As a psychologist, I often get asked about emotional vulnerability:
- What is emotional vulnerability exactly?
- Is it a good thing?
- Should I try and be more emotionally vulnerable?
- What would that even look like?
And like a lot of the topics I write about, emotional vulnerability is a bit misunderstood because it gets thrown around in such a vague, non-specific way.
In this article, I want to give you a plain, down-to-earth explanation of how I think about emotional vulnerability and how it may be helpful in your life.
What Is Emotional Vulnerability? A Simple Definition
Here’s my definition of emotional vulnerability:
The willingness to acknowledge your emotions, especially painful ones.
Okay, let’s unpack that a bit…
First of all, I want to clarify that when we talk about vulnerability, we’re usually referring to emotional vulnerability. When your best friend suggests that you should work on being more vulnerable in your relationship, they’re probably not talking about making yourself more physically vulnerable.
So, vulnerability is about emotions. But being more vulnerable isn’t usually in reference to enjoyable emotions like joy or excitement (although I think it can be). Typically, when we talk about being more emotionally vulnerable, it has to do with difficult or painful emotions like sadness, shame, anxiety, frustration, etc.
Next, vulnerability means acknowledging your difficult emotions. Now, it’s human nature to avoid things that hurt. And emotions are no exception. Our natural reaction to feeling bad emotionally is to immediately do something to not feel so bad:
- When you feel frustrated, you go for a run to blow off steam.
- When you feel sad, you remind yourself of all the good things in your life.
- When you feel anxious, you call a friend to reassure you that things will be okay.
These are all very normal reactions to emotional pain. And in many cases, they may be a perfectly good idea. But here’s the key idea when it comes to emotional vulnerability:
Sometimes it’s better to acknowledge painful emotions rather than immediately avoiding them or trying to get rid of them.
Note the word sometimes. I’m not suggesting that everyone should go around “feeling their feelings” all day long, constantly pondering and contemplating every little mood and emotion. That would be… silly.
Also, note that I didn’t say emotional vulnerability means wallowing in or analyzing your painful emotions. Becoming obsessed with your painful feelings can be just as detrimental as being in denial about them.
What I am m suggesting is that acknowledging your painful emotions is often a good middle ground between those two extremes. Acknowledging your painful emotions can be as simple as pausing for a few seconds and telling yourself: Okay, I feel pretty rotten right now. It’s probably because I’m feeling frustrated with my husband for that sarcastic comment he made at dinner, which bothered me and we never addressed.
Well, that’s obvious, you say. I acknowledge my emotions all the time. What’s the big deal?
Maybe you are an expert at emotional vulnerability. But in my experience, most of us aren’t nearly as good at it as we might think we are. Put another way, the instinct to avoid feeling bad is so baked into human nature, that we all do it far more than we realize, often without much conscious awareness—especially, it turns out, when it comes to other people.
It’s hard enough to acknowledge our painful emotions in private, but it can feel nearly impossible to acknowledge them in front of other people—even people we’re close to like a spouse, parent, or friend.
My final point about emotional vulnerability is that, just like it’s useful at times to be able to pause and acknowledge your own painful emotions on your own, it can also be very useful (and profoundly difficult) to acknowledge your painful emotions in front of and to other people.
Okay, hopefully, that helps clarify the concept of emotional vulnerability. In the next section, we’re going to try and answer the obvious question:
What’s so great about acknowledging my painful emotions?
The benefits of emotional vulnerability
As a therapist, a big part of my job is teaching people the skill of emotional vulnerability. That word skill is important. Like the ability to write well or exercise proper table manners, emotional vulnerability is a really nice skill to have when you need it, which is likely more often than you think.
To give you an idea of why the skill of emotional vulnerability is so valuable, here are three specific benefits of emotional vulnerability.
1. It will reduce your anxiety
Emotional vulnerability is an excellent good way to recalibrate your fear.
Your brain has a built-in threat detection system. When it notices something dangerous, it sounds the alarm, pumps you full of adrenaline to prepare you to deal with the threat, and you experience the emotion of fear. For example, imagine another car blows through a stop sign and comes within inches of slamming into you.
The trick is, your brain can get confused. It can easily interpret something that merely looks dangerous as a genuine threat. For example, the thought pops into your mind that your son might have gotten into a car accident on his road trip back to school. Even though the simple thought of your son getting hurt doesn’t mean anything dangerous is happening, it can lead to a similar fear response. When your brain misinterprets something benign as dangerous and makes you feel afraid when there isn’t really any reason for it, we call that anxiety. Anxiety is misdirected fear.
The reason your brain gets confused sometimes is because of you. More specifically, your reaction to your brain’s guess about what’s dangerous either confirms or denies it. If you respond to something non-threatening as if it were a threat, you’re training your brain to believe even more strongly that that thing is in fact dangerous. For example, if every time a scary but irrational thought about your kid pops into your mind you immediately call them and check to see if they’re okay, you’re teaching your brain that merely to feel afraid means something really is dangerous.
