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Is our appetite for vulnerability fuelling a social anxiety epidemic?

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An age of celebrating vulnerability?

I’ve noticed more and more people down the years talking about ‘needing to be more vulnerable with their feelings’ or seeing vulnerability as a virtue.  This always seems to mean being more open with yourself and other people.  ‘But why on Earth would anyone embrace vulnerability?’, I always wonder.  After all, vulnerability entails an expectation that your openness may be met with hostility or harm.  And as far as I can see, there’s nothing to celebrate there.

I’m not arguing against being open and being in tune with your interior emotional world.   In fact, I suspect we could all do with cultivating a greater awareness of what’s going on inside and what our emotions are telling us.  And a part of open  is also about recognising the reality of human frailty and fallibility.

And another crucial point is that some people – for instance survivors of abuse or refugees – genuinely are vulnerable.  In a  sense, if we all lay claim to ‘vulnerability’, then we might be dispossessing those who genuinely are.

So what’s wrong with vulnerability?

My contention is with vulnerability-as-expectation-of-hostility.  I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve known who celebrate vulnerability and live with overwhelming social anxiety.  And no wonder, if you’re constantly expecting every encounter with another human being to be potentially harmful.  Of course, there are other – better – ways to think about openness.  Authenticity is an obvious choice.

Time to embrace an authentic authenticity instead?

Among other things, authenticity requires self-awareness and self-determination, together with an openness to what’s going on within and to the indeterminacy of what’s coming next.  I might be open to the possibility of being attacked or harmed in my next inter-personal encounter, but that’s just one possibility among countless others. 

Although the concept ‘authenticity’ has morphed into a pernicious kind of perfectionism – alive and well on Instagram feeds the world over – authenticity in its ‘authentic’ sense encompasses the virtue of openness without framing things around the possibility of getting harmed.  What a burden, what a source of anxiety!

Beyond vulnerability

Some words and ideas take on a life of their own and mutate into something quite divorced from the context in which they were born – and vulnerability is one of them.  It’s time to stop celebrating vulnerability and instead simply try to live as authentic a life as possible, free of the fear that every encounter will be potentially hostile and open to the possibility of what each new moment may bring.

And if we ditch ‘vulnerability’ and embrace authenticity, I’ve a hunch that anxiety levels will plunge – because words and the expectations they foster really do matter.


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