Vulnerability: The Game Show (12 Minute Read)
Updated: Feb 6
Congratulations, reader! You have been chosen to participate in today’s episode of “Are you being vulnerable?” COME ON DOOOOWN!
Alright, calm down reader, it's time to win some money! Here are the rules. I’ll show you four hypothetical situations in which you are involved, and all you have to do is tell me whether you are being vulnerable or not. It's very simple. Guess all four situations in a row and you win!
You sit down opposite a beautiful human. You’re on a date. Your 4th date in fact! You get into a conversation about the social system, like you’re known to do, and end up revealing that you were abused when you were younger. Are you being vulnerable?
You’re walking down the street with your coworker during your lunch break. You both just had a dreadfully inefficient and time-consuming meeting this morning due to your other coworker Angela not being prepared. Typical Angela. You both vent your frustration with Angela’s ineptitude and your coworker says “Is Angela retarded? Why can’t she ever be ready for our meetings?” You respond by telling your coworker that using the word ‘retarded’ isn’t the best way to communicate her point and that its offensive. Are you being vulnerable?
Congrats! It’s your first day at University. You walk into your first class. SOC 100. You’re so excited! But… oh boy there's a lot more people in this lecture hall than you anticipated. Once your prof gets through the syllabus bullshit you begin class. Your prof asks the class the following question: “Who can define ethnocentrism for me?” You stick up your hand, unsure of yourself, but wanting to make an effort. Are you being vulnerable?
You’re walking through the river valley with a friend. The two of you just finished a personal project battling homelessness together and raised $10,000 for your favourite charity. Your friend really inspired you with the compassion and dedication that they showed throughout the project. Mid-walk, you turn and tell them how much you admire them as a person and what they mean to you. Are you being vulnerable?
So, that leads me to ask the question...
*audience all chants in unison*
Are you being vulnerable?
You may have said yes to all four. Maybe you had some other combination. Well, here is the big reveal… no matter what answers you had, you are wrong, because there aren’t any answers. We simply don’t have enough information. No money for you. Boohoo. I didn’t have any anyways so thank god for that.
“Oooo Seth you’re SOOO smart by tricking us like that.”
Jeez, let me get to my point first, reader. Vulnerability has gained traction in recent years. Although the recognition of its importance has existed in the social health sphere for decades, recent authors and figures such as Brene Brown have brought the concept to light through self-help books and popularized Ted Talks. What was once thought as kumbaya, lovey-dovey crap is now known to be the catalyst that transforms an acquaintance into a meaningful relationship. It’s the key to building trust and bettering relationships. You have to give a little to get a little.
But it is also incredibly misunderstood. Sort of like how you just looked at a situation without context and tried to determine if you were being vulnerable or not, there’s this idea that vulnerability is static or black and white. That an action can be inherently vulnerable. That you can clearly define something as vulnerable or not. But you can’t. This is because vulnerability isn’t only about the action itself, it's also largely about intention. Unlike the expression, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” vulnerability actually relies on ones intent. In any one of these four situations that I just listed, you could have been acting vulnerable, but you also could have been acting manipulative, needy, or desperate. It depends on your intention.
Emotional Bombs & Manipulation
Take the first situation for example. Sharing your former trauma with someone you don’t know very well is usually a difficult thing to do. On the surface, it appears to be vulnerable. It appears to be bravely wearing your insecurities on your sleeve. You might be thinking, ‘How could it not be vulnerable? What could be the advantage in sharing something like that?’
Well, many people actually see vulnerability as some strategy that they can employ to affect how they are perceived or to get people to do something. If you share something as dark and scary as the fact that you were abused with me, I might think that I’m special, because no sane person would go gallivanting that information all over town. I may be thinking ‘Oh my gosh, you felt comfortable enough to share a piece of information like that with me? You likely don’t share that with anyone.' Depending on the context, this could cause me to feel emotionally closer to you. Empathetic to both your past and the ability to share that past. This is where vulnerability can go a couple of different ways. If you authentically shared that information with me because you weren’t trying to achieve something and the situation asked for it, then yes, you were likely being vulnerable. But if you use that information to try and sleep with me or get me to like you, that is NOT vulnerability. That is just good ol’ manipulation.
See how intent matters? The intention can either breed authenticity or ingenuity. And if you’re not being authentic, then all you’ve really done is manipulated somebody at the expense of one of your most personal secrets.
Now there is a scenario where under these circumstances, it is technically vulnerable, but isn't really appropriate. If you offload a bunch of private info onto a recipient that has no business hearing it, thats called emotional bombing. It's vulnerable because your intention wasn't to manipulate someone, but the need to share came from desperation and neediness, which no one finds attractive. You wanted to get that information out into the open regardless of who was listening, much to the chagrin of the person on the other end of the conversation. That sort of information should be shared with someone who you trust, like a friend, family member, or therapist. Not a date.
