For as long as I remember, I smiled and I smiled in the face of any situation that threatened the strong persona I had built up over the years. Being vulnerable was a possibility that would make my heart start beating fast and palms sweaty, and the bigger the risk to the ‘Be strong’ introject I had grown up with, the more resistance I felt to being vulnerable which for me, meant being helpless, defenceless to this unexplainable attack to my sense of self. Years later as a therapist I was able to understand where were the roots to that feeling of an imaginary threat.

I remember my first time in my class as a student when I was training to be a therapist. I felt the resistance to that vulnerability slightly chipping off as tears threatened to fall while I shared an old memory and no matter how I tried I couldn’t force my facial muscles to smile and so I covered my face hoping that if I couldn’t see anyone maybe I was invisible to my class fellows.

And then I felt one of them handing me a box of tissue and I felt a strong surge of anger as the tissues made that moment of vulnerability real and I tossed it hard, hitting my friend in her face. For years this was a story shared by many at my school.

Shame and anger, two very strong emotions that I felt in that moment for not being strong enough and letting others see my pain.

Slowly and gradually with years of therapy I learned to smile less and less in the face of situations that made me feel sad. I learned that being vulnerable was not a moment of weakness but great strength and where earlier it made me feel threatened, later the risk I took of being vulnerable only invited empathy and compassion from people around and never have I felt stronger and more authentic as a person.

I was raised in a typical family where ‘Be strong’ is a message given explicitly and implicitly by parents. Where the moment you cry someone rushes forward to wipe those tears and this simple gesture of love disables you from crying your heart out and you learn that crying isn’t a good thing. I realise now how my parents got anxious with any expression of sadness in their children and jumped into ‘fix it’ mode. Maybe as parents they saw sadness in their children as a sign of their parental failing or they never learned that emotions should not be discriminated and so, as a child, I learned that sadness wasn’t a good thing and so be brave, smile and don’t let anyone see your sadness.

It’s fear of being rejected that stops us from being vulnerable and many of us have learned that throughout primary and adult relationships.

It’s like once bitten twice shy.

“In our culture,” teaches Dr Brené Brown, an American professor “we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty.”

Shame stops us from being vulnerable. Vulnerability is allowing people to see you and that’s the scariest thing isn’t it? Especially in a society that judges so much, the moment we want to be vulnerable there is a gremlin that’s constantly telling us ‘don’t take the risk’ don’t let others know that you are not good enough.

So, the more internally vulnerable we are the stronger self we will present of ourselves to the world.

Yes, it’s the hardest thing isn’t it? Why should you take the risk of showing up as who you are when the possibility of anyone valuing it might not arise? But trust me when I say that being vulnerable is what brought me the most joy in my relationships. It made my work as a therapist more meaningful. My best breakthrough with my clients happened when I allowed them to see me as human as they are with shared experience of self-doubt, journey of pain, bad decisions etc.

Being vulnerable is actually being strong. Once I overcame the fear and shame I started connecting more with people and allowed myself to express my humanness to them. I felt freedom to be fully myself and saw how it gave permission to others to be vulnerable too. It creates a shared space of two human beings exploring the deeper and scariest things within.

I invite you to take that first step which is the hardest. Next time when you automatically want to wear the mask while relating to someone take a pause and let the softer vulnerable you come out. It’s beautiful and powerful and I can promise you that more often than not it will be received with warmth and compassion.