How To Develop Self-Esteem Through Vulnerability


“I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes.'” ~Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Have you ever considered how much time and energy you spend building walls and disguises?

Do your family, friends, or even your spouse really know who you are — stripped down to your fears, your shame, your limitations?

Can you even admit these things to yourself?

Think about the things you don't want anyone to know. Think about the ways you don't want people to see you. Think about the “you” that you hide from others.

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In our efforts to suppress our vulnerabilities, we create a character version of ourselves — a much shinier, more sparkly self we put on display. Or we build up emotional walls high enough that no one can peer over and see the squalor of our shameful realness.

Like nearly all of you reading this, I had circumstances in my childhood that fostered pain and shame. When I was old enough to realize I could attempt to cover it up, I started shoveling sand over the unpleasantness as fast as I could. I very consciously decided I was going to remake myself and my life in the image of what I thought a perfect life would look like.

The thing I didn't count on was the ever-present siren song of the real me under the makeover. What I underestimated was the power of authenticity buried alive under pretense. As much as I wanted to jettison my old self out of existence and remake myself into wonder woman, I didn't understand that wonder woman was just me, as I am, with flaws, failures, shame, limitations, and pain.

What I underestimated was the power of authenticity buried alive under pretense.

I didn't realize that embracing my vulnerability was the key to my self-esteem, and ultimately the key to create a life of passion and purpose.

Being vulnerable, being real, and loving your weaknesses and flaws as you would love your most darling child is powerful stuff. It's empowering stuff. It's in that moment of awareness when you become a whole and self-actualized person, capable of transcending your ego-driven, fearful self.

When you have the courage to have self-compassion, you can look at all of your choices, all of your actions, all of your experiences — both good and bad — and recognize them as the interlocking golden threads that weave the fabric of your unique and wonderful self. But of course it's a work in progress.

When your self-esteem is low, when you need the approval or praise from others to feel valuable, then you expend so much energy dancing around like a court jester to keep up appearances. When your self-esteem is low, and you can't bear the idea of rejection, you hold others at a distance, never allowing them into your inner world — a world that truly is the most exquisite panoply of love, pain, heartbreak, fear, beauty, shame, and longing.

We are all the same — every single one of us. We want love, connection, self-respect, safety, and meaning. We want to be fully accepted for who we are, just the way we are. We want to be embraced and have someone say to us, “It's OK. You are perfect.”

Those of us who understand the beauty in the entire package, the shared humanity, the elegance of our dark and light sides, long to find others who feel the same — others who have found the way to love themselves not just in spite of but because of  their vulnerabilities.

Finding these people in your life is key to building your self-esteem through your vulnerabilities. Having people in your life who hold your pain with tender dignity, love, and safety is indispensable.

But the most important person who can foster this self-esteem is you.

  • YOU must be able to hold your own pain with tender dignity, love, and safety.
  • You must learn to see perfection in imperfection.
  • You must be able to see failure, rejection, and limitations as steps on the journey — not life sentences.

I can now look back on my dysfunctional family from childhood and see the humor and pathos in our situation. I see that my experiences have made me wiser, more resilient, more empathic. I understand and love my efforts at recreating myself into “wonder woman” — even though they were misguided and desperate. Every mistake, every failure, every flaw is part of who I am and therefore part of who I love.

But here is a word of caution about embracing your vulnerabilities. Although vulnerability will promote self-esteem if managed carefully, it also exposes you to the possibility of further pain. As you navigate becoming vulnerable with yourself and others, here are a few thoughts to consider.

Accepting your vulnerabilities doesn't mean stagnating

Embracing and loving who you are, as you are, doesn't mean you shouldn't strive for positive change and growth. In fact, loving and accepting yourself will afford you the power to define your next steps confidently. I love and accept that my body isn't perfect, that getting older has impacted my appearance. But that doesn't mean I've decided to be sedentary or stop taking care of myself. It is a delicate balance of both self-acceptance and constant growth that can really boost your self-esteem.

Use discernment about who you allow in

When you become more accepting and loving of your own vulnerabilities and begin to let down walls and become more authentic, you may find that some people in your life drop away. They aren't comfortable with the “real” you or can't handle the raw power of seeing your pain or weaknesses. This can be shocking and painful if you aren't prepared for it. Use discernment about who you invite in to your authentic world. Not because you need to cover up or be ashamed — but because you want to treat yourself with dignity and love. Seek out people who are equally real and vulnerable.

Vulnerability takes practice

When you've spent a lifetime trying to cover up, obfuscate, use passive-aggressive behavior, or build walls, then acknowledging and exposing your vulnerabilities feels wildly uncomfortable and dangerous at first. Start by taking small steps in situations or with people who are safe. Share a life-long dream with someone. Talk with your spouse about an insecurity. Acknowledge a mistake with a co-worker. The more you work with vulnerability and share it in appropriate and safe ways, the more inner peace you will experience. The joy of being yourself and loving yourself as you are is intoxicating.