The reason most people suffer from chronic anxiety is that they’ve trained their brains to believe that feeling bad is bad—that painful emotions are dangerous.
If you habitually either run away from or try to eliminate painful feelings, it sends the message to your brain’s threat-detection system to be on guard against future painful feelings. This leads to hypervigilance, which is quite stressful.
Then, if you do experience a painful emotion (which you inevitably will), your brain adds anxiety on top of that initial painful emotion, which means your overall emotional reaction is compounded and extra intense.
As a result, your desire to avoid those feelings is even stronger, so you avoid them even harder, which sends an even stronger message that feeling bad is dangerous, which leads to ever-increasing levels of anxiety and emotional volatility.
Most people’s baseline level of anxiety and emotional reactivity is much higher than it needs to be because they tend to immediately avoid or try and eliminate painful emotions.
The antidote is emotional vulnerability.
When you feel a painful emotion and simply pause and acknowledge the emotion, you send a very different message to your brain. You train it to believe that while difficult emotions are painful, they’re not dangerous. Do this enough, and you will not only find that your overall level of anxiety is lower, but you’ll be much less emotionally reactive and volatile in general.
2. It will strengthen your relationships
Vulnerability builds trust and intimacy in relationships, which is especially important for romantic relationships and friendships.
Whenever someone comes into my office saying they wish they had deeper, higher-quality friendships. Or that they wished they felt closer to their spouse or partner, my internal reaction is usually the same: We probably need a little more emotional vulnerability here.
Now that’s not to say that a lack of emotional vulnerability is the sole reason for not having good friendships or feeling intimate with your spouse or partner. Obviously there are plenty of things that can lead to that problem.
What I mean is that learning to be more emotionally vulnerable is a great way to make new friends faster and more easily and improve your levels of intimacy with your spouse or partner.
Here’s the reason: Relationships are built on trust. If you can’t trust a person to consistently act well, you’re not going to have much of a relationship:
- If you can’t trust your barista to make your fancy coffee drink the right way, you’re not going to have a great relationship with them.
- If you can’t trust your girlfriend not to talk about your relationship issues with her family, you’re probably not going to have a great relationship.
- If you can’t trust your spouse to remain faithful to you, it’s going to make that relationship pretty tough.
Obviously, trust matters a great deal in all our relationships.
But even if you trust a friend or romantic partner on the basics (to be polite, respectful, kind, conscientious, etc.) there’s another level of trust that many people get hung up on. And it severely limits the level of intimacy and overall satisfaction in the relationship: emotional trust.
The reason many relationships don’t go beyond the surface level is because one or both members of the relationship doesn’t trust the other with their emotions, especially their difficult emotions:
- If you’re afraid that expressing your frustration will make your partner too anxious, you’re going to end up resentful and bitter.
- If you’re too afraid of your own sadness to talk with your partner about your grief, you’re going to feel lonely and isolated in your relationship.
- If you’re too afraid to acknowledge and share your guilt and remorse for a mistake or transgression, you will increasingly inject your relationship with half-truths and deceit.
You can’t have intimacy in a relationship if you can’t trust yourself or your partner with your difficult emotions. And a relationship without intimacy is not going to be very satisfying for anyone.
On the other hand, if you’ve practiced the skill of acknowledging your own painful emotions, you’ll be able to share how you feel with your partner in a meaningful and intimate way. And what’s more, when you are willing to share your painful or difficult feelings, it sends a powerful message to your partner that it’s okay for them to do the same.
Few things will supercharge a relationship faster than emotional vulnerability.
3. It will improve your self-awareness
Emotional vulnerability helps you identify unhelpful defense mechanisms and emotional blind spots.
As we discussed earlier, we all instinctively recoil from emotional pain. It’s human nature to avoid pain and emotional pain is no exception.
And while we can often catch ourselves doing this, and then adjust our behavior if it’s not helpful, sometimes our habits of emotional avoidance are so old and entrenched that we don’t even see them.
Here’s an example: I had a 68-year-old client who was having a lot of conflict in his marriage. He was a bright guy, very conscientious and thoughtful on a whole, but he had a serious emotional blindspot that was causing a lot of issues in his relationship with his wife: He got extremely anxious and stressed out anytime his wife mentioned that she had bought something new.
Now, here’s the thing: this was a relatively new issue. For the vast majority of their marriage, he’d never had the slightest issue with his wife’s spending habits (which, to my eye, seemed fairly reasonable given their circumstances). It was only after he retired, that this issue of getting anxious when his wife spent money cropped up.
The other thing you should know is that my client was a financial planner by profession. He was very good with money and their financial situation was excellent. By his own admission, he had no “good reason” to worry about his wife buying a new toaster oven or blazer. And yet, he found himself “stressed” each time she made a new purchase.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play of three months of weekly therapy, but it basically boiled down to this: As a kid, my client’s parents had been terrible with money, so much so that they’d periodically have trouble just making ends meet. And my client had to work as a kid to help support his family after gamboling binge by his father, for example.
