What does it mean to be vulnerable?

Well, apparently the ‘Are men intimidated by you?’ article hit a nerve.

What are some examples of being vulnerable? Thanks Dr Ali! – Kelly

And this one:

This is one of the best blog posts! Great insights & advice!! A follow up question- what does vulnerability look like to a man? Especially if women are working so hard to not appear too needy, emotionally available & scare the guy off from the other end of the spectrum? Thx, HK

And yet another one:

Hi Dr Ali,
Another great article… so wise you are… and witty as usual!  I have a question: When you refer to a women being vulnerable, and a man being attractive to that quality best of all, are you referring to a woman, ‘leading with love’ as you stated?  In other words, what vulnerable qualities are you talking about that men most like? Just wondering.  Thanks – Betty K.

So. What does it mean to be vulnerable?

One of the things I like about Eastern art and philosophy is its emphasis on the concept of negative space.

If you look at a Japanese woodcut or a Chinese brush drawing, you may notice that is has a lot of nothing in it.  You’d never see that in a Western painting – the entire canvas is covered in paint.

But a brush drawing or Zen rock garden is perfectly happy having a lot of empty space.  And it is the interplay between the space and the ‘stuff’ that creates the art – the void of yang and the fullness of yin.

how to be vulnerable

And so, to grasp a concept like vulnerability, it may be instructive to look at its complement – namely, invulnerability.

One version of invulnerability is perfection.  Not only is it an unattainable ideal, but it’s actually rather off-putting.  There’s something cold and inhuman about perfection.  Someone who is perfect is easy to admire but hard to love.

Another version of invulnerability is total self-sufficiency.  “I can totally take care of myself.”  This is yet another flavor of off-putting – especially to a guy.  Guys want to take care of you.  They want to do stuff for you.  They want to please you.  If you have everything and need nothing, that doesn’t leave them with anything to do.

Why do you think the image of the damsel in distress is so iconic?  Because it makes the man feel useful.  Hero for a day – that’s all they want to be.  No vulnerability, no hero.

And finally, another version of invulnerability is being impervious to harm: “My armor’s so thick, nothing can hurt me!”  Except that the armor that blocks the bad stuff also keeps out good stuff like love, affection and intimacy.  And it’s just hard (and a little scratchy) to hug someone wearing chain mail.

Vulnerability, then, is the opposite of these things.  It means being receptive to help.  It means allowing the man to act as your protector, even though our urban centers have few mountain lions to fend off.  It means giving up the need to appear completely self-sufficient and perfect, because nobody is completely self-sufficient and perfect and it’s all a big scam anyway.  We all live deeply interdependent lives in an ecosystem we sometimes forget to acknowledge.

But instead of listening to me, why don’t you read this letter from a reader.  It will explain the concept a thousand times better than I ever could.  Take it away, Melanie:

“From a man to you, here’s a secret: there’s almost nothing more attractive to a man than a woman’s vulnerability.”

Those were the words I did not have the ability to grasp for many years.  I lived more than a decade pretending that I was “normal”.

I bought your book almost two years ago.  I wanted to know how to avoid the mistakes I made before.  I spent 12 years with a man that couldn’t decide to marry me.  I knew our problems weren’t all his fault and wanted a chance to start out right should I meet someone.  I thought I was at a disadvantage for finding love.  After reading your book, I realized I actually did many things that were goddess-like, but I should have more confidence.  I also needed to understand what a good guy looked like.  The worry about dating disappeared as I read your book.

My vulnerability is a bit different than that of most women.  I’m 32 and I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 20.  I’m well educated, have a diverse set of interests, attractive, unable to have children because of my RA medicines and felt that the chances were not in my favor for finding someone that would care about me as more than a friend.  In my life, I have been blessed with friends that are fiercely loyal.  However, I also struggled with the idea of allowing someone to love me.  They might eventually have to live a life where they could be asked to help someone that struggles to button a shirt or possibly more.  It would be the most challenging of any loves.

I met a man nine months ago, introduced by a mutual friend.  Within our first few meetings, I offered up the good and bad of my life.  I would not pretend that I was perfect.  I had nothing to hide.  I could not live through someone else trying to change me.  There were no sparks, but rather pleasant company.  I only knew I enjoyed my time with him.

He’s 30 and prior to me, he had never dated anyone for longer than six weeks.  We’ve been dating seven months now.  He doesn’t love me in spite of my RA; it is one of the things he loves about me.  He gets a strong, independent woman that is guaranteed to ask for help.

When we hiked our first fourteener, my fingers were too swollen to tie my boot laces tightly.  He would kneel at my feet to tie my shoes properly so I could continue on with him.  My body is essentially waging war on itself and I tire easily.  I can look at him and say “I’m getting tired.”  Never does he complain that I ended his fun or keep him from anything.  He says I help him enjoy life instead of rushing through it and that I bring him balance. He loves that he can also be himself in my company.

