What Is… Vulnerability

Social & cognitive vulnerability - "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage." – Brené Brown

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is vulnerability.

The word vulnerable is derived from the Latin word vulnerare, which means to be wounded. There are different ways in which we may be vulnerable, including socially and cognitively. In a diathesis-stress model, vulnerability refers to biological and psychosocial factors that can predispose an individual to a mental disorder in the presence of situational stressors.

Types of vulnerability

Cognitive vulnerability results from erroneous patterns of thinking, which makes people prone to certain psychological problems, such as mood disorders. Insecure attachment and stressful events contribute to this process.

Social vulnerability refers to the inability to handle the external stressors that one is faced with. Structural factors, including social inequalities and political factors, can play a role. Entire communities may be vulnerable in what’s known as collective vulnerability, “a state in which the integrity and social fabric of a community is or was threatened through traumatic events or repeated collective violence.” Intergenerational trauma can have profound effects on well-being several generations after the traumatic events occurred.

In dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), physical vulnerability refers to the things that can have an impact on your mental/emotional state. The acronym ABC PLEASE identifies specific areas where you can manage your physical vulnerability.

Brené Brown

I don’t think it would be unfair to call author Brené Brown the queen of vulnerability. She has written multiple books and given TED Talks, and is pretty all-around amazing. In her book Daring Greatly, she challenges the idea that being vulnerable represents weakness; instead, she says, “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage”.

She explains that being vulnerable involves emotional exposure. While this may not feel comfortable, it is at the core of all emotions. Daring to be vulnerable requires a sense of worthiness to combat shame and beliefs that we are not good enough.

In her learning lab video Why Be Vulnerable When Armor Feels Safer, she said that vulnerability has three components, and the ability to sit uncomfortably in them: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It’s being okay with not having certainty and control, which doesn’t necessarily involve disclosure. It’s a willingness to say you don’t know, and you don’t have an answer right away. The opposite of vulnerability is armour and guardedness. Having all your responses prepared ahead of time and ready to go is not vulnerability.

PostivePsychology.com has a worksheet based on Daring Greatly that will help you identify ways in which you could have been vulnerable in triggering situations.

Being vulnerable

I am highly selective about who I’m prepared to be vulnerable with. I’ve had some negative experiences, and these are hard to overcome without going into avoidance mode. I suppose I’m vulnerable here on the blog, but there’s really not much that could happen in terms of negative repercussions with that. I suppose all I can do is look for ways that I can be vulnerable, and at least try to push myself.

Is being vulnerable something that you struggle with?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

25 thoughts on “What Is… Vulnerability”

  1. I’m a highly sensitive person and I always am sensitive and very vulnerable. Nowadays, I learned to not be too open by people who not care. It’s just important to be vulnerable by the right people. I love people who are open and vulnerable. I feel like I can trust them. It’s increible brave to share the hard stuff in your life. I loved this post. Great explanation ❤️👏

  2. I am a continuous work in progress with vulnerability. I am grateful when others are vulnerable around me and try to be the same, but sometimes my walls and masks kick in and I have to move them aside. I know since I’ve really been working on it my relationships have really changed for the better. But still I have to work at it. I do believe Im vulnerable in my writing though. Another thought provoking post my friend! 😊💐

  3. Ooo this is a really interesting one to dig into a little more. I think emotional exposure and daring to ‘put yourself out there’ are very hard to do because it’s uncomfortable and we get conditioned by our experiences, such as what you’ve found with negative experiences in the past. I agree with Alexis. I find this a constant work-in-progress for me too, but do think you are vulnerable and brave in your blogging, and I like to think I take little steps towards opening myself up a little more in personal posts too.

  4. harotianessentials

    vulnerability is so scary at times. I like to pretend that I am capable of it, but when it comes down to it, I freeze like a deer in headlights when it presents itself.

  5. I think we all should embrace our vulnerability because we all our vulnerable. But i think i always find it hard to show my vulnerability. It’s so difficult to do just that. I would recommend you to watch this video about this topic and it’s only 4 minutes long.

  6. I used to hide away my entire life inside of me, but as a result of therapy over the summer I’ve realized how important vulnerability is in deepening relationships and receiving support. I am really trying to be more vulnerable. I track it on my diary card for DBT. So far, being vulnerable has greatly improved my life. I feel like my family understand me much better, I am less ashamed of myself, and I have better friendships.

  7. Okay… children are vulnerable (at least i was very trusting and open and loving) and told to be careful, weary, and then we still get hurt, then told to be vulnerable. 😔 Badass advice and i have no reason to wonder why i am so moody! I know why!! 💔

  8. I think it can be difficult to show our vulnerabilities to just anyone, for me there’s a fear of being judged, of thinking I’m not strong enough/good enough, fear of being offered unwanted advise or criticism. Being vulnerable requires trust.

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