As both an artist and an openly transgender person, vulnerability is a big part of my everyday life. Living in a vulnerable way has a lot of drawbacks. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether the value really justifies the cost.
It’s too late for me to slink back into the closet, but I sure could be less vocal and expressive. Everything I share is an opportunity to receive criticism. And even if I don’t get it, I still spend energy bracing myself for it. It’s not rare for me to ask myself why I’m putting myself through this.
It also can be tough to get my head around how to “do vulnerability right.” For all it’s cracked up to be, sometimes vulnerability can tilt into territory that doesn’t seem constructive. Where’s the line between raw expression and complaining, hunting for attention, or playing the victim?
I’ve learned that it’s all about the reason why you make yourself vulnerable.
Vulnerability doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. It’s a means to an end.
Here are three big motivations to be vulnerable—some much more constructive than others.
1. Vulnerability as a means of self-expression
If you stop censoring or modifying yourself to please other people, you open yourself up to judgment.
If you value unhindered self-expression, the path to get there is through vulnerability. Personally, I value it. I think of it as one of the most important aspects of being human.
Making yourself vulnerable in this way requires a high degree of faith and self-acceptance. You need to be able to value whoever you are at your core, and whatever it is you have to express—despite any amount of criticism and mockery.
2. Vulnerability as a means of loving others
If you care about others, and want to encourage them and connect more deeply with them, vulnerability can be a powerful way to do that.
You can help people feel safe by sharing parts of your own story with them. Your self-expression can also go a long way in helping people feel safe doing the same—the more freely expressive you are, the more you can encourage them to also be freely expressive.
You can show people you trust them and think of them as important by letting them in on your life, and even by asking for help when you need it. That shows faith in that person as your friend. And you can help people see that they’re not alone in dealing with certain struggles or pain.
If your motivation is validating others and sharing compassion and care with them, often you’ll find that people welcome the opportunity you give them to share it with you as well.
This type of vulnerability requires that you have compassion and care for yourself. If your vulnerability is going to help others, you need to be sharing a sense of safety and belonging with them. And you need to be prepared that people might not even respond to your vulnerability.
3. Vulnerability as a means of receiving care
If you feel that you are in need of attention and compassion, you might be tempted to try getting it by making yourself vulnerable.
You may have learned that sharing very intense personal stories that have a lot of shock value can get you a strong response. You can also share your sadness, pain, and traumatic experiences with the aim of receiving comfort and care.
It’s not wrong to want comfort and care, and it’s important to ask for help when you need it. But it’s also important to recognize the difference between this motivation for vulnerability and the other two motivations.
In the first two cases, your vulnerability elevates everyone—including you.
In this case, vulnerability is a way for you to get your needs met by other people at their expense. While the other motivations for vulnerability are beneficial to others, this type of vulnerability places a burden on them, and it might not always be well-received. In fact, it’s very likely that instead of getting you what you’re looking for, you might push people away.
This type of vulnerability comes with expectations placed on others to give you something. In this case, there’s a good chance you haven’t really accepted yourself, and are looking for others to do it for you.
Self-acceptance is vital to healthy vulnerability
Ask yourself why you’re being vulnerable, and what you’re after.
If you’re after external validation, making yourself vulnerable to get it isn’t a wise approach. People might not respond to your vulnerability in the way that you want them to, and you’ll end up feeling worse for it.
When you make yourself vulnerable, it should be because you’re offering something to the world that you yourself believe in.
It’s OK if you need attention and compassion. But don’t forget, it’s not just you who needs it. Everyone does.
You’ll probably find that you receive more of it by giving it away.