Vulnerability is…

Stephen Hussey

(Photo: David Vilanova)

I recently read the book Daring Greatly by Dr. Brené Brown.

For those who have never heard of Brené, her famous TED talk has garnered a staggering 25 million views, and she’s lectured around the world on the virtues of being more vulnerable in every area of our lives.

I agree with Brene that the people who get the most joy from their relationships are able to approach love “Wholeheartedly”, that is, without fear, by complete surrender to whatever pain love might bring with it.

The hardened cynic in me wants to take offence at any word like Wholeheartedness (particularly with that troublesome capitalised “W”) – so warm, gooey, fuzzy, just plain un-British. As a native of the land of “Keep Calm and Carry On”, this is exactly the kind of terminology that ought to bounce right off my tough skin, thickened from a lifetime of stiff upper lippishness.

Yet if I’m honest, I know every relationship I’ve ever had, from my first real girlfriend at 16, has been hindered in some way from my inability to truly expose myself.

Having begun my romantic life with a few teenage heartbreaks (translation: being mercilessly dumped), I learnt quickly to keep my guard up every time I felt myself on the verge of falling for someone new. I always wanted to be in control of my emotions to avoid getting knocked out by an unexpected sucker punch, never wanting to be the one who leaned in first again.

The idea of being over-exposed was death to me: if I never gave too much to a girlfriend, I could never be hurt when her feelings changed for the worse.

My twenties have since been one long lean into vulnerability. I found as I got better at allowing myself to show my feelings, I enjoyed more love, experienced greater closeness, and felt more connected to girlfriends than I ever felt in my early relationships.

Part of that is getting older and having more serious partners. But I know I screwed up a lot of those early relationships by trying so hard to keep myself protected, scared to death that the real me might get rejected if ever too much of my true self got revealed.

I would cover up my sensitivity with cocky or loud personas that didn’t really suit me. Girlfriends would sense this falseness and gradually distance themselves as a result. What I saw as their lack of affection was maybe just their way of responding to my own form of avoidance: trying to evade a real connection by hiding my easily bruised underside. I would say the right things when under pressure, but if I’m honest, I was only ever exposing just as much as I could get away with, never really wanting to ‘throw all in’ and risk what might happen with my heart on the line.

Enough time has passed since and I’ve now realised an obvious truth: it takes incredible strength to be vulnerable. Only strong people are able to expose themselves to criticism, put their heart on the line, and take risks for love.

There’s a scene in the movie Boyhood where Ethan Hawke’s character tells his son after a devastating heartbreak “At least you’re feeling stuff, that’s important. As you get older you feel things less. Your skin gets tougher”.

I think my evolution went the opposite direction. I began with being tough (or desperately pretending to be) and only came full circle following my realisation that I was totally going about love the wrong way. Great relationships aren’t about which partner is stronger. Great relationships are so naked that it frightens you how exposed you are.

As you get older, you realise that vulnerable actions are where life happens.

Vulnerable actions are:

  • Sharing your deepest fears, toughest moments, and biggest insecurities with the person you love.
  • Telling your boyfriend exactly how he upset you the other day.
  • Telling your boyfriend how much better your life is for having him in it.
  • Opening up about a geeky hobby you have even if someone will make fun of you.
  • Approaching someone at a party who might shoot you down.
  • Asking your partner about his concerns and fears about your future together.
  • Doing that flirty action that scares you but might just break you out of your shell.
  • Your first attempt to dance in front of that person you fancy.
  • Trying to talk dirty for the first time to turn your partner on.
  • Saying “I love you” without knowing what you’ll hear back.
  • Writing your true feelings in a letter or card and sending it.
  • Calling to say you’re sorry and admitting your girlfriend is right about your flaws.
  • Asking for help from your partner to change your ugly personality traits.
  • Telling her you miss her so much it hurts.

Vulnerability is initially terrifying, but quickly addictive in its own way.

You hold your breath, do the risky thing, realise you didn’t die, and more often than not you notice how much richer all your relationships become (friendships included).

The price is that you’re also always exposed, to the best and worst that can happen to you.

But was life in that shell really so great anyway?

