When Oprah and her guest, Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor and social worker who’s studied vulnerability for over 12 years, asked the Life Class community what vulnerability feels like—the responses were overwhelmingly negative. "Being helpless," said one. "Embarrassed," said another. "Being a small child." "A lump in your throat." "Emptiness." "Allowing people to judge you." "Letting go of the life preserver." On a surface level, it’s human nature to view vulnerability as weakness and overexposure, but vulnerability isn’t linear. There’s a second branch that challenges these hurdles, and that’s the idea that vulnerability is the birthplace of courage. When we open ourselves up emotionally, we beget opportunity.
"I do not think we ever feel more alive than when we're being brave,” Brown affirms. “And we can't be brave when we're not vulnerable."
There’s power in vulnerability—but we need to give ourselves permission first. In order for vulnerability to be authentic and safe, it needs to be beckoned by its owner. "Vulnerability is about trust, and intimacy, and connection—we share with people who earn the right to hear the story," Brown explains. "What’s [in your heart] is the most valuable thing you have… it's the most valuable offering you have in your life, and people have to earn the right to see it—they have to know when they’re seeing it—that it’s an absolute honor and privilege for you to have let them in. That, to me, is the prerequisite."
When we’re put in situations where vulnerability is ushered out of us before we’ve raised our hands to participate, the lump in the throat, the helplessness, the lost life preserver is imminent. Having someone else pull back the curtain on our feelings can ironically leave us feeling vulnerable in a different sense—like we’re standing naked at the front of an auditorium. It's then we either share beyond our comfort zone, inauthentically react to fulfill the prompt, or close down, which defeats the purpose of seeking vulnerability in the first place. So how, then, do we make space for being vulnerable when it best serves us? The key is recognizing manufactured versus authentic vulnerability.
Vulnerability is about trust, and intimacy, and connection—we share with people who earn the right to hear the story,
Screenwriter Gabriel Mizhrahi explains the way to decipher between the two is understanding the intention behind an intimate conversation. "If your motivation hinges on achieving something specific—it could be to make people like you or to win their sympathy—then you're trying to get something from the other person,” he says on the Jordan Harbinger Show. "If that's the case, it's strategic. But, if your motivations are about being—not getting—but being open, connected, less alone, and/or being in a position to share and understand people better, and understand yourself better, those are the right motivations, and those are the motivations that make something authentic."
Whether it’s a partner, friend, family member, boss—whomever—initiating an intimate conversation, know that you are ultimately the gatekeeper of your emotions. Board-certified clinical psychologist Dr. Jenny Yip explains there should be a zero-commitment policy for divulging your emotions when you’re uncomfortable. "If you feel pressure to open up about something you don't want to talk about, trust your gut. Do not feel obligated, only do what feels right and comfortable. Tell your friends or family you do not feel comfortable discussing that information with them, and if they are a trusted family or friend, they will stop pressuring you. You can also practice saying 'no.' It is okay not to please everyone all the time. It is okay to say 'no' or tell someone another time would be better for you to open up. You can approach the situation the same way with a boss or a co-worker.”
To that last point, it may feel taboo to turn down a conversation with someone at work for fear of how it will impact your job, but vulnerability in the workplace can be a gray area, leaving employees confused about what they’re even capable of declining. Managing strategy consultant Rebecca Roberts notes that one example of blurred boundaries is having a "camera-on" mandate, especially in a post-COVID era when many have had to turn to virtual-only workspaces.
"Team members stress trying to create a pleasing atmosphere behind them and worry about judgement from their peers if their personal spaces don't 'measure-up,'" she explains. "Parents without full-time care scramble to shoo out their wandering children and junior employees endure the special pain of conducting retrospectives from their childhood bedroom. The inequities a policy like this creates are both precarious and avoidable. I tell my teams by having their camera on, they're inviting me into their home. It's their choice whether they'd like me there or not. The freedom to control your own space allows my team a degree of psychological safety that encourages the bold thinking and creativity necessary to get awesome work done."
