How to Find Strength in Vulnerability

In a world that craves honesty, we need to understand and embrace our faults.

One wouldn’t exactly condemn our age for being shy about confession. A casual scroll through Facebook or Instagram offers a thousand updates and declarations. Every post appears like a response, an answer to a question that hasn’t quite been asked. We’re more accustomed to (as well as capable of) sharing details of our lives than ever before, and this has changed the very way we communicate with each other.

Some have chided this age of oversharing as solipsistic and inelegant. Others argue we have taken the richness out of intimate, personal relationships. Oversharing is, of course, a word that carries its own condemnation. It already implies that too much has been shared, that proper social boundaries have been breached. And no one wants to be considered self-obsessed or clumsy, to stick out as some kind of talkative narcissist.

Yet what is considered oversharing to one person can be interesting, illuminating, and comforting to another. Anyone can take those previously “embarrassing” tastes, tendencies, and peculiarities and own them, amplify them, and display them for a gracious and appreciative audience. It’s an exercise of self-confidence—and today, we celebrate “weirdness” more than ever. It’s a significant cultural shift that’s even changing the way we do commerce. Seth Godin, marketing expert and writer of We Are All Weird: The Rise of Tribes and the End of Normal, has been saying this for years. Mass marketing is over. The days of coerced blandness are finished. People want connection and passion and authenticity, and you can’t get these things without embracing the weird and the vulnerable.

What’s the difference between those skeptical of oversharing and those who embrace and express their individuality? A taste for honesty and vulnerability.

Harvard Business School conducted a study about this very phenomenon. Called What Hiding Reveals, researchers wanted to discover if honesty, even if unflattering, was preferable to saying nothing at all. The study asked a group of participants to choose a possible mate based on questionnaires they filled out. Questions included: “Have you stolen something worth more than $100?” and “Have you ever neglected to tell a partner about an STD you are currently suffering from?” The test was multiple choice, featuring possible answers such as never, once, frequently, and choose not to answer. Most participants, the study uncovered, preferred responders, even if their response was unflattering, to those who refused to answer at all.

We’re All Strange Here

It’s not hard to understand why people keep their peculiarities to themselves. Vulnerability kind of sucks. First of all, bringing attention to your distinctions can look bad. Or weak. All of our accumulated oddities, weaknesses, sins, regrets, misdeeds, failures, even traumas, make us vulnerable. And if that’s the case, who wants to dredge that stuff up? Why give a judgmental world any more information to use against you? People are dicks to vulnerable people. Strangers will become your haters, and they will sling aspersions at you. Even worse, your friends and lovers may ridicule you. These things might happen, yes. But blowback is to vulnerability what failure is to trying. It’s going to happen, but that doesn’t begin to mount a case against putting in the effort.

There’s simply too much to be gained through openness and vulnerability. A 2012 study linked being more honest with better health. Separate research has found that talking about one’s emotions helps one more healthily address and overcome them. Dr Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, credits vulnerability with being “the source of hope, empathy, authenticity, and accountability. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper or more meaningful spiritual life,” she advises us, “vulnerability is the path.” Or, if you prefer to suppress your internal goings-on, you can keep making yourself and others feel bad, as this 2003 study found.

Professional Confession

So can we learn to be vulnerable? “Vulnerability is a skill of sort,” said memoirist Kimberly Rae Miller, “it’s a choice you have to make over and over again to not take the emotionally easy way out, to deal with the hard things and not let them make you jaded.” It requires constant maintenance and exercise. It also requires different strategies for every scenario. One cannot be vulnerable to an online audience in the same way one is to a spouse. The same goes for all relationships in life, from friends, to family, to bosses, to the strangers on the train. How you reveal and bear yourself to others is an art, and lies at the heart of any meaningful relationship and career.

All your fears about vulnerability are perfectly normal. If you’re going to have a more open and honest life, you’ll have to work with these fears, not dismiss them.

How To Be Vulnerable

Think About Yourself in Third Person

This advice comes from Darin Strauss, author of the memoir Half a Life. In his book, he recounts when he was eighteen and killed a girl in a car crash. It was a secret he had kept for almost four decades. But when he wrote about it, he made sure he made no allowances. When most people talk about themselves, Strauss said, “It’s an argument for the defense. I wanted to write an argument for the prosecution.”

This meant exposing himself in such a way that even his publishers found him incredibly unsympathetic. Strauss recorded the moment people began to come out of their cars to look at the wreckage. When he found some of these girls cute, he began to flirt with them, even though he had just caused a fatal accident. His editors were bewildered that he would confess something like this. Strauss defended its inclusion: “In real life, we do inappropriate things at inappropriate times… Someone who did something inappropriate might think, I went through something, and I didn’t handle it as well as this guy.” Vulnerability, when executed properly, can remind us that even in our least dignified moments, we are not alone or without redemption.