Use vulnerability to become a better person

As you begin to love and accept your own flaws and limitations, you will become more compassionate toward others. Your compassion will allow you to be more accepting, less judgmental, a more loving friend/partner/parent. You can become a role model of building self-esteem through vulnerability by helping others navigate safely through their own fears and pain. By being this person for others, you  are further elevating your self-esteem.


How have you embraced your own vulnerabilities and shared them with others? How has this impacted your self-esteem? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


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Comments

  1. Beautifully written, you describe my current journey. Thank you for articulating the thoughts and feelings I’m learning and embracing.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Joy,
      I’m so glad this post came to you at the perfect time! Keep learning. There is so much to discover about ourselves and living authentically. I love the discovery process.

  2. Barrie, what a great post. I love your phrase, ” the courage to have self-compassion…” because self-compassion does take courage. As the author of “Seven Secrets to Enlightened Happiness” and as a former psychotherapist who now coaches, I know we all struggle with vulnerability on some level. Your tips for how to become more vulnerable are very helpful and I look forward to sharing this post.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Alan,
      Thank you for your very kind comments and for sharing my post. Your book sounds really interesting. So nice to see a fellow coach here.

  3. I’ve explored some vulnerability through a Toastmasters speech I gave. I had a devastating experience that I was able to share and people in the group thanked me for sharing it with them.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi KaeLyn,
      I think that was a double dose of vulnerability. Just speaking in public puts us in a vulnerable position — but you did that and shared a sacred story. How empowering. Bravo for you!

  4. Samantha says:

    This is so beautifully written, I am recently learning this after years of putting on a brave face and being terrified of letting people see the real me. Its scary, and yes people have left my life, and I have also left certain situations in my life. But it has been incredibly healing

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Samantha,
      It is tremendously scary. It can feel like you are dying in some ways to let the old facades drop away. But as you become more authentic, you will be surrounded by “the best of the best” — the people who are your tribe, who support and love you just as you are! Keep it going . . .

  5. I loved this, Barrie: “loving and accepting yourself will afford you the power to define your next steps confidently.” It’s so easy to confuse self-acceptance with complacency. But like you say, self-acceptance empowers us to step forward, to grow and stretch ourselves without the sense of running away from something we hate. Rather, we are lovingly building on something we love.

    As for vulnerability, it’s such an endearing trait. Thinking of the least vulnerable people, they seem to be distant and cold and hard and unapproachable. Vulnerability is disarming. Such people seem more real and authentic and approachable and relatable.

    Thanks for this wonderful article, Barrie.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Ken,
      You are a beautiful writer — even in your comments! Thank you for that. Yes, vulnerability is both endearing and disarming. I think it is harder for most men to embrace vulnerability, don’t you think? Wouldn’t it be amazing if authenticity and vulnerability were taught by our parents and in school? Imagine how that could change the world.

  6. On the spot for me, thank you, Barrie! You are repeating for me some arguments which I have heard for the first time in a training a bit more than a year ago. About time to continue to move on and develop! Thank you!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Jantje,
      I’m so glad you resonated with it! Development is a life-long journey. It’s always amazing when you find new concepts and ways of viewing the world and your own perspectives. Keep moving on!

  7. So many gems in this Barrie…and the one that resonates with me is about discernment…it’s a powerful tool on our journey of growth and expansion.

    Thanks for this.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Elle,
      Yes, I think discernment is an undervalued skill. I’m so open to welcoming people into my life, but I often forget to practice discernment and am shocked or hurt when I encounter someone who doesn’t value what I value.

  8. One of the hardest things to do, especially in romantic relationships. Great, clear insight here.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      You are so right Mike. And romantic relationships are where we should feel the safest to be vulnerable.

  9. You said, “In our efforts to suppress our vulnerabilities, we create a character version of ourselves — a much shinier, more sparkly self we put on display. Or we build up emotional walls high enough that no one can peer over and see the squalor of our shameful realness.”

    I have to say… I have never heard this aspect of victimization described in such a compendious way, especially your use of the words squalor and shameful realness.
    Very Interesting and commendable subject and post. -Thank You
    Gina Vaughan Faragher

  10. This is such a beautiful beautiful article!
    And so apt for me and my situation right now..I truly truly love it:)
    Thank you so much, Barrie, for some much needed advice and for putting words on so many of my own thoughts – this is an article I will be reading more than once:)

  11. Davis Nguyen says:

    Thanks so much for the lovely article Barrie.

    Your article reminded a lot of Brene Brown’s ted talk about the power of vulnerability.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

  12. You’re so right when you say that “When your self-esteem is low, when you need the approval or praise from others to feel valuable…” I’m a psychologist and frequently see patients with low self esteem. Unfortunately low self esteem can often go hand in hand with depression. Great article!