What is Vulnerability? It may seem like a simple or stupid question, but it needs to be asked. What defines being vulnerable? How might it be viewed differently by different people? What is the line between vulnerability and trauma dumping?
Being vulnerable is something that comes far from natural to many people. It is not just a sense of uneasiness but it is also associated with feelings of anxiety and shame. According to a 2019 article written by Emily Esfahani Smith for The Atlantic, there was an exhibit in 2018 at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City that encouraged museum visitors to write down their hopes and anxieties onto pieces of paper and hang their entries on the wall. Each entry was anonymous and the exhibit got over 50,000 responses. Visitors gave answers such as, “I’m anxious because I’m afraid I’ll die alone,” and “I’m hopeful life is beautiful and I will feel happy soon.” Smith states that "these more than 50,000 entries expressed thoughts that people wouldn't otherwise share publicly due to the fear of rejection and shame." Today, confession and anonymous social media accounts have a similar idea. High schools across the globe consistently have examples of these accounts being created and taken down over and over again. This is because of the core idea evident throughout the art exhibit, that people are much more likely to share their fears, emotions, experiences, and opinions when they know that they don’t have to sign their name to it.
Brené Brown is a researcher/storyteller known for her Ted-Talk The Power of Vulnerability, which is one of the top ten most watched Ted-Talks of all time. Brown has a Ph.D., Bachelor's, and Master's degree in Social Work and has written over a dozen books. In her speech, Brown claims that “...vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness...” She discussed her strong distaste for vulnerability herself, and how it took her years to realize that “You can't say, here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. I don't want to feel these.” In her book The Atlas of the Heart, Ms. Brown discusses how throughout most cultures vulnerability is seen as a sign of weakness, and how that affects our willingness to open up to one another. “Vulnerability is not weakness,” she states,”it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
Another common component that makes us unwilling to open up or express our emotions is the fear that we will be bothering the other person. There is a fine line between trauma dumping and vulnerability, and at what point do you cross it? According to the Cleveland Clinic, trauma dumping is “the act of oversharing that becomes harmful to others.” Common factors of trauma dumping include jumping from subject to subject very quickly, oversharing at inappropriate times, and not letting others share or state their opinions. On the other hand, vulnerability consists of talking about one topic at a time, having a mutual conversation, and sharing only when the time feels appropriate or personal.
We all can be unsettled or unsure of what to do when some of our closest friends open up to us. This uncertainty can cloud our reactions, and lead to the overuse of the phrase trauma dumping. I have observed that although trauma dumping is an issue of its own, the term gets used way too often to describe vulnerable and personal situations. When a close friend shares something emotional that's going on in their life, that is not trauma dumping. As long as the timing, location, and relationship you have with this person make sense, people opening up and sharing their feelings is not remotely related to trauma dumping. It is important to listen to what your friends have to say and not simply dismiss their feelings as “oversharing”. However, Young Minds, an organization based on the importance of youth mental health says, “It's okay if you can't always be there for your friends. We all have our own life challenges and if you are currently struggling with your mental health, it may be best to not take on too many other people's problems.”
Vulnerability isn’t a fun topic to talk about and can be extremely uncomfortable to deal with, but learning to listen and accept what one another has to say will create a better community for everyone.