The word “vulnerable” is often used synonymously with “weakness.” This definition might be right for engineering, but it’s not accurate when it comes to emotional vulnerability. A much better synonym for “vulnerability” is “courage.”

Emotional vulnerability can be defined as having the courage to take emotional risks, even when we don’t know the outcome. It means showing up as our authentic selves and speaking our truth with no guarantee that we’ll be accepted.

For many of us, this uncertainty invokes our deep-rooted fear of rejection. Humans are wired with a need for belonging, and avoiding rejection is a powerful motivator. As a result, we often try to fit in or hide our true feelings rather than risk not being accepted.

In the end, being emotionally vulnerable is not just helpful. It’s necessary to live a happy, fulfilled life.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE VULNERABLE

Vulnerable definition: to choose to be authentic and show our true selves, despite facing fear and uncertainty that what we say, do, or feel will be rejected.

As a teacher, I continuously observe my teenage students trying to navigate the confusing high school world. Not only are they discovering themselves, but they’re also learning what their peers will accept.

This process (amplified by hormones) encompasses every decision they make: what they wear, who they hang out with, how they talk. There are a lot of emotions, but fear is perhaps the most pervasive one. Every time they approach a choice, questions race through their minds. Is this who I want to be? Will I be accepted for it? What happens if people don’t like me?

Most of us survived (and perhaps crushed) this high school experience. That being said, these fear-motivated questions didn’t go away; they merely transformed. The decisions we make to be our true selves have evolved past wardrobes to things like values and relationships. Our life is no longer defined by how we behave in the cafeteria, but how we act and treat each other in our daily lives.

Being vulnerable means choosing to be true to yourself for small-scale acts, such as daily interactions, and large-scale acts, such as life choices.

THE SEARCH FOR OUR TRUE SELVES IS VULNERABLE

All of us, always, are searching for the self-awareness to discover our true selves. In part, this is because it’s terribly difficult to be self-aware (and there are a lot of things working against us).

Being emotionally vulnerable means that you are willing to engage in this self-discovery pursuit. It means asking yourself the hard questions and learning to accept the answers, even if they don’t align with what society says.

And then, after you begin to discover who it is you want to be? You’re willing to live it, every day, in the choices and actions you take – even if you’re afraid to.

WHY WE SHY AWAY FROM VULNERABILITY

If being self-aware and living your authentic self sounds great so far… that’s because it is. But there’s a big gap between what sounds good and what we actually do (I’m talking about Grand Canyon-size gap). This discrepancy is not always our fault, either. It’s really hard to be vulnerable.

We’re working with some outdated technology in today’s modern world (and I’m not referring to your iPhone 7). Our brains are still functioning based on evolutionary DNA. The most fundamental parts of our brain are driven by two things: our emotions and our survival instincts. Unfortunately, both have a tendency to make us shy away from being emotionally vulnerable.

Our fear of not belonging often convinces us to hide our true selves, because we’re terrified of rejection. We’re social creatures, and at one point, our survival depended on belonging in social groups. While our daily decisions aren’t life-or-death, our bodies sometimes think that they are.

If you’ve ever felt your heart start racing or your armpits start sweating, you’ve experienced how your body reacts to this fear. You also might have experienced a wave of emotional backlash after being vulnerable. (Also known as a vulnerability hangover.

THE ROLE OF SHAME AND ANXIETY

Shame plays a significant role in what it means to be vulnerable, as well. When we are rejected, we feel a deep sense of shame. This can be amplified by low self-confidence, lack of social support, or previous traumas. Shame is rooted in an underlying belief that we are not worthy.

Shame often results in anxiety, which also holds us back from being vulnerable. Those same questions from my high school example race through our minds (and, as we get older, often evolve to more complex scenarios… how fun!). In our imagination, we don’t want to risk realizing that we’re not worthy.

Unfortunately, we fail to recognize the most crucial element in our subconscious avoidance of fear and shame. Worthiness is inherent, and vulnerability lets us feel it. Vulnerability is actually really attractive in our relationships.

PUT VULNERABILITy INTO PRACTICE

It’s not easy to be emotionally vulnerable. So why do it?

Living what it means to be vulnerable is not optional for a meaningful life; it’s necessary. If we want to have healthy relationships, find self-acceptance, and achieve happiness, we must be willing to be vulnerable in our daily lives.

The first step in presenting your authentic self entails discovering who you are. About 90% of us think we’re self-aware, but less than 10% of us are. What’s more, self-discovery is a never-ending process. That’s why you have to take the time to discover yourself and what’s important to you in your life.

Choosing to be vulnerable is a daily practice
What it means to be vulnerable is not a one-time act, nor is it made up of grandiose gestures. Choosing to live a vulnerable life is a daily practice made up of tiny actions

Emotional vulnerability looks different for everyone. What feels vulnerable for you might not be vulnerable for me, and vice versa. Sometimes we might get burned. Other times, we might fall prey to a cutting vulnerability hangover.

But, over time, it’ll become easier to be emotionally vulnerable. The more we practice it, the more we’ll be able to do it again and again. (We’ll also experience the benefits more and more.)

Eventually, we’ll not only be learning about what it means to be vulnerable – we’ll be living it.

To read this full article, including 6 definitions of vulnerability, check out my blog post: What It Means To Be Vulnerable or read Examples of Vulnerability

Author's Bio: 

Kara McDuffee is the creator of MyQuestionLife.com, a blog that gives you the questions you need to live a more self-aware and vulnerable life. She uses her background in teaching to reach her readers in a relatable, understandable way. Check out her blog to start your own self-discovery journey and find your purpose.

Her blog: My Question Life
Her guide for self-discovery: Discover Yourself: How to Be More Vulnerable, Own Your Story, and Find Belonging