Journal Entry #7: A Guide to the Many Definitions of Vulnerability

The idea of vulnerability is still a New Age-y, hippie one that I, and many more I’m sure, struggle to talk about in concrete terms.

This is a problem. 

Why? Because we can’t talk about how important vulnerability is if we don’t know what it means. Vulnerability is not a concrete thing. It’s a concept that expresses itself in many different ways. We can’t examine it under a microscope or measure it, but it still deeply affects the human experience.

First, what isn’t vulnerability? 

It isn’t about using personal stories to take advantage of others’ empathy, sympathy, or time. Vulnerability isn’t manipulation. It’s also not about telling untrue stories.

What is vulnerability?

You’ll find many definitions of vulnerability and this article is my guide to a few of the most important ones. The first two are “textbook definitions” and the last two are under-the-radar quotes. I’ll let you know what I think of each and then give you my own definition at the end.

The first place to look for a textbook definition of any word is on Google. It gave me this definition:

“The quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” 

-Google Dictionary

Vulnerable is derived from the Latin word “vulnus”, or “wound”. Today, “a vulnerability” can be physical or non-physical. But if we only talk about vulnerability as risk and potential to harm, we ignore a lot of great things that come with it. These “great things” include openness to love, acceptance, and/or sharing meaningful connections.

The dictionary definition isn’t comprehensive enough.

Another definition of vulnerability we can’t ignore is Brené Brown’s. Brené is a shame and vulnerability researcher at the University of Houston, Texas. Her viral TEDtalk in 2014, called “The Power of Vulnerability” inspired millions of people to see vulnerability as a strength instead of a weakness. 

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené says that vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” And throughout the book, she gives several other definitions of it, including: 

Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.

Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings.

Vulnerability is to show up and be seen.  

Vulnerability is the measurement of courage.

-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

What we should love about Brene’s definitions is that she mentions the “great things” about vulnerability that Google’s definition doesn’t. She acknowledges that vulnerability is “uncertainty”, but it’s also a “measurement of courage”…it’s “emotional risk”, sure, but it’s also the “birthplace” of some very important values that many of us strive for.

For those unfamiliar with Brené’s work or vulnerability as something to embrace, I recommend seeing her TEDtalk for a general introduction to her work. 

Brené’s definition is the most comprehensive definition of vulnerability today. But, we should have a more basic one that anyone, even those of us who have never considered vulnerability as a strength before, can understand.

Before I introduce it, here are two more definitions to help make mine clearer. They are by authors Madeleine L’Engle and Christine Feehan:

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” 

-Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time

“And maybe that was love. Being so vulnerable and allowing someone else in so far they could hurt you, but they also give you everything.”

-Christine Feehan, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

Vulnerability: A Basic Definition

I love to cook, so let’s create a metaphor of for vulnerability out of beef stew. The idea of caring deeply about something would be the main ingredient, “the meat” we’ll say. Yes, there might be a subtle, bitter undertone of risk. But, it would be balanced out by the sweetness of love and connection. 

If we boiled all of the ingredients into a definition that was easy enough for anyone to understand (and I won’t lie: that pun was totally intended. In fact, I rewrote the last paragraph to work with this pun), we might say:

“Vulnerability is when you can stand by the fact that you care.” 

Whether it’s your work, family, partner, friend, beliefs, feelings, or even your favorite cocoa percentage that you care about, you acknowledge that it’s important to you. You love it. And you let your love for that thing inform your decisions, even if it means that other people will know how much you care.

It’s risky because people can reject your love or destroy the thing you love.

I include the word “can” in the definition because being vulnerable is a choice. We are capable of standing by the things we love, but we don’t have to if we feel it isn’t necessary. 

Vulnerability is a new idea that needs to be understood by as many people as possible. Understanding begins with an accessible definition and I hope I’ve cooked up such a definition! 

Which of the definitions in this guide is most helpful? Do you have any feedback on this new definition?

2 thoughts on “Journal Entry #7: A Guide to the Many Definitions of Vulnerability

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