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What Does Vulnerability Really Mean?

Christina Schroeder

If you’ve found yourself browsing leadership or personal development books in the past year or so, you may have noticed some common themes popping up – breaking barriers, overcoming adversity, communicating effectively…and vulnerability. While all of these concepts deserve a deep dive, I’ve found vulnerability to be a particularly interesting topic of conversation – in MJST live events, coaching calls, or even just in my day-to-day conversations with colleagues, friends or family. It seems that everyone is talking about vulnerability in some capacity – some with bright eyes and brave hearts, some with confusion or judgement. When one word creates so many different responses, it can make you pause and ask, “Why? What does vulnerability even really mean?”

To get to the bottom of this question, I looked up the Webster’s Dictionary definition of vulnerability, dug through work from some top researchers and authors on the subject, and (like a total Millennial) created an Instagram poll to hear from my social network. Here’s what I discovered:

  • Webster defines vulnerability as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; open to attack or damage.”

  • Researcher/author Brene Brown has created a movement around her theory that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our most accurate measure of courage. She explains at length in her book, Daring Greatly, that vulnerability can be defined as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure…,” but also as the “birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity.” She believes that, if we’re seeking greater clarity of purpose, vulnerability is the path to get there.

  • In his book, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek discusses the impact of creating an environment in which someone feels safe enough to raise their hand and say, “I need help. I need training. I made a mistake.” He says this ability to be vulnerable without fear of consequences is crucial for companies that want to ‘play the game’ long-term, rather than simply experiencing fleeting success. In order to create that environment, he credits vulnerability throughout an organization – from leaders, teams, peers – as a key ingredient.

So, which one is correct? Which definition is the “right” definition?

I’d suggest all of them!

For additional support and context, I turned to the work of psychologist and author Dr. Robert Firestone. In an interview, Dr. Firestone states that you can’t muffle only certain emotions. For example, you can’t just avoid experiencing fear because it will also limit your ability to experience joy. He goes on to describe that vulnerability is actually a desirable state to live in because it means living without defense and experiencing the fullness of our existence. Being in that state, he believes, is only possible if we embrace fear just as openly as joy.

Dr. Firestone says, “When we're vulnerable, it simply means that we're capable of pursuing our goals, wants, and intentions, and we're able to deal with the consequence on a feeling level. And that includes a variety of feelings, some of which are frightening, some of which are very joyful and exciting — it's a wide range of experience. If you live fully, there will be much joy and a certain amount of pain, too. So, we're not trying to protect against feeling. What I'm saying is that you can afford to feel and, in a feeling state, you're better able to cope effectively with your life.”

It may feel counterintuitive (or maybe just plain inconvenient), but the most accurate measure of courage (being vulnerable) also leaves us open to attack or damage.

  • When we lean in at work or in personal relationships and say, ‘This is me. This is what I believe in. This is where I’m struggling,’ we’re exposing ourselves.
  • When we expose ourselves (our beliefs, our needs, our challenges), we’re doing perhaps the most courageous act possible.
  • That courageous act simultaneously makes us capable of experiencing support, love, joy, appreciation, and certainty AND hurt, rejection, or pain.

There is no courage without vulnerability and there is no vulnerability without fear. They are intricately woven together.

So, let’s return to the original question – What does vulnerability really mean? Here’s the definition that I would offer:

Vulnerability, when experienced as an emotion, is the courageous state of exposing our truest selves in order to fully experience life.

If being courageous and fully experiencing what life has to offer me is the tradeoff to putting myself out there and being more vulnerable, I’m in.

Are you?


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