Vulnerability has been a buzz word ever since researcher Brene Brown’s TED talk went viral in 2011. According to Brown, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is the key to authentic connection and living fully. This can go undisputed.
But if saying yes to vulnerability is the key to a more meaningful, fulfilling, and connected life, why is it so difficult? Why do so many of us still struggle with anxiety, depression, feelings of despair, and struggle?
Because to the survival system of our bodies, vulnerability feels like a life-or-death matter.
We are born into vulnerability. At birth, human infants are more helpless than any other babies in the animal kingdom. In other words, human infants are completely vulnerable. This, combined with the fact that about 70% of our brains are undeveloped at birth, means we begin learning to respond to the world around us from the earliest moments of our lives. This is called experience dependent learning.
More often than not, it’s during a moment of vulnerability that we develop and make adjustments to our view of ourselves and the world. Vulnerability is the moment we spill the milk and our parent expresses anger. It’s the moment we laugh in class and are scolded for being a disruption. It’s the moment we are teased by the cool kids at the middle school lunch table. These are the moments our brains mark the experience in our memory and make adjustments to ensure these social rejections are mitigated in the future.
In its most extreme manifestation, vulnerability is the moment we are abused, betrayed, overpowered, or traumatized by another human being—and for the human brain, this vulnerable moment becomes forever associated with fear, helplessness, or terror.
Regardless of how “safe” we are in our current adult lives, our body remembers those moments in which we were hurt; and it reminds us of that experience by replicating the feelings of fear, powerlessness, and helplessness in our body in the current moment.
However, as Brene Brown so eloquently states, vulnerability is the place of innovation, creativity and change. So, how do we shift our perspective on vulnerability from feeling fear to seeing opportunity?
The answer is awareness.
When we are aware that our body is responding to vulnerability by activating its survival system (fear), we can become curious. When we use tools such as deep breathing to make some space, notice the uncomfortable feelings of fear, and become curious about what we is happening in our body, we can regain the courage to feel. When we regain the courage to feel, we can take the risk to remain vulnerable and re-learn what vulnerability means, now that we are adults and in charge of our lives.
We can continue experience dependent learning throughout our lives. It doesn’t only happen in childhood.
Each time we take a risk to be vulnerable, our brain literally begins to change (neuroplasticity) as it has a new experience to latch onto. And over time, as we continue to take risks, we diminish our resistance to feeling vulnerable.
With time, we can even embrace our vulnerability, encourage others to do the same, and live more authentic, connected, joyful lives.