Face Your Fears

Of course this isn’t an easy thing to do, but diagnosing our fears can bring us on the way to lessening them. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of confession and vulnerability is that people will hold what your self-revelation against you. Kimberly Rae Miller, whose memoir Coming Clean discusses being raised in a household of hoarders, talked to us about working through this very common problem.

Miller felt something nearly all of us fear, even though it may not be the most rational of anxieties: that people will hold the actions of our parents against us. “I had spent my life afraid that if people knew about my family’s secret that I would become a social outcast,” she said, “that no one would respect or love me.”

It wasn’t easy, but Miller worked against these feelings by beginning to tell her story. Through the process of being open and writing her memoir (an ordeal she calls vulnerability boot camp), she learned “people are surprisingly accepting of our broken pieces.” In fact, she reflects,

Once I opened up about my past, people I’d known for decades shared their shameful secrets with me, and just as mine hadn’t changed their opinions of me, theirs didn’t change the way I felt about them. The whole process helped me see the beauty, and contagion in vulnerability. I think many of us are just looking for that safe space to be vulnerable and to stop carrying so much baggage, and in being vulnerable yourself you give others permission to follow suit.

While writing this memoir, Miller met her husband, and credited her new-found openness with making this next, meaningful relationship possible.

Think About the Universal

Of course this rule goes for memoirists and professionals, who want to sell their stories to the masses. But asking what makes your vulnerability relatable is central to knowing whether it’s a useful exhibition at all. A similar exercise to thinking in third person, this involves taking a pause, and considering for a moment how your vulnerability will make someone else feel. As Kate Christensen, author of Blue Plate Special said, “Finding the universal in the singular, and vice versa, is a challenge and a thrill and ultimately a source of tremendous peace.”

Finding the universal in your stories can also keep you from one pitfall in particular: being boring. If you haven’t exactly lived a life of dramatic upheaval and suffering, a humbler, wider approach to your struggles might save them from falling flat in your next heart-to-heart. Meghan Daum, writer of the memoir Unspeakable, positions herself with the kind of insightful realism that informs her work: “I’m a middle-class white chick with no outsized childhood traumas or unusual accomplishments. My life story on its own isn’t enough. So I need to be trafficking in external ideas as well as my own timeline.” You might not have a dramatic, Dickensian rags-to-riches story to tell everyone, but that doesn’t matter. What’s more important is to frame your life’s moments so other people can connect to them.

Accept Not Everyone is Your Audience

When Sandra Tsing Loh, author of some five memoirs, wrote about her affair with a married man, not everyone received the her story so kindly. “The comments were horrific. They said I was a sad, pathetic woman,” Loh recalled. The good news is, you probably won’t encounter the wide, sanctimonious condemnation that a professional memoirist will, but you’re not off the hook. Vulnerability is a risk, and abides by the same laws of risk as does any other sphere of life. When vulnerability fails, it can be a terrifying, difficult thing to endure. But when it succeeds, it will pay dividends in making for you a far richer life.

Your boss might find your allusion to your party last night in poor taste, and your friends might tease you after showing them a pic of you as a chubby kid—and these moments aren’t easy. But these missteps are meant to be an education in, not a deterrent from, the higher art of vulnerability.

Consider Your Vulnerability Levels

We no longer live in an age of men who callously dig up the peat bogs and repress their sufferings with liquor. We may have less of a problem being vulnerable than our ancestors did, but we have our own way of avoiding serious vulnerability. How? By concealing deeper vulnerabilities with trifling ones.

Vulnerability is a rich territory, with many gradations and levels, and not everyone deserves to know everything about you. Trifling vulnerability is just fine for a new coworker. You may tell her your socks are wet from stepping in a puddle and share a laugh, but refrain to mention that you had to put your dog down last night. It may not be the most pleasant of part of social etiquette, but so goes the quiet severing of personality that life requires of us.

What’s most important is that you understand the different levels of vulnerability and why you are using them. Are you using lesser vulnerabilities with your spouse in order to have a light, cheerful night? Or are you using them as a smokescreen for much deeper, difficult anxieties? Vulnerability is about honesty, and understanding its various faces is a crucial step toward first being honest with yourself.

Make Sure You’re Ready in the First Place

Making yourself vulnerable to other people’s judgement is an important decision, and one that takes time to prepare for. After some self-examination, you might find that now just isn’t the right time. “Ask yourself if you’re prepared to make yourself vulnerable and not care about people’s judgments,” said writer Pearl Cleage, “If you’re not yet who you want to be, keep working on your life and write about it later.” Being vulnerable, and working to be a better person, are practices too thoroughly linked to ignore.