Roberts notes ice-breakers and group sessions can also lend themselves to a high-pressure work environment. "Forced vulnerability can be taxing for anyone, but can be especially anxiety-ridden if you're neurodivergent. Requesting round-robin sharing or on-the-spot emotional soliloquy during team meetings can create an unnecessarily comparative atmosphere as employees try to out-vulnerable each other." This goes back to the idea of motivation: Is the leader initiating the intimate conversation because they’re in search of a specific outcome, or do they genuinely seek an interpersonal connection? "If you're facilitating a discussion like this, it's important to ask yourself why you're doing it and consider other, less intrusive discussion methods."
Since 2020 has spun the global workforce on its head and digital meetings will likely continue for the foreseeable future, reassessing your relationship with video calls could help decrease anxious thought patterns. Neuropsychologist, founder of Comprehensive Consultation Pyschological Services, and Byrdie advisory board member Sanam Hafeez argues workplace mandated video calls can be better handled if you adjust your outlook. "It's only harmful if you perceive it in that way," she explains. "What fuels the insecurity around video calls is often feeling like you're the focus of attention. You might even feel like flaws are very visible on camera. We have a lot of students with social anxiety who feel vulnerable in video classes because they feel all their imperfections and flaws are magnified on video. We need to look at this in terms of, ‘How can we be more resilient?’ The reality is video calls are part of our future. Rather than avoiding, which actually gives the fear more credence, how can you tackle this so you can be less vulnerable and more comfortable with the situation. Can it be harmful? Yes, if you do nothing about it. It will keep you from living, and that, in itself, is harmful."
Beyond the nuances of emotional transparency at work, day-to-day solicited vulnerability can have lasting implications if you don't have the tools to reject it. Whether it's a phone call with a friend, a conversation with a stranger… whatever the scenario, if we've shared outside our comfort zones or entrusted someone with personal information that wasn't treated with respect, a domino effect of continued fear of vulnerability begins. Avoidance behaviors set in and walls are constructed, which hinders our ability to develop intimate relationships and open the door to better meaning and purpose. It's a case of giving an inch, but having a mile taken.
Forced vulnerability also includes that of the physical nature. Studies indicate that forced sexual initiation often occurs at a time of heightened physical and psychological vulnerability, which can lead to not only increased sexual risk behaviors and the contraction of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, but emotional trauma as well. That vulnerability can be coerced through alcohol or drugs, manipulation, threats, etc., impeding your judgment and shape-shifting your emotions. It's important to know that there’s a staunch difference between a partner wanting to cultivate intimacy through trust, deep connection, and open communication, and dangerous, self-serving manufactured intimacy. Hafeez says that when you recognize forced behavior, it’s imperative to harness your power and put an end to the advances. “There is always room to leave an unhealthy situation or a toxic person,” she says. “You have to be the one to stand up for yourself. If you are having difficulty prioritizing your own welfare, seek help so that you can learn how to set healthy boundaries, speak up for yourself in an assertive way, and make your needs known.” (Also, know that sexual coercion is a form of assault, so if you are to experience this or forced sexual initiation, you should report the incident to the authorities immediately.)
Vulnerability is at the core of everything we do; as Brown puts it, "To feel is to be vulnerable." But opening up our heart spaces should always be voluntary. While the motivations behind an intimate conversation may not always have a hidden agenda, it can be difficult to spot a synthetic interaction. It's your reaction to the prompt, however, that's integral to protecting your power. "I think you have to check in with yourself to understand your own motivations," says Mizrahi. "And we can accept that those motivations are there. It's just about which ones you choose to lead with. And with more self-awareness, with more checking in, you'll begin to notice when and why you open up in the first place, and you'll start to catch yourself forcing that vulnerability… or demanding it from other people for a strategic reason. And really that's the difference, just parsing out those motivations and understanding when they're at play and going with the ones that lead to openness and connection as opposed to end results and forced intimacy."
Hawks L, Woolhandler S, Himmelstein DU, Bor DH, Gaffney A, McCormick D. Association Between Forced Sexual Initiation and Health Outcomes Among US Women. JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(11):1551-1558. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.3500