Vulnerability is scary. But it’s also a powerful and authentic way to live. According to author Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead,
“Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the centre, of meaningful human experiences.”
Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Think about the vulnerability it takes to love someone – whether it’s your parents, siblings, spouse or close friends. Love is filled with uncertainties and risks. As Brown notes, the person you love might or might not love you back. They might be in your life for a long time or they might not. They might be terrifically loyal or they might stab you in the back.
Think about the vulnerability it takes to share your ideas with the world, not knowing how your work will be perceived. You might be appreciated, laughed at or downright skewered.
Vulnerability can be challenging but what can make it even harder — needlessly so — are the inaccurate assumptions we hold about it.
A common myth – vulnerability equates to weakness
Giving, responding, opening up – without being able to set limits, is a recipe for getting hurt. As children, we don’t really have a choice, we are naturally vulnerable and don’t yet have the skills to defend ourselves if that vulnerability is not respected. This is so often the case with childhood abuse and neglect, experiences that can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and other symptoms of PTSD.
How we perceive vulnerability
When we have been hurt because our vulnerability has been disrespected, we may learn to see vulnerability as a weakness or emotionally dangerous. If you venture there at all, it will be with extreme caution but this caution comes at a cost. Healthy vulnerability, being able to trust and open up, without the fear of hurt or rejection connects us with others. It opens us up to love, joy, creativity, empathy and compassion.
The importance of setting limits
Paradoxically, the constructive aspects of vulnerability can only be realised when we’re able to set healthy boundaries. If you have unresolved trauma, it is likely you haven’t learned, or had the opportunity, to set healthy boundaries; you have managed to survive so far by fight, flight, freeze or pleasing. So having boundaries can seem like an alien concept. For example, a person with healthy boundaries can say no to others when they want to, but they are also comfortable opening themselves up to intimacy and close relationships.
Someone who habitually keeps others at a distance, whether emotionally or physically, is said to have rigid boundaries. Alternatively, someone who tends to get too involved with others has porous boundaries.
Most people naturally use a mix of different boundary types depending on the context. Being flexible and able to negotiate different settings and relationships in a way that allows for freedom of expression and connection is one of the signs of having healthy boundaries.
What does it mean to healthy boundaries?
You value your own opinions.
You don’t compromise your values for others
You share personal information in an appropriate way
You know your personal wants and needs, and can communicate them
You can accept a refusal
Common Traits of Rigid Boundaries
Avoids intimacy and close relationships
Unlikely to ask for help.
Few close relationships
Very protective of personal information
May seem detached, even with romantic partners
Keeps others at a distance to avoid the possibility of rejection
Common Traits of Porous Boundaries
Over shares personal information
Difficulty saying no to the requests of others
Overinvolved with others’ problems
Dependent on the opinions of others
Accepting of abuse or disrespect
Fears rejection if they do not comply with others’ wants
You can learn to set healthy boundaries and the first important step is to notice the people or situations that drain you, leaving you feeling robbed of your power.
Step One in Setting Healthy Boundaries
Exercise: Check Your Personal Engine Light
Think about how you feel when you’re around someone who drains and upsets you, someone with whom you feel you lose yourself. How does this feel in your body? How does it feel in your mind? How does the presence of this person affect you?
Now thinking about these feelings and sensations, imagine your body is like a car, with a dashboard full of warning lights.
You’ve just identified what you could call the “check engine light” for your personal boundary system. It’s a security system warning that your personal energy field has been breached, and you’re letting in stuff that isn’t yours.
This is really important. When our boundaries are weak, unguarded, or unclear, we let in all sorts of stuff that isn’t actually our stuff, and we unconsciously give away our own personal energy.
That means you’re dealing with a breach of your energetic security system and a leak of your own personal energy. You’re looking at warning signs indicating that some work needs to be done, some boundaries need to be shored up, and you need to return to centre.