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 wellbeing multiple 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. You can find out more in the DBT Skills for Mood Disorders mini-ebook.
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, and instead says that “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage”.
She explains that being vulnerable involves emotional exposure, and 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 uncomfortable 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 vulnerable is armour and guardedness, and having all your responses prepared ahead of time and ready to go.
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.
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/shut-down 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 has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.