‘The Ability in Vulnerability’

Dr. Farah Naqvi General Psychology, Mental Health

The other day when I took my daughter to bed to put her to sleep, it was raining, and the sky was making thundering sounds. My three-year-old clinging firmly to me said- “Mumma hug me”. These two words, “hug me” come so spontaneously to her whenever she feels threatened or cautious that it left me thinking. As adults, many of us sometimes think ten times before asking for attention even when we may desperately need it. This experience with her made me reflect on how free and natural we are born as a child; and how our personalities get shaped over time owing to our environment and experiences. It also reminded me of a term called vulnerability. By vulnerability in the social context, I mean the ability to express our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and opinions honestly with others irrespective of how you will be perceived and responded to.

Children express themselves freely. They don’t see emotional vulnerability as a threat. Then why, as adults, we find it so difficult to be vulnerable? The reason could be our developed ego, fear of not being reciprocated or societal factors too.

A person who confidently embraces and shares his/her flaws or weakness communicates to the world- “this is what I am, and I don’t care what opinion or judgment you draw about me.” With this thought process, he or she not only becomes more resilient, but others lose their power over him/her. “Yes, I am a short, dark, fat, slow learner, or maybe I suffer from a certain chronic health issue, etc., so be it. I accept my strengths and flaws, and I can share them honestly with the world.” Expressing our self honestly without any inhibitions can seem daunting but eventually rewarding. An example worth mentioning here is of Indian comedian Bharti Singh. In her early years, she used to cry over her weight, comparing herself with other girls. From struggling with poor self-esteem to being featured in Forbes 2016 list of top comedians, she came a long way. She could walk on the path of victory rather than self-victimization by accepting herself wholeheartedly and presenting her perceived shortcoming and vulnerable self to the world as her unique positive trait.

Contrary to popular belief being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness but a sign of immense courage. The genuine vulnerability stems from deep inner strength and power. A real-life example of such strength is Laxmi Agarwal the acid attack survivor on whose story the movie Chapak was recently made. Scarred physically and emotionally when people were even scared to look at her, it was easy for Laxmi to contemplate suicide. However, she chose to step out, to live and share her experiences. Today she is a living inspiration for many!

So many physiological and mental health problems can be managed better with the power of self-acceptance and vulnerability rather than sulking over it. Worth mentioning here is filmmaker Tahira Kashyap, wife of famous Bollywood actor Ayushman Khurana. Sharing her struggles with the world while battling breast cancer; she not only taught us to embrace ourselves with love but also empowered others by educating them about breast cancer. Expressing our weak or vulnerable self can invite rejection, criticism, embarrassment, gossips and even lead to controversies but still, it’s worth it.

Connecting with people in this way can not only be cathartic for a person but also lead to forming genuine and fulfilling relationships. If being vulnerable can be so internally satisfying, then what makes us choose to be un-vulnerable?

One reason I could find apart from individual personality and experiences is conformity. Conformity can be described as the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms under social influence. We are so concerned about ‘log kya kahenge’ (what will people say) that we choose to behave in socially confirming ways rather than raising valid questions. So many girls decide to marry, leaving behind a successful career when they are themselves not mentally prepared for it due to societal pressure to be married by a certain age. Many love relationships fail to see the light of the day either because of a lack of expression or fear of rejection. Several transmen/women live with a fake identity not matching with their true self-wondering whether an expression will earn them acceptance or rebuke. Countless orphan kids fail to find a home found because of society’s obsession with having a biological child and taboo associated with having an adopted child. Unfortunately, many adolescents are still pushed to opt for conventional careers to conform to societal expectations, not because of self-interest.

Psychologists categorized conformity in three forms compliance, identification, and internalization. Compliance for the sake of it without identification or internalization of norms can be intensely frustrating. Women have been the sufferers here for ages. With a patriarchal society and norms, they sometimes spend their entire life pleasing everyone in the family. Lack of courage to express their needs and wants they end up hiding their emotions in the garb of the adorned role of a mother, wife, daughter in law, etc., making them later feel empty from inside. Similarly, men who feel crushed under responsibilities often hesitate to seek assistance for fear of being perceived weak.

Fear of vulnerability is not only visible in the real but the virtual world too. Constant striving to project the socially desirable and ideal image of oneself is so apparent even on social media. No wonder the apps that hide our blemishes, and camera filters that edit our photos sell like hotcakes.

Seeing at a macro level in the light of the current political scenario in India with the ruling party having a massive number of blind followers; there are so many people who are merely being fence-sitters or bystanders. They are unwilling to raise their voice on visible trajectories for fear of being stereotyped as ‘anti-national’. Raising voice or not confirming with the larger group seems threatening in such a situation. Having difficult conversations rather than socially desirable communication can be an excellent means of having depth in relationships and for building a progressive society.

The point to remember, however, is that vulnerability or self-expression can be beneficial only when it is exercised with intellect and sense of responsibility; otherwise, it can be utterly futile. Classic mention on a lighter side can be made of Rakhee Sawant who expresses herself like no other but that only acts as noise for many, with no benefit to either the speaker or listener. So, while we talk of the ‘ability in vulnerability’, we should exercise our choice of vulnerability with caution; with the right person or group to the right degree and at the right time else it can only backfire with negative consequences.


Note: This article was originally published on The Dispatch (https://www.thedispatch.in/dr-farah-naqvi-the-ability-in-vulner-ability/). IIBP has sought the author’s permission to publish the article on our website.

Dr. Farah Naqvi is a writer, academician and behavioural scientist. She started her career with Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and worked with institutions like ICFAI Hyderabad, IBA Bangalore and Center for Organization Development, Hyderabad as Asst Professor. Currently, she is associated with Indian Institute of Business Psychology (IIBP) as Senior Researcher.

Website: https://farahnaqvi.com/