A friend and I had a fascinating conversation once about the difference between vulnerability and openness. The concept came up again this week as someone asked me how I deal with being so honest on this blog, online. Today I want to share some of my thoughts on vulnerability that came out of those conversations.

I really value emotional vulnerability in relationships, when it is appropriate. I feel strongly that it is not always appropriate, and when someone is vulnerable in what feels to-me like an inappropriate context or with an inappropriate person, it definitely pushes my buttons. Nonetheless I value it highly. It draws me into connection. I find it incredibly attractive.

But what actually is it?

The amazing Brené Brown, vulnerability researcher, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure,” or more simply, having the courage to be seen, to love and engage with our whole hearts, even though they are no guarantees (Brown, 2013). I would describe it as taking risks for the hope of connection – lowering one’s guards, defences and self-sufficiency and embracing the possibility of pain for the gain of potential connection. It is being open with someone in such a way that it matters how they respond, and knowing, therefore, that if they reject you it’s going to hurt. It’s allowing your need to show. Vulnerability is an act of trust.

Openness and honesty are definitely different to me. Being open doesn’t necessarily have the same element of risk or exposure that vulnerability does. It doesn’t imply that the other person’s response matters. You can be open and honest with someone but not care at all what they think of what you’re saying. Openness doesn’t prioritise connection, because it is one-sided. You may be honest with someone because you think they need or deserve to know the information, or because you don’t really care if they know it, but I think to really be vulnerable you have to let that person in on the fragility of your experience.

Someone can tell you something using the exact same words with or without vulnerability. Think of someone telling you “I didn’t get the job,” flippantly, casually, or someone telling you “I didn’t get the job” as they look into your eyes, allowing how they feel about it to show on their face. Think of someone telling their boss “I’m pregnant,” – short and brief and to the point – and think of the fact that the same words were used to tell their partner, “I’m pregnant!” with all the overwhelming emotion that comes with that. If I were to ask a friend how things are going in his marriage and he responded “marriage is hard” with a wry smile, I would recognise that he was being honest and open but putting up a boundary about how much I get to have a say or be involved in that experience. I might ask “do you want to talk about it?” but I wouldn’t push it. If he responded with “our marriage is hard” with a straight face, looking straight at me, I would know he was being vulnerable and that my next move mattered.

Openness does not run the same risks of emotional exposure that vulnerability does. The distinction is important to me because it means that I can be open and honest with people even when it’s not appropriate to be vulnerable with them. I can manage my emotional exposure and my “information exposure” on slightly different scales. To me, openness and honesty are to do with truth, and vulnerability is to do with fragility. You can have either without the other. I can tell you something true and not show you my fragility, and I can show you my fragility without telling you the true thing as well (e.g. “I’m really struggling at the moment, but I’m not ready to talk about it…”). And I can also, of course, do both.

There are different kinds of vulnerability. There is the vulnerability of simply telling someone something true when there is a risk that they won’t understand, might judge or might reject you. There is the vulnerability of walking through a risk without numbing yourself. There is the vulnerability of showing another person how much they mean to you (and being the first one to do so). There is the vulnerability of allowing others to speak into your life. A classic example of someone who is open but not vulnerable is someone who will tell you all about her struggles, weaknesses and issues, but who will not allow anyone to talk to her about her struggles, weaknesses and issues. She controls the sharing, so there is openness but not vulnerability – there is very little risk, because there is very little involvement from anyone else.

There is the vulnerability of showing what is going on inside. There is the vulnerability of engaging, fully engaging (it’s so much easier to be cynical, marginal, critical). There is the vulnerability of letting people see the ‘incompetent’ parts of your life, of living them out visibly. There is the vulnerability of putting something into the world and allowing it to be misunderstood. There is the vulnerability of turning up, showing up, trying, and knowing you could fail. There is the vulnerability of presence, of working something out, or being un-worked-out, of resolving something, or being unresolved, of walking through pain or fear or shame, in someone else’s presence, inviting someone to be in it with you.

Mostly, vulnerability is for relationships of trust. That is perhaps why it matters so much, because it is an expression of trust and an invitation into involvement. Sometimes, though, it is not an invitation to relationship, but a tool for building something together. For example, in therapy, vulnerability can be a tool for building healing together. In a workshop, vulnerability can be a tool for building safety and reciprocity, from which you can explore something new together. In public speaking, vulnerability can be a tool for touching people’s lives, and showing them that they’re not alone. In writing, and I hope on this blog, vulnerability can be a tool for touching each other’s lives with what we’ve learned and are learning on our journeys. In these more public and less relational settings, there are tighter boundaries around the emotional exposure, and there are close relationships behind the scene that protect the person making themselves vulnerable from the risks inherent in doing so. There is exposure involved, and there is risk, but there are boundaries too.

Vulnerability is incredibly attractive – magnetic, even. Brené Brown started studying it because she discovered that it is powerful. She was fascinated by what she calls “whole-hearted” people, people who believe they are worthy of love and connection and therefore have love and connection. She discovered that the difference between those people and the people who were kept out of connection by fear was the courage to fully embrace vulnerability. As she says in her wonderful TED talk (Brown, 2010), “They believed that what made them vulnerable, made them beautiful.”

* Brown, B. 2013. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. London: Penguin.

* Brown, B. 2010. TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability.” Available at https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en Accessed 12th May 2015.

Picture by Pixabay user Ben Kerckx