This early fear of not having enough money resulted in a habit of worrying every time one of his parents spent any money—he went into planning mode, trying to assess the situation and figure out if it would mean he’d have to find some work to cover the families costs.
Now, as soon as he moved out of the house and got a job, this fear went away (or better, lay dormant) until… he retired. But now that he was not working, it was triggering old habits and behaviors from his childhood. In fact, he wasn’t really aware of just how anxious he was feeling about money. He acknowledged getting “stressed” whenever his wife purchased things, but he couldn’t figure out why exactly because he knew rationally that they had the money and it wasn’t a big deal.
Luckily, things improved rapidly for my client once he started to become aware of this old anxiety pattern popping up. As he practiced acknowledging the anxiety—labeling it himself and sharing it with his wife (and me)—it’s force began to fade.
And this is a common dynamic with painful emotions: The more we try to push them away, the stronger they get. And the more we acknowledge them and “air them out” the less intense they become.
Because my client was willing to be more emotionally vulnerable with his stress and anxiety—to observe it, sit with it, talk about it—he became more aware of this old pattern that was causing so much conflict in his marriage. And happily, as he became more aware of it, he was able to move past it and his marriage was much improved as a result.
How to be more emotionally vulnerable
By this point, I’ve hopefully gotten you at least a little bit intrigued by the idea of emotional vulnerability, if not completely sold.
The last outstanding question you have is probably something along the lines of:
That sounds good, but what does it actually look like to be more emotionally vulnerable? How do I actually do it?
And it’s a great question. Luckily, the answer is far simpler (though not necessarily easier) and you might imagine.
Being emotionally vulnerable just means taking a little bit of time to acknowledge difficult emotions before acting on them. I think of acknowledging our emotions as having two basic parts: 1) observing them, and 2) validating them.
Observing your emotions is what’s left over when you subtract acting and thinking about:
- Observing your anger means watching it without thinking about what it means or what you need to do about it.
- Observing your anxiety means simply noticing it instead of elaborating on it with worries or criticizing yourself for feeling it.
- Observing your sadness means describing what it feels like instead of judging it or interpreting it.
Observing your emotion could be as simple as noticing how it feels in your body or literally just saying to yourself, I feel sad right now.
Validating your emotion just means reminding yourself that it’s okay to feel however you feel:
- You might not enjoy feeling frustrated, but it’s okay that you’re feeling that way.
- You might prefer to feel happy instead of sad, but it’s normal to feel sad when you’ve lost something.
- You might hate feeling anxious, but it’s understandable that you feel that way given what’s going on in your life.
In other words, validating your emotions means reminding yourself that just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
So there you go: In its simplest form, you can practice emotional vulnerability by briefly acknowledging your painful emotions—observing them without acting on them or thinking about them; and validating them by reminding yourself that it’s okay to feel however you’re feeling.
I promise you that if you get in the habit of being emotionally vulnerable in small ways throughout your days, you’ll find it much easier to do in big ways when you really need it most.
To finish off this article, I want to leave you with a few more specific ways you can practice being emotionally vulnerable:
- Label your emotions with plain language. Most of us are in the habit of intellectualizing our emotions, which means we use fancy, overly intellectual language to describe how we feel as a way to avoid the raw feeling that comes from describing how you feel plainly. Saying “I’m just kind of stressed” is less painful than saying “I’m really sad and frustrated right now.” Anytime you feel emotionally uncomfortable, ask yourself, How would a 7-year-old describe this feeling? Chances are they would say I’m sad not I’m stressed; they would say I’m afraid not I’m overwhelmed; they would say I’m mad at you not I’m a little bugged.
- Do some emotion-focused journaling. Part of what makes being emotionally vulnerable hard is that we have all these thoughts and feelings in our heads, but we rarely express them and articulate them. This means we don’t feel very confident in our ability to talk about our feelings in a coherent way. You can practice expressing your emotions clearly by forcing yourself to write them down. Try spending 5 or 10 minutes per day free-writing about how you’ve been feeling.
- Practice being assertive. Assertiveness means communicating your wants and needs honestly and respectfully. When you do this regularly—when you are direct about asking for what you want and saying no to what you don’t want—you create confidence in your ability to express difficult things, including painful emotions. For example, practice expressing what you actually want to watch on Netflix instead of just deferring to what your partner suggests. Practice asking for a better table at a restaurant instead of just sitting wherever the hostess puts you.
- Try therapy or counseling. One of the most useful functions of therapy or counseling is to treat it like a gym for building your emotional vulnerability muscle. If you spend one hour per week discussing emotionally difficult things out loud and with another person, I guarantee you’ll get better at being emotionally vulnerable with yourself and the important people in your life.
All you need to know about emotional vulnerability
Emotionally vulnerability can be a confusing and misunderstood topic. But it doesn’t have to be.
Emotional vulnerability is simply the skill that allows you to acknowledge difficult or painful emotions instead of immediately avoiding them or reacting to them.
And when you can do this, you can begin to cultivate a far healthier and mature relationship with your emotions.