Being vulnerable doesn’t come naturally to most of us because we may be afraid of being judged or rejected. But vulnerability underpins almost all of our meaningful connections with people. We practice vulnerability when we tell someone we like them, reveal personal things about ourselves, when we share stories that interest us, and when we talk about our sexual desires.
“Practicing vulnerability means coming home to yourself,” therapist, writer, and speaker Joanna Townsend shared with O.school. “It's about tuning into your feelings, understanding your beliefs, unpacking your story, developing a sense of intimacy with who you are, and cultivating mindful and compassionate awareness of what makes you, you.”
So it’s no wonder so many of us wonder how to navigate vulnerability more confidently, and Brené Brown’s 2011 TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” has nearly 12 million views on YouTube.
Practicing mindful vulnerability can deepen your relationships with people, elevate your confidence, and help you show up authentically.
But how do you do vulnerability right?
“Practicing vulnerability without a polished gut isn’t a good move,” says Dr. Sara Nasserzadeh, a social psychologist and couples counselor. “When your gut is well-attuned to your values and perceptions, it will tell you when being vulnerable isn’t safe,” Dr. Nasserzadeh tells O.school
We’ve curated 8 tips to help you get your “gut polished” so you can start practicing safe, smart vulnerability. .
1. Know your intention
Townsend wants people to know that “vulnerability is not just spilling, word vomiting, or letting it all hang out. It's a process.” So, before you open up to someone, ask yourself why you want to and what you’re hoping will come out of it. Knowing your intentions will help you decide who you want to be vulnerable with and in what way.
2. Identify your supports
Who are the people who have demonstrated you can trust them? How did they show up for you? Knowing who your supports are (and how they support you) will help you make balanced, emotionally safer decisions about vulnerability. And, as Townsend notes, “when [people] don't respect your vulnerability or make space for it … it's okay to have boundaries.” But, don’t forget about that person’s boundaries, either.
3. Honestly describe your feelings
Talking honestly about how you feel is incredibly difficult, but is also one of the most immediate ways to be vulnerable with someone. Describing the feelings you're having (and their impact on you) can give you and your conversational partner more clarity. If you struggle to find the words, don’t fret – Kate Kenfield's Tea and Empathy cards can help you out.
4. Ask for feedback
Ask a relevant person, a friend or therapist for honest feedback about how you did on a project or in an interaction, how you could improve, and what your strengths are. Listen attentively and figure out how you're reacting to what they’re sharing and how you might implement it. Remember, vulnerability is also about what parts of yourself you choose to share with people. Sharing feedback with others about how they’re doing can also help you flex this muscle.
5. Journal on your own
Journaling can help you get in touch with your own needs and feelings because it removes expectations about content, time, or delivery. Just free-write and follow where your mind takes you. Then, re-read what you wrote. How might you communicate the essence of it to someone? You don't need to show them your journal; think of it as your rough draft of a conversation. Knowing what you want to share can help you decide what to filter out and can help prepare you for any emotions you may experience.
6. Try something you've never tried before
Trying new things challenges our perfectionistic tendencies because chances are, you won't be great at it the first time. For people who struggle with seeming imperfect in front of others, this gives you a structured way to practice vulnerability that doesn't immediately involve disclosing your feelings. Rather, it lets you practice not doing things perfectly right off the bat, which can help later conversations and vulnerable interactions happen more easily. This strategy can be fun to implement, too — try taking a pottery class, a ropes course, or even just getting a grip on the alphabet of a language you don’t speak.
7. Tell a story
Like trying something new in front of other people, telling a story — whether it's one from your childhood or something more recent — allows you to practice intentional vulnerability. Don’t assume that practicing vulnerability means that this has to be a heavy or sad story, though. You can be vulnerable telling a story that brings you joy or laughter, too. Dr. Nasserzadeh cautions that you shouldn’t “practice vulnerability as a one-way street. If you share a story that brings you joy, ask that person to tell you a story that brings them joy.” That advice could be applied to anything here — you can build trust and rapport by listening in just as much as by speaking out.
8. Recognize resistance
Pay attention to what your brain and body are telling you — resistance is something that happens with change, but it can also be a protective mechanism. You don't need to push yourself too far or too quickly. Rather, treat emotional vulnerability like flexibility — you slowly build-up, and you don't go straight to splits. Remember what Dr. Nasserzadeh shared about listening to your polished gut? If it’s telling you that sharing part of yourself isn’t a good idea, it is a good idea to pay attention to it.
Being vulnerable with someone can be scary, but it can be so, so worth it when it goes well. As Townsend beautifully put it, “we all have the capacity to hold space for vulnerability in our lives [if] we allow ourselves to get in touch with our emotions and embrace what makes us uniquely human.”