I remember the first time I brought up the topic of being vulnerable with Dr. Finlayson-Fife. You should know that at that time I was a very strong supporter of vulnerability. I probably would have put a “Vulnerability Rocks” bumper sticker on my car if I had happen to come across one. I had watched Brene Brown’s TED Talks and read some of her work and so much of what she spoke about resonated with me. And still does.
About a year ago I was talking with Dr. Finlayson-Fife and brought up my view on vulnerability saying that I felt the ability to be vulnerable in a relationship was a sign of a healthy relationship. And she basically told me that she disagreed. We basically left that portion of the conversation there and continued to talk, but my mind kept going back to what she had said and I wondered what is was about vulnerability that she disagreed with. She is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in relationship and sexuality counseling. So wouldn’t she especially be someone who would encourage vulnerability? She often talks about the damaging effects that come into relationships when someone is hiding who they are behind a facade. Isn’t that what vulnerability is, the willingness to not hide?
Nearly a year later, I had an opportunity to revisit that conversation and to listen to her share view and insights on vulnerability.
Sherrae: Brene Brown talks a lot about making yourself known and she uses the word vulnerability. I’ve heard you explain your thoughts around vulnerability in a workshop. Could you share your views of vulnerability and maybe talk about that?
Jennifer: Well, first of all, I think her message is generally right. I think she says a lot of great things about the human condition. One of the topics she talks about a lot is vulnerability. A percentage of the people she studied were far more willing to be “vulnerable”—meaning they were more willing to open about their flaws, more willing to expose their desires, and generally unapologetic for their fallabilty and their humanity.
While she’s using a word often used in a larger culture to describe this characteristic—”vulnerability”–, I think the word misconstructs the concept, because those of us that are willing to really be known, flaws and all, in fact aren’t vulnerable. Those willing to be seen are comfortable enough with themselves as fallible human beings that they can tolerate being known to others, they can tolerate the potential judgment of other people. Given that fact, they are not vulnerable, because they are sufficiently at peace with who they are that they don’t need others’ approval in the way less open people may be.
So they aren’t “vulnerable”, but rather they are strong enough to be open. And openness or the capacity for intimacy (which requires a willingness to be known) is a virtue, because it is an expression of strength, not vulnerability. The subgroup of people in her study who were really willing to be open and knowable were people more capable of intimacy. The reason why we use the word “vulnerable” I think is because those of us who can’t tolerate our own fallibility or who feel they need the approval of others, experience true openness as vulnerable. And if you are dependent upon everybody thinking you’re always on top or that you are flawless or that you’re perfect, well then you are in fact vulnerable if you let someone see you. It’s vulnerable because you’re vulnerable to exposure as in fact human. But to the people that are accepting enough of themselves that they aren’t dependent on what other people think, their openness does not make them vulnerable. Who wants to actually be vulnerable? It’s dumb to be truly vulnerable because then you’re open to being harmed. And that’s not a virtue to make yourself open to being harmed. But open and knowable people aren’t open to being harmed because they’re able to hold on to their own dignity in the face of their humanity. Unlike the people who are always trying to mask their humanity and fallibility.