The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.

—W. B. Yeats, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

It’s the desire to connect that makes us most vulnerable. Those moments we stumble onto a perilously bright stage and, with all our imperfections exposed, whisper the truth about what we really want: sex, forgiveness, a child. Vulnerability is there when we pluck up the courage to ask for something we need, when we say, “I care about this, and I want you to care about it too.” It’s there when we make a commitment—“I love you”; “I trust you”—or confess to feeling tender, joyful, terrified. It feels like the wind whistling through the rib cage. It can be unpleasant. Exposing. Vulnerability is laying out the dreams of Yeats’s poem, and hoping no one will stomp all over them.

In the last ten years, psychologists and social scientists have become interested in vulnerability. Their research has found that those moments when we experience ourselves as naked and defenseless are crucial to developing intimacy, building a sense of identity and cultivating self-worth. This is not a new idea. Medieval scholars spoke of finding the bravery required to live with integrity and speak from the heart, and thought it was a cardinal virtue (see: COURAGE).

Perhaps this twenty-first-century interest in vulnerability has been driven by dissatisfaction with the self-esteem movement, and its brittle, narcissistic displays of achievement. Or perhaps vulnerability has piqued the interest of researchers because of its centrality in twenty-first-century life. Entering bank details online, e-mailing personal information: there’s a wheedling voice in our heads that wonders how protected our secrets are. And in the workplace? Being robust enough to withstand the vulnerability of our positions may be a critical factor in our ability to navigate life as “precariat” workers, bounced from one short-term contract to the next (for what happens when we fail, see: DISGRUNTLEMENT). Even precariats working in the creative industries, held up as exemplars of the entrepreneurial spirits that emerge when we are denied job security, may struggle with managing vulnerability. They have to learn to be audacious enough to lay out fledgling ideas before clients, and resilient enough to cope when they say “no.”

Being able to “lean in” to the discomforts of vulnerability may be emerging as a particular emotional virtue, but it’s not a straightforward good. The euphemism “a vulnerable person” is often used to describe all those marginalized and dispossessed in our society, at risk of manipulation or abuse. And for every person who walks into a therapist’s office rigid with defenses, there are those whose extreme openness has become self-defeating. For the “oversharers” and desperate lovers who make themselves too vulnerable, full disclosure can alienate the people they want to draw closer. Their behavior may look like a desire for greater intimacy and authenticity. But repeatedly, it emerges as a strange way of pushing people away. Trust is what is at stake in both these cases. For those whom society designates “vulnerable,” and those for whom vulnerability has become an unhelpful habit, a readiness to expose oneself is partly a question of being too trusting—and therefore of being too quickly hurt.

If vulnerability is replacing self-esteem as the emotion we should try to develop in our lives, what we should talk about is balance. An optimal in-between. Saying “I love you” is a risk worth taking. But a whole life lived on the precipice? To have value, vulnerability does not have to be terrifyingly transformative, or a constant background hum. It can be knowingly practiced, in careful measures too.

For more about emotions in the workplace, see: CHEERFULNESS.

On having the courage of your convictions, see: BASOREXIA.