What comes to mind when we hear the words sensitivity, vulnerability, strength? Many of us grew up with the idea that being strong meant being hard, always positive and with a sense of power.
It,s the idea of strength that we often received from our environment in our early years. There was a belief that certain emotions were not good – especially when we were overly sensitive and got lots of feelings- that we,d better not stay there too much, we,d rather focus on ‘feeling good’ and move forward, that was the important thing.
Almost all of us have heard sometimes: ‘it,s ok, don’t cry’, ‘don’t be afraid’, or things like: ‘you’re too sensitive’, ‘this one cries for everything’ or more direct sentences like: ‘don’t be so sensitive, you will not do well in life ‘(the latter, a phrase I heard a lot in my childhood). Or directly you would hear laughter and laughing at someone in the family who was more sensitive than others, especially if you were a boy, but it could also happen if you were a girl.
To many, this made us feel that being the way we were was not appropriate and that to fit in we had to be different and fight our feelings. To be above all, ‘strong’. Indeed, the idea that strength is related to hardness and positivity, and vulnerability and sensitivity relates to weakness is still widespread.
The fear of rejection that implied showing our true feelings forced us to repress them and created the false belief that certain emotions are not good and therefore, to be strong and to be ‘OK’, we should not feel them. So better hide and pretend that nothing happens.
The shame of feeling ‘too much’
The problem is that when we try to cover up what we feel, hiding a part of our personality, we create a false identity, and that causes shame to take hold of us.
Far from feeling strong and secure, that makes us feel more fragile and fearful, fantasizing that if others knew how we really are, they would reject us.
In fact, in therapy, one of the emotions that people find most difficult to feel and express is sadness.
This is because, while joy, positivism and even anger are states and emotions that push us to do things and go out (which allows us to be productive and ‘push ahead’), sadness is an introspective emotion, which forces us to stop, feel and process things. Also, when it,s released, we never know how long it will last (especially if we,ve been pushing it down for a while), and that causes us special fear, because of our desire to always be active and productive.
Due to these ideas that being vulnerable and sensitive was basically a bad thing, we shut down and created armors, and then showed only some parts of ourselves (the ‘powerful’, ‘happy’, ‘strong’, the cheerful, the helpful, the one that could put up with everything .. – depending on what was appreciated at home-), being trapped in them. Coming to believe that being strong was the main important quality and that it meant being always positive, powerful, hard and a fighter, and not accepting the feelings of confusion, disappointment or sadness.
Fear of emotions, fear of feeling and expressing sorrow, sadness, uncertainty, loneliness, fear, pain … – not accepting our vulnerability – has generally been the norm of society. We can understand this today because a lot of research in neuroscience explains to us that our minds are programmed to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain, so to feel aversion or rejection to all that is painful is something well rooted in our brain and it automatically fires.
The antidote to shame: acceptance
However, although wanting to avoid pain or wanting to leave is something totally natural and essential when dealing with physical pain (it makes us seek help to solve it), this doesn,t work so well with emotional pain. It,s only by accepting and welcoming all of our emotions, giving them the necessary space and time necessary to regulate themselves, that they heal. No control, no demands, no hurries.
In trying to reduce our emotional spectrum to a few colors, we overlook that all our emotions have something to contribute. Specifically, sensitivity offers wonderful gifts such as intuition, creativity, humanity, empathy and the artistic facet, since the emotional side is linked to the right hemisphere, the part of the brain that is in charge of imagination, the symbolic and the general overview.
Sadness allows us introspection, to get perspective and finally leads us to the acceptance of changes or losses, which makes us stronger and more resilient in the face of life. Our sensitivity and our vulnerability are what make us therefore whole and complete.
In fact, we can,t feel strong if we deny parts of us. We need to accept ourselves in our totality, with all our sides: the bright one (or the one that has been valued most socially) and the dark one (or the one that has been most rejected or feared), if we want to flourish or feel full. The opposite is like trying to make a rose a rose without the thorns that protect it, and without which it could never have become a rose.
Our sensitive side and our vulnerability are ultimately what makes us human. Even if we want to change or improve some aspects of ourselves, we need to welcome and allow everything inside us (‘what you accept transforms, what you resist persists’, Carl Jung).
Sharing our vulnerability = better connections with others
Recent research has shown the importance of welcoming our vulnerability to feel integrated and at peace with ourselves (without needing to hide anything or feel ashamed for being as we are), as well as to create authentic connections with others (Brené Brown).
Many vulnerable and authentic people are successful in our society, according to these same investigations, for their authenticity. Those who dare to be and share themselves as they are in all their aspects usually generate admiration and respect, and are referents for being themselves, expressing themselves naturally, something that in general we all want.
Feeling fear, shame, sadness or disappointment from time to time, being vulnerable, is an intrinsic part of being human, and sharing ourselves without hiding, usually makes others feel identified with us (besides being relieved: ‘less bad, I’m not the only one! ‘), or solidarity, and want to lend a hand. This creates a feeling of bond and connection and permission to be. This is where vulnerability and strength come together. The love and connection we are looking for happen right then.
Cry for help
Naturally, this doesn,t happen with everyone. In fact, the habit of hiding and overcoming our emotions – the fear of vulnerability – can be so ingrained and so deep that, when it comes to opening ourselves with sincerity to another, we must choose well with whom to do it. Otherwise, we run the risk of encountering the same answers that made us close at first: being ignored or judged, and feeling again that we,re not good enough and that we won,t be accepted.
Without the courage to be vulnerable, we not only miss the full range of our rich emotional world, but the opportunity to create connection with others and more authentic relationships, which in turn will make us feel relaxed, loved, accepted, and that we can be who we are without inferiority complexes.
After all, we are simply human beings, living all kinds of experiences, joyful and painful, having to face situations of all kinds throughout life. And for that, the last thing we need is to hide or try to overcome everything by ourselves. It,s enough to welcome all our emotions and let them be, trusting that they will self-regulate themselves (trusting in the intrinsic wisdom of our organism).
Authentic strength is therefore linked to our ability to be vulnerable. When we are able to show our most enthusiastic and active side and also our sensitive, introspective and passive side; when we can express what we are without having to pretend or hide anything; when we can ask for help and admit that sometimes we are afraid or feel insecure or sad, and to feel that this is natural; When we simply live life naturally and simply, we feel confident. From the relaxation of acceptance, energy rises to be able to face anything.
We connect then with that force that takes us and directs us, which arises from accepting all our parts, and grows by being rooted in respect and love for all that we are.
Thus we feel that we belong to our own being (that we are not betraying it), that we are fully human, one of a kind – both unique and similar to the rest of humans -, and that our sensitivity, rather than a negative trait or problem to solve is a gift to take care of and that can contribute greatly to this world.
By fully feeling our belonging, we also feel the internal love and acceptance that we are always looking for on the outside, which is our birthright, the source of our happiness and true strength.