Integrity & Fighting Biology
Another misconception of vulnerability is that it always involves spilling the tea on your insecurities, weaknesses, or parts of your past. In reality, it has no limitations. It can be about a variety of things, including standing up for your beliefs. One might assume that standing up to strangers would be more difficult in nature, but that's not necessarily true. With loved ones, you already have a previously established dynamic. You have an understanding. You have much more to lose when you throw chaos and uncertainty into said dynamic. That’s why when Neville Longbottom stands up to Harry, Hermione, and Ron for trying to sneak out of their dorm (given, to inevitably save the wizarding world and fight he who shall not be named), Dumbledore rewards him 10 points to Gryffindor. Because standing up to your friends is fucking hard.
Take the second situation. You wouldn’t initially think that calling someone out for being ableist is being vulnerable, but it definitely can be. When you stand up to someone for something you believe in, you’re essentially fighting your own DNA. For years, we centered our survival on fitting in and belonging. We were programmed to be a part of the group, because the group had a better chance of surviving. This battle with our genetics naturally puts us at a disadvantage, so you can see why so many of us struggle to challenge the ‘group'. So by actively embracing conflict, we introduce an unknown. And that unknown is the consequences of making a stand. It’s this unknown that deters us from moving any further. We would rather sit there and compromise our own integrity than face that unknown. I do it all the time. We all do. Therefore, knowing full well that someone may disagree with you and deciding to say something anyway is usually one of the most vulnerable things we can do.
This is again all under the pretense that the intention is based out moral enforcement and not moral high ground. If you’re calling someone out because you’re trying to come across as progressive and smart to those around you instead of doing it because it's a part of your value system, then you’re being manipulative AND needy.
Stupidity Avoidance Theory & Ease of Action
One of my biggest theories about human nature regards our earnest avoidance of being seen as stupid. I’m much too lazy to read any abstracts to confirm my theory, especially since it's not particularly controversial or outlandish, but I believe it's one of the most powerful influences that exists. More powerful than our parents and friends, our desire for money, and sometimes even our basic needs.
That's the underlying reason why our biggest fear as humans is public speaking. Because being seen as stupid is debilitating. It makes us question everything we say or do. It corroborates that tiny little narrative thats always been sitting in the darkest crevice of our minds, waiting to spring up when we’re at our weakest.
This sends our immune system into a frenzy. “Oh my god, if I’m dumb, I will never get my dream job! I’ll never get the girl! I’ll never make any meaningful relationships! How could someone like an idiot?!” All subconscious thoughts that fly through our brains as shame grabs control of our brains steering wheel.
This leads me to the third situation. This example demonstrates how fluid vulnerability can be. It shows that it sits on a continuum, rather than sitting still in place. Often what effects our placement on this continuum is emotional resiliency and confidence. If I put my hand up to answer that question with certainty, confidence and a high level of emotional resiliency, it might not be difficult for me. It would actually be easy. Depending on your fear relating to others perceptions of you, this situation can be viewed through two different lenses. It's important to remember that you and I can experience the same thing in two completely different ways. Therefore, another important element to consider is the ease in any certain action.
Another thing we suck at is our ability to receive and give affection. This is more-so for men than women, but its present nonetheless. That's why when someone tells us how much they appreciate us, we often don’t know how to respond. It can be kind of awkward. Do you say thanks? Does saying thanks insinuate you’re confirming what you already thought about yourself and that therefore makes you inherently cocky? Do you return the compliment or does returning the compliment become null because you only did it because they did it first? Etc. It’s also the reason that when you want to say “I love you” to someone new, you may change it to, “I love ya” or “I love you, buddy.” You might even change the inflection of your voice.
This is because the word love is taken seriously in our society. It’s widely agreed upon that you don’t throw it out too early, otherwise you’ll be known as crazy. So, we make a slight adjustment in our language and intonation to reduce its seriousness, because we want to seem cool and casual. But it also makes us more impersonal and less authentic.
Enter our fourth situation. Two friends who just raised money for the homeless together likely faced multiple organizational hurdles, high levels of stress, and at times seemingly insurmountable challenges. They probably bonded. Yet, we still don’t know if simply sharing admiration with one another would be vulnerable or not. Who knows how each individual would react. Some people see expressing emotions as weakness. Some see it as a strength. Some see it as annoying. Ultimately, it introduces an opportunity for two people to connect and grow. Connecting and growing inevitably involves a level of pain and discomfort. So in a way, communicating truthfully and honestly can change the dynamic of our relationships, and that's scary. We subconsciously yearn for stability, and that’s what makes vulnerability hard.
Vulnerability is and isn’t...
Vulnerability isn’t a scheme to manipulate people. It isn’t a way to vomit your pain onto unsuspecting others. And it certainly isn’t easy. Vulnerability is showing comfort and acceptance in oneself by saying what you think and standing up for what you believe in, regardless of what others may think of you. It's knowing that pain could come from sticking your neck out, but doing it anyways. It's deciding that sometimes, action is more important than the consequences of those actions. It’s something we should selectively implement into our lives, being self aware enough to look inward and see some of the truer reasoning behind our actions. Brene Brown says it like this, "Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance."
There's nothing that makes me happier than to see a greater population of people opening themselves up to grow. It's a beautiful thing, but we need to know what vulnerability actually is before we go handing out awards and praise to those who use its name in vain.
So there we have it, reader. You lost. Or maybe you were smart enough to see through my ploy. No, you definitely lost. I did rig the game though, so there's that. Now scurry off. Maybe next time you participate in a game show via reading you should know better.