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Vulnerability Is a Sign of Strength, Not Weakness

Letting Go

“I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” ~Brene Brown

I was raised to be determined. I was raised to put my head down and solider on during tough times, and I was raised to never be vulnerable, because being so meant you were weak.

Whether these were the intended lessons, it’s hard to say, but somewhere deep inside that is how I interpreted the messages from those who had influence in my life.

Throughout most of my life I carried these messages like suits of armor protecting me from invisible opponents, sure to strike when I least expected it.

Each time I unbuckled the armor and exposed my raw, tender skin to what I thought vulnerability looked like, it was only a matter of time before I was left broken hearted, disappointed, or worse yet, full of shame and self-hate.

Looking back on memories, I am reminded of a time when I fell madly in love, the type of love where you are brave, do not hold back, and lead with your heart.

Unfortunately, I later discovered that the person I was involved with was leading two lives, and would be on “business trips” while they spent time with me and then the reserve with their other life.

It all came crashing down after they “claimed” a death in the family, and when I called to give my condolences to the family, the supposed deceased family member answered the phone.

The lessons I learned during these perceived attacks left me carrying a heavy imaginary backpack full of reasons as to why I could not be vulnerable.

In my mind, this determination was a brave path to be walked alone, and it proved just how independent I was, unlike those who “needed” people in their life.

It’s been a slow evolution from this point, which reached a low five years ago, to now. In fact, sometimes it has seemed so slow that I thought I was inching backward.

With an instinct to push, question, and doubt, buying in to the vulnerability bandwagon has been a tough sell.

Despite reading a plethora of self-help, transition, and any other inspiring books I could get my hands on, it never seemed to make a difference. Something just was not connecting inside of me.

During a personal development course three years ago, the facilitator used an actual full backpack to show me what the weight of my self-defeating story felt like.

He then had a group leader push down on the pack with the goal that I would eventually give in to the weight and to the story in my head that was holding me hostage.

During the demonstration, I could feel the weight of the pack getting heavier, my legs shaking, my stomach muscles twitching with fatigue, and my head pounding from my tenacious spirit fighting desperately to hang on to my story of why vulnerability was bad, I was determined, and I didn’t need anyone. 

After what seemed like an eternity, I did give in, and although I wish I could say it was like a light switch and I immediately embraced a new way of viewing and practicing vulnerability, that wasn’t the case.

Over the last three years it has been more of a slow sunrise, and on days when I felt brave and could trust who I was connecting with, I was able to open myself up even for just a moment and let people in.

I always thought it was my strength and determination that inspired people. However, what I have learned over the last five years is that those qualities in fact intimidated and kept people at a distance.

When I felt my weakest—when I could hardly get out of bed and face the challenge of a new day after a relationship had ended or when I was laid off due to a company downsizing—I dug deep and found the courage to ask for help from very supportive friends and my running group teammates.

I was overwhelmed with support, encouragement, and people saying how I was inspiring them in their own lives.

During this year of significant change and transition, I am proud to say that I have not put the armor back on. Being open to my vulnerability has allowed me to connect with people on a new level and embrace life lessons I definitely would not have learned previously.

In moments when I felt alone, digging deep, finding just an ounce of courage inside and asking for help, and admitting when I did not have an answer to a challenge I was facing has brought deeper, more meaningful relationships into my life.

In addition, I am now developing a calm in my life that has allowed me to embrace a new level of happiness.

Looking back on that demonstration with the backpack three years go, what I remember isn’t how long I resisted or even that I surrendered in the end. I remember how it inspired others who saw that I found the courage to give in and embrace what I feared the most after fighting so hard.

Strength isn’t about fighting; sometimes it’s about letting go. Having the courage to be vulnerable, even when it feels insurmountable, is the first step on the journey to a wholehearted life.

Photo by Beth Scupham

About Terry Downs

Terry is the inspiration behind Simplicity Adventures, a company daring people to dream and achieve what they once thought was impossible and then inspiring others to do the same. Her book “The Simple Guide to Racing Ironman: Practical Strategies for an Extraordinary Day," is coming out on Amazon this June.

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  • ronnyere

    This used to hold me back from my goals and now i know that we have to fight for what we believe to real and not what they tell us. Boeing vulnerable is being stronger

  • I can really relate. Being the oldest, I was always the one that had to be responsible and that became my role in life. However I learned through personal development reading and training that actually being vulnerable is “OK”. What I discovered is that to be vulnerable I first had to be honest with myself and also accept myself totally as being vulnerable means you are “open” to criticism and judgement. When you accept yourself you realise that criticism and judgement is often just “opinions” of people who are deeply unhappy or unfulfilled. Thanks for your honesty and for sharing your story.

  • Brandon Wright

    I became aware of this concept exactly one year ago after a relationship came to bitter, crashing end. I was deeply in love with this person, and the feelings were reciprocated. However, their armor was impenetrable, and there was no fertile ground for joy and happiness to grow into our lives; the pain of it became too great to continue.

    I do believe that vulnerability empowers us, and embracing it is often a scary, beautiful thing. There is a good TED talk on this subject:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

  • I grew up in a household where vulnerability was also shown as a sign of weakness. “Don’t let your guard down!” my father said “you can’t trust no one” he said. It all led to the validation of the idea that if you are vulnerable you are weak and only opening yourself up to pain– which must be avoided.
    Someone once told me that to be vulnerable is a true sign of courage. That allowing yourself to be “weak” is really a moment of strength, and that in itself is of valor. Definitely changed my perspective, and it’s humbling to read about your experience along those same lines. 🙂

  • wigirl

    Thank you for sharing your story. The backpack exercise was on an episode of one of my favorite shows, The Big C 🙂

  • Terry Downs

    Absolutely! Thanks for the personal insight.

  • Terry Downs

    I can really relate to what you say. Sometimes being honest with ourselves is a challenge, especially when it challenges the stories in our head!

  • Terry Downs

    Thanks for much for the comments. I am very happy that you connected with what I wrote.

  • Terry Downs

    I am glad you could connect with my story. A visual exercise always seems to connect the deepest, even when we fight it!

  • Terry Downs

    Brene Brown is one of my favorite Ted talks and I know it has connected with many people. Always glad to hear from another person that enjoyed it as well. Thanks for your comments.

  • Lauren Sullivan

    I’ve always felt too that my strength and the fact that no matter what I can always “be okay” are these huge positives. I have been told though too, that I am “too independent”. I guess I need to find a balance. Great post!

  • Terry Downs

    Thanks for the great insight. Knowing you will be Ok is such a huge gift to yourself! Thanks for sharing.

  • Octarin

    Not when it becomes a lure for a narcissist in your life. I should know. He found mine, he dug deep, exploited every single shred of it, fed it and made it grow and kept exploiting till I was an inch from the asylum. You don’t want to be that vulnerable. Please believe me…

  • Danielle Dinh

    There must a balance for one cannot live on either extremes. There are times to be vulnerable and times to be independent.