In today’s world, the pressure and expectation to succeed can be intense. Family, career, friends and community all place their differing demands on us, and it is only natural that we try to be the best we can be in each role. But this can be exhausting and takes its toll on our mental health—and potentially our self-esteem.
Accepting one’s vulnerabilities is now widely regarded as being a cornerstone of good mental health and emotional wellbeing. Indeed, a recent study found that embracing our limitations and negative feelings—as opposed to resisting them—can reduce the chances of developing mood disorders long term.
A key figure in highlighting the importance of coming to terms with vulnerability is American research professor Brene Brown, whose TED Talk on the subject has proven hugely popular all over the world and sparked vital discussion on the topic.
With her research and insights in mind, here are some key points regarding self-acceptance and becoming comfortable with vulnerability.
Vulnerability is courage
Vulnerability, Brown believes, does not represent weakness. Instead, it’s an empowering example of courage. During her research, in which Brown asked interviewees for examples of their vulnerability, she received answers ranging from admitting to mistakes at work, to telling someone they love them or calling a friend whose child has died. But in Brown’s eyes, these are all examples of courage.
The key thing is for us is to learn to reinterpret what we initially perceive as vulnerability—as we open ourselves up to other people—as instances of strength and courage. This begins by recognising and accepting when we are vulnerable, rather than, as Brown puts it, our tendency to ‘numb’ our vulnerability altogether.
‘Perfectionism’ is popularly defined as a single-minded drive to perform flawlessly in any endeavour, no matter how small. Brown, however, describes this as a “debilitating belief system” that can impede success and development and lead to anxiety, depression and fear.
Perfectionists, for Brown, seek the approval of others, which ultimately defines their identity. A healthier way of looking at perfectionism might be as a continual striving for improvement where, most crucially, the focus is solely on yourself as you look to set the standards for your own worthiness.
“Healthy striving is internally focused,” says Brown. “It’s ‘I want to do this and be the best I can be’. Perfectionism is not about what I want, it’s about ‘What will people think?'”
The importance of listening and communicating
Of course, being willing to listen to and appreciate the opinions and experiences of others is a valuable part of opening yourself up to vulnerability and understanding how we might improve ourselves.
But just as important is that we listen to ourselves. As psychologist Lisa Firestone says, when we are hurting we often look to dismiss or numb ourselves to the pain. Part of self-acceptance and harnessing vulnerability for wellbeing is acknowledging need and that a shoulder to lean on—be it from a loved one, friend or even professional help—is again an act of courage and a step on the way to better mental and emotional health.
Embracing vulnerability in this way also allows opportunity for relationships to develop and reach profound levels of connection as a result of openness and the acknowledgement that help might be needed.
Guilt and shame
Brown is unequivocal: “I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behaviour.”
Guilt is a healthy feeling and an understandable sense of discomfort in the wake of us doing something, or not doing something, that is damaging to our personal values. It can, therefore, be the catalyst for change, development and maturity. Acknowledging guilt as part of a wider acceptance of vulnerability can undoubtedly be a positive thing.
However, Brown points out that there is a strong distinction to be made between guilt and shame, with the latter a more destructive impulse that can result in depression and anxiety. Guilt is about behaviour, shame is about self-definition; with guilt the person says, “I made a mistake”, while with shame, the person says, “I am a mistake.”
It is important not to mistake guilt for shame. We can allow guilt to be a beneficial factor in our lives, and shame, which is only natural for everybody, can be confronted and worked through by acknowledging and understanding that vulnerability is at its heart.
“I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness,” says Brown, “but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”