“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy.”

— Brene Brown

Vulnerability is a buzzword, not only in mental health but also in business and leadership. Once thought of as a sign of weakness, this quality is now a vital means of connection with others, a recognition of our humanity, and a pillar of good mental health. Refusing to process tough thoughts and emotions (or repressing them) may be instinctual when life throws the hardest curveballs at you, but doing so will only hurt your mental health in the long run. Read on to discover why being vulnerable and accepting challenging thoughts and feelings is crucial for optimal mental health. 


The Harm Caused by Repression


Anger, frustration, fear, disappointment, sadness… these are all difficult emotions you may have been taught to repress when you were younger. “Big boys/girls don’t cry,” “It’s not that big a deal,” and “You’re being over-sensitive” are typical messages that parents sometimes send with a view to making kids feel better, only to teach them a dangerous lesson: tough emotions are “bad” and should be pushed away. Study after study has shown that avoiding or escaping from tough emotions can lead to a host of problems, ranging from anxiety to depression and addiction. Research has also revealed how repression is linked to a host of physical problems, ranging from dizziness and chest pain to heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal problems. 


CBT and Other Gold-Standard Therapies to Combat Emotional Repression and Embrace Vulnerability


When it comes to emotional repression, one of the most effective approaches in current psychology is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and two of its strongest branches—dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). CBT involves recognizing negative thoughts (those that make us feel vulnerable) and reframing them into more positive, fact-based thoughts. DBT and ACT differ in that instead of reframing thoughts, they focus more on allowing oneself to feel pain but “ride through” it through mindfulness techniques. ACT has an added component since it encourages clients to commit to accepting the things that make them vulnerable, but also committing to making the changes they can. All three therapies aim to help clients free the thoughts and emotions that make them vulnerable, without allowing these thoughts and emotions to “trap” them in rumination, anxiety, and depression. 


Behavioral Experiments


Embracing vulnerability is tough if you aren’t used to it, which is why one component of CBT involves exposing yourself in small doses to the things that make you feel vulnerable. Say you have had a vehicle accident in the past and it has made you afraid of driving and exposing yourself to other cars on the road. There are many behavioral changes you could make to appease your fears. These include opting for a sturdy SUV, or prioritizing for technologies like lane assist and automatic braking. The right vehicle can make you feel safer so you don’t lose out on a job or social opportunities if you have no other way to get places. Behavioral experiments also involve increasing your exposure to the things that make you afraid or vulnerable. For instance, in the example given above, you might take a short drive with someone else at the wheel, then take the wheel for a few minutes yourself, increasing the length of your journeys by a few minutes each time.


Exercising Self-Compassion


Embracing your vulnerability also involves self-compassion—a quality that has been found in numerous studies, depression, to protect people against perfectionism and anxiety. To exercise self-compassion, simply pause various times in the day and ask yourself: “Am I being as kind to myself in this situation as I would be to a best friend or loved one?” Be on guard for negative thoughts about yourself and try the ACT technique of imagining that these thoughts are clouds in the sky. You can see them, but they slowly move across the sky. They are not permanent and they do not define you.


Being vulnerable allows others to get close to you, but it also allows you to enjoy better mental health and happiness. To open yourself up to your emotions, try CBT, DBT, or ACT. Also, aim to be self-compassionate and to understand that there is nothing wrong with negative thoughts and emotions. Acknowledge them, accept them, and commit to taking positive action to change the things in life that you believe are causing you unhelpful pain or discomfort. 

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