How vulnerability builds resilience

Written by Lucy Nichol - published 18th January 2023


It’s always difficult to pretend to be something you’re not. If you’re nervous about giving a presentation, for example, and you try to embody the confidence of Beyoncé, you might find yourself feeling frustrated, exhausted and even more nervous. Rather than shaking your hips, you could find yourself shaking behind the podium as you so desperately attempt to stifle the nerves.

This is possibly because the image you are trying to project feels so far removed from the image you perceive yourself as. And one slip will feel like an almighty fall.

So perhaps the answer is being kinder to ourselves – and having more self-love. Perhaps we need to learn to be more comfortable in our own skin in order to feel more confident. And that is about showing vulnerability. 

Acknowledging and being unashamed of our nerves – or anything else for that matter – makes them easier to deal with. You don’t have to announce to the entire room that you’re nervous, but admitting it to yourself or someone you trust, and forgiving yourself for it helps you to feel stronger.

It’s the same when it comes to mental health problems, too. 

I know from experience that trying to stifle a panic attack and keep it hidden makes said panic attack worse. Whereas when I’ve told a colleague I’ve felt anxious, the relief has been palpable – and the levels of panic significantly decrease.

The stiff upper lip approach therefore, in my experience, only makes things worse. It’s not a stronger approach, in my mind, because it is built around a fear of losing face. Conversely, acknowledging vulnerability, within the right support networks, helps build resilience.

Ruth Cooper-Dickson is a positive psychology practitioner and trauma-informed coach. She said: “There’s a misconception about resilience that it’s only about being strong, hard, bouncing back and growing. And while that is all true, we have to remember that resilience also has an undercurrent of vulnerability, because in order to be strong we do need to be vulnerable and show that softer side. We need to sometimes let things fall apart or hit rock bottom in order for us to genuinely ‘bounce back’. The only way we can do that is by being vulnerable.”

The issue with vulnerability then, as already mentioned, is choosing how and when to be vulnerable – and who with. For example, we’ve seen in situations people being both praised and attacked for talking about their own personal mental health experiences on social media. So, if showing vulnerability is new to us, we need to start with those we trust in order to build resilience from it.

Ruth added: “Being vulnerable takes us out of our comfort zone – which is ultimately a good thing as it helps us grow. But we need to ensure that those early experiences of showing vulnerability are positive.

“Unfortunately, if those experiences aren’t positive, rather than helping us to grow they can have a negative effect and make us feel even worse. So, we have to be careful that we are showing vulnerability in trusted, positive situations.

“The more positive responses you receive from showing vulnerability, the more resilience you’ll feel and the more comfortable you’ll feel with doing it again and again. This all adds to your strength reserves, which will improve your wellbeing and self-esteem and describes any feelings of shame you may have.”

As somebody who regularly writes about my own experiences, I have shown vulnerability and have indeed experienced some negativity in return. However, overwhelmingly, the response has been good, and the more I’ve learnt and grown, the more able I have become in shrugging off negativity.

Vulnerability in the workplace

Vulnerability in social work, care and educational settings does of course carry additional considerations. Professionals need to have boundaries in place to protect themselves, but you can still show vulnerability without having to share your personal life story. Explaining that you have felt some of the emotions that somebody else has, without going into detail as to when or how, is one way of doing that. You can show empathy, understanding and help that person to feel more comfortable in sharing their vulnerability with you. As Ruth said earlier, you can let them know you are there for them, that they have nothing to be ashamed of, and that it’s a strength to be able to share so openly and address your fears. 

There’s long been this mythical idea that strong leaders are almost robotic – hard faced, emotionless, tough. But to be a strong and effective leader, you need to be able to connect on a human level, and you can’t do that without showing some degree of vulnerability.

It’s a win-win situation in terms of mutual growth.


Lucy is a writer with a passion for mental health awareness whose words have been published in The Independent, Standard Issue, The I Paper, NME, Red Magazine, Metro, Den of Geek, Huff Post, Reader’s Digest and many more. Lucy has also worked on behalf of the charities Mind and Recovery Connections providing script advice for TV soaps and dramas regarding mental health (including addiction) portrayals.

She is the author of three published books all exploring mental health stigma (A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes (non fiction), The Twenty Seven Club and Parklife (both fiction) and her new book 'Snowflake' about stigma is out now and can be found here. 

Lucy also works as a PR consultant and copywriter for a range of organisation including several mental health charities.