Vulnerability: A Gateway Emotion

9 Jan

By Leslie Scott and Lucia Kidwell
NASW Ohio Chapter Interns

Vulnerability is a topic social workers confront on a daily basis with clients, friends, even co-workers. In the United States, vulnerability is seen as weakness. Even the dictionary defines vulnerability negatively — “susceptible to attack” or “susceptible to injury”. For social workers, however, being susceptible to vulnerability and being able to operate outside of our comfort zones are essential life skills. We are trained to be comfortable with silence to help our clients accept vulnerability. After all, when we ask clients to divulge their personal information, we are asking them to be vulnerable.

University of Houston College of Social Work Researcher, Brene Brown says social workers should see vulnerability in a positive light. In her research, Brown examined connections between people and discovered what most often dissolves connections is shame and fear, the underlying feelings behind vulnerability. When we feel vulnerable, we feel isolated or embarrassed, even fearful for our reputation, safety, and job security. By changing how we respond to our own vulnerabilities, however, we start to see a shift from the negative to the positive.

In Brown’s research, she identified three characteristics from her participants, all of whom had higher numbers of positive connections. The three characteristics were: (1) they believed they were worthy of love, (2) they were courageous, such as courage to be imperfect, and (3) they embraced vulnerability. To embrace vulnerability begins with acknowledging vulnerability as a necessity of life. Vulnerability forces us to learn new life skills, try new activities, and much more. It can create happiness, joy, love, excitement — all positive emotions we hope to see in our clients’ lives. Furthermore, when we embrace our own vulnerabilities, we can better establish positive feelings and connections in our lives. When we hide or control our emotions on a regular basis, we begin to lose our ability to recognize others’ emotions. We lose focus of the client if we are always working to hide our true selves. Avoiding vulnerability and feelings of embarrassment, isolation, and fear is exhausting, so why not choose to embrace our vulnerabilities? According to Brown, embracing vulnerability begins with our behavior: letting yourself be seen, loving with your whole heart even though there is no guarantee, practicing gratitude and joy, and believing you are enough. Brene Brown’s guidelines acknowledge vulnerability as a gateway to living life and experiencing all the emotions that come with it.

  • I will let co-workers and clients see me for who I am, without remorse.
  • I will attend functions, even if I feel out of place.
  • I will accept that my co-workers, even my clients will see me when I am sad, happy, or mad.
  • I may have the worst client, but I am thankful I have a job and an employer who trusts me with difficult cases.
  • I am joyful that my life is stressful, because it means it is filled with people.
  • I am enough.

For more information, see Brene Brown’s video:


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