In the past, I have fought against needing anyone, of being weak.  I let go of this.  I am now open about my flaws and met a man that helps me live life as I imagined it instead of living within my own limitations.  I was overcome with emotion when I hiked my first slot canyon with him.  A girl with RA was able to climb 10 and 12 ft rock facings because this man was patient enough to talk me through a climb or offer a boost or some stability when I needed it.

You speak the truth.  Vulnerability, knowing that you are needed, receiving gratitude for what you give to fill that need – that is the stuff that feeds love.  As for this love, it is not all consuming.  I just leaves me breathless to live in it and see him grin ear to ear when he helps me with something as simple as tying a shoe.

Thank you for encouraging the pursuit of balance and not hiding from our own flaws.  I recommend your book more than any other.  I found such peace in your words and share them with many of my girl friends. – Melanie W.”

So allow yourself to be vulnerable.  Note that when you become maximally vulnerable, you paradoxically become invulnerable.  Everything just passes through you when there’s nothing to hold on to.  It’s the guarding and holding that actually cause the pain, not the vulnerability.  You can shoot at a pool of water, but the water just re-forms around the bullet, allowing it to pass through without resistance.

So go ahead and be your perfectly imperfect, quirky self.  It’s the only version of you that people can love.

Categories: Dating for Women

10 Comments on “What does it mean to be vulnerable?”

  1. Jim Greene

    Dr. Ali, please comment on vulnerability in the male. I would like your perspective as the other side of the coin to the female vulnerability explanation.



  2. T

    Yes I’ve read your article on vulnerability, and I think it is very spot on.

    The comment by the arthritic lady is just wonderful and so inspiring.

    Still my question (how can a MAN make it easier for me to take out the armour that I never wanted to wear?), to me, is unanswered, as the armour some women wear is not wanted, or we don’t flash it like a trophy, and sometimes men don’t realize that the strong male energy we have is somewhat automatic pilot to survive, not what we would like to do all the time. Perhaps if men were more aware of that, they will give us the benefit of the doubt and perhaps we would strip from the armour faster.

    On the other hand, intellectual women also need to be recognized and admired for their brains and achievements, without intention of competing, so men should be taught by their mothers and at school, to admire the intellect of a woman in the same degree as her manners, as a gift that enhances her. I think many man consider our CVs and intellectual achievements a sign of lack of vulnerability, and a sign of male energy, and discard us in the blink of an eye, or start competing with us, in a race in which I am not even taking part.

  3. lizriz

    Why the gender framing? Aren’t men and women generally the same, and wouldn’t your advice be the same for both? I’m curious if you’ve ever written about this.

    1. lttldove

      men and women are nowhere near the same. not even close. I have learned to shed my armour as it no longer serves me.
      Yes, I can take care of myself rather well. I have a great job, and make a good wage. I need, no one.
      Need and want, are two different things.
      But I allow my man to be a man. He thrives. I thrive. We love, have balance, and life is great. Let your man, be a man.
      Allow the love in. Let him know how much you appreciate it. See him grow.

  4. candied_ginger

    Hi Dr. Ali,
    I don’t even know how I ended up on your blog…but I just couldn’t stop reading!
    I read Melanie’s letter above. A beautiful story. However this is not just the story of a man and a woman – RA is the third actor. I admire this young woman who’s so amazing to turn a potential hinder into a source of increased love and joy.
    Now my question. What if this third actor weren’t there. What if a woman felt confident, positive, “well-rounded” (despite the lack of a sentimental life), and not particularly in need of help or protection. How to make men around her understand that being confident does not mean being self-contained, and that confident persons also need their dosage of love.
    Acting as if a man were “saving” me would be a lie. I don’t need to be saved, but “just” to be loved!
    Thanks – Ginger C.

  5. petra

    My story also. I’ve had to take care and support myself for years now despite being attractive, funny and loving. I keep attracting cold and emotionally distant men who seem terrified of commitment assuming that every woman is out to pounce on them prematurely. I don’t give off needy or emotionally unhealthy vibes and have been in quality therapy for years to try and keep myself open and receptive to love. For the past 4 yrs. I’ve turned away from needy men and am left alone and somehow attracting the polar opposite! Help.

  6. terri

    Vulnerable is a term that I would not use in describing how to be open-minded in having a good relationship with the opposite sex. In my personal opinion, being honest and having openness would be the best approach. In reading the story about the young lady with RA, she used openness and honest by telling her male friend the truth about her RA medical condition. The problem that most people faces in building a strong relationship is LYING. Beware of dogs that feed on vulnerability.

  7. Rosie

    My being vulnerable doesn’t seem to make my man willing to help me with anything…he says don’t you have someone to help you with? This has always been his answer lately. I don’t know what else I can do otherwise? Any suggestions? Or maybe I need to rephrase the way I ask so that he will be happy to help?

  8. Guy

    Ok. I like women who can take of themselves and don’t need anyone. Total turn on. Not every guy wants to be the hero. We’re not on tv