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67 Replies to “Vulnerability is…”

  • Stephen, I love the fact that you actually interact with your readers. I enjoy this article very much! I guess there is one situation where when I naively opened up to a wrong person who took advantage of my vulnerability and weakness to his emotional gain/control later on… I was burned so badly… Ever since that bad relationship, I am very cautious about how vulnerable and when I choose to pen to others. I guess, vulnerability without discernment is rather stupid and invites abuse. But gradual showing of vulnerability to people whom we come to know and recognize to be benign soul is very important to cultivate a fulfilling and enriching relationship!

  • It’s funny how vulnerability is basically just being honest and speaking from the heart – we’re so afraid to be who we are and express ourselves without the need to say what people want. I wonder how many times even in day to day basis we even say what we want to…

  • Only someone weak can spread nonsense like this, and only weaklings will believe it. Strong people cant get hurt cause they take responsibility 4 their own feelings etc. u suck.

    1. “Strong people cant get hurt cause they take responsibility 4 their own feelings”

      That sounds more like bottling up feelings to me. I think strong people are able to accept pain/hurt and carry on risking their feelings regardless, instead of trying to fake invincibility. You’re welcome to disagree.


  • I have no problem being vulnerable. Often times I have been too vulnerable and I have gotten hurt in the end. But when I meet someone new, have no problem starting over. My question is, I have met a lot of men, mainly older than me, I am 36, who acted the same way you used to. These are men I have loved and tried to prove my love to only to get hurt in the end. How do I deal with men like this? How can I get someone who has so much hurt, to open up and see the love the I am trying to share with them without getting myself hurt?

  • Once again a beautifully written, heartfelt, articulate, open and “vulnerable” letter of love to all of us.

    I can feel how much love and energy you put into your articles and know that I and probably many more, appreciate each and everyone of them. Being able to express oneself on paper is an artform… congratulations you have mastered it!

    I saw her interview on Oprah she is wonderful.


  • I LOVE Brene Brown! That TED Talk greatly changed my view on life. After seeing Matt in Orlando I thought he and Brene would make a great team when it comes to relationships and overall success in life. Now THAT would be an amazing TED Talk. ;-)

  • Great post, Stephen.

    The really good thing about opening up and being vulnerable is that once you get past the pain barrier, it’s really freeing. You’re not hiding any more and if anyone likes you, you know it’s for your true self.

    It’s tough but I’m getting there.

  • I love this as I love all your articles!

    Yet I find the older I get, the less I’m allowing myself to be vulnerable. Particularly in romantic situations.

    All the points you listed which are ways to be vulnerable I have done in the past, openly and freely. Yet, at 35 years of age, I find myself less willing to put myself at risk of being hurt again and therefore hold back.

    Being vulnerable has never really got me anywhere except being walked all over.i find that the more I open up to men, the more they take advantage of me/the situation.

    Any advice or comments on this great fully received!

  • How do ya break out from the emotional wall?

    This totally resonates with me and some things have made me ‘vulnerable’ lately…

    It can’t be you woke up one day and decided to be vulnerable? How do we open up? I think the worst of conversations and constantly search for hidden negative meanings too..

    Thanks for the article. It really hits home at this point in life

  • Such a wonderful article! It is so sexy to find a partner that is not afraid of vulnerability…..;) <3

  • Great post again Stephen but what if the opposite is true and you are too open and vulnerable? So much so that you get hurt by laying your heart on the line too early…id be interested in hearing your thoughts..

    1. Not to say it’s wrong to be vulnerable – I fully embrace and understand how attractive and necessary it is so that the people know who you are from the outset and supports the congruency argument and being true to youself etc.. But as was alluded to on the retreat I think it’s important to time exposing yourself carefully and sensibly… Talking from personal experiences…ok I’ll shut up now

  • Thank you so much Stephen, for such a remarkable article!

    The topic is incredibly important, but is quite challenging to be spoken about in a clear, open and comprehensive way.

    My favourite of your posts, well, so far :)

    Thank you!

  • What a touching and inspiring article.
    Also, it’s such a relief to hear about the correlation made between being vulnerable and being actually strong.

  • This is SUCH a great article! I’m so glad I found it. This is sooooo true, too. I think being vulnerable also opens people up to learning about themselves. Once you learn about yourself, your likes, dislikes,and what you will or will not stand for, you’re able to make more sound decisions as to who you want to share things with.
    I’ve learned that being vulnerable and authentic has brought fantastic people into my life, that know me and appreciate what I bring to the table. It truly is freeing.

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