finding strength in vulnerability was like a remote control on the edge of my consciousness.
Brené Brown is a leading researcher into shame and vulnerability. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
For shame to exist it needs secrecy, silence, and a sense of judgment. It’s very hard for us to speak out about the things we are ashamed of. So, when we make a mistake, it’s automatic to try to cover it up or blame someone else, rather than to admit that we got something wrong—because then we’d be showing that we are vulnerable.
I’ve had my own fair share of shame and vulnerability. There was a moment in my life when it became so clear that I couldn’t achieve what I’d longed for since childhood. Of course, there was tremendous grief to deal with, but what took me unawares was the intense feeling of shame.
Instead of dealing with my sorrow and being vulnerable, I felt inadequate and ashamed.
I remember feeling so ashamed. My feeling was that I was the lowest of the low, that nobody could be as pathetic as I was. Months later, a very different standpoint opened up for me.
We all have to face stuff that challenges and frightens us. No one is immune to suffering and pain. As human beings, we are all in the same boat, doing our best to navigate whatever life puts in our way.
Seeing other people as vulnerable helped me to accept my own vulnerability. Allowing myself to be vulnerable was a tremendous relief, the beginning of some kind of self-awareness.
Observing all these people facing their fears and anxieties with patience and quiet dignity brought home to me the fact that it’s when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable that we can find our deepest courage and strength.
It is important to note that vulnerability is part of the human condition.