Start with Vulnerability to Build Self-Esteem

October 17, 2019 Britt Mahrer

Vulnerability is not something we normally link with self-esteem. We are much more inclined to picture an impenetrable sort of confidence, a version of ourselves where nothing can breach our walls of strength and self-adoration. Yet vulnerability is not only an incredibly powerful tool for those already on the road towards building self-esteem–it is also a very good place to start. 

What Is Vulnerability?

Though the dictionary defines vulnerability as "capable of being physically or emotionally wounded,"1 a more holistic way to think of vulnerability is our openness to criticism or rejection. This allows us to look at vulnerability as a spectrum–someone "too vulnerable" can be easily hurt, while someone "not vulnerable enough" can seem narcissistic. For each of us, our optimal level of vulnerability varies.

Why Vulnerability Is Important

At some point in most of our childhoods, we experienced a time when being open to criticism or rejection caused us pain. (Perhaps our crush rejected us, we were punished after admitting we forgot our homework, or were told we didn't sing well enough to make the school musical.) When these rejections are poorly communicated (as they often are), we internalize a very painful message: we simply aren't good enough. 

Over time we may learn to lie, cheat, gaslight–anything that allows us to never admit fault. After all, if we are never wrong, we can never be criticized. We can never be "not good enough." 

Yet, we live in a world filled with different beliefs and opinions–someone will always find something about us to reject. The criticism of others has exactly as much power over us as we decide to give it. We are allowed to be works-in-progress, to make errors and mistakes, and to learn and grow. We are allowed to be perfectly imperfect. This doesn't mean that the feedback we get from others doesn't matter–it just does not change our worth. 

How to Explore Vulnerability

  1. Be able to recognize "defensive mode." This can manifest in each of us differently. Some may become afraid, others may become angry or aggressive. It can arise from something externally threatening, or from an inner thought or emotion that sets us into a spiral. Sometimes it manifests as a fight-or-flight instinct, though it doesn't have to. Understanding your defense patterns is an incredibly important part of mental health, not only building self-esteem. (If this is a new concept for you, I'd consider talking to a therapist.)
  2. Uncover your deeper fear. When you feel your defensiveness kick in, pause and ask yourself, "What am I afraid this would mean about me as a person?" For example, let's say your roommate accuses you of forgetting to lock the door. It's easy to immediately deny it but stop and ask yourself what you're truly afraid it would mean. Perhaps you're afraid it would mean you are an irresponsible person. Perhaps you're afraid it would mean you are someone other people struggle to live with.
  3. Assess the validity of that fear. Does that identity ring true? If not, you might just be a normal person who made a one-time mistake or has an odd door-lock-forgetting quirk. If that's the case, what would it feel like to say, "Yes, I probably did it, sorry about that." It if does ring true, perhaps it's a good opportunity to examine ways you'd like to change. But it doesn't mean that the rest of you is not a worthy person.

Exploring vulnerability can open up new parts of us, and change our journey towards self-esteem in ways we never expected. Give it a try and see if it works for you.


  1. Merriam Webster, "Vulnerable." Accessed October 15, 2019.

APA Reference
Mahrer, B. (2019, October 17). Start with Vulnerability to Build Self-Esteem, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 17 from

Author: Britt Mahrer

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Lizanne Corbit
October, 22 2019 at 3:19 pm

What a wonderful read! I love your suggestions for exploring vulnerability. This is such a fantastic concept! Vulnerability is truly a key link for so many things, but it requires us to be exposed, open, and uncomfortable -- hard stuff. This is beautifully written and holds so much truth.

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