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Vulnerable Yet Stronger—The Paradox of Strength

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“We are at our most powerful the moment we no longer need to be powerful.”

Eric Micha’el Leventhal


“No one ever gets through this life without heartache, without turmoil, and if you believe and have faith and you can get knocked down and get back up again and you believe in perseverance as a great human quality, you find your way.” The words of Diana Nyad, the first person to successfully swim the channel from Florida to Cuba, ring true.[i]

And yet so many of us try to minimize, avoid completely, and when everything else fails, deny that we have been knocked down. We try to turn away from the struggle to avoid the inevitable: everybody gets knocked down.

Why should we? Because what we are all trying to avoid is that one thing that no one wants to admit: Vulnerability.

Yet there is no avoiding it. Setbacks, losses, and adversity make us vulnerable—incredibly so.

There are many reasons for this. The nature of the setback is one. If we perceive that our life, or the life of another, could have been lost, we also recognize how close we are, at all times, to losing a life.

If we have undergone stress, trauma, or hardship early on, we may be familiar with the feeling of powerlessness and the vulnerability that goes with it. This will make us more likely to feel that way again. For many people, it is these early wounds that set forth a pattern of vulnerability that is not so easily broken.

Multiple stresses or setbacks also compound the feeling of vulnerability. When hardship and distress cannot be compartmentalized in one area of our lives, but instead bleed across many domains of life, we are more likely to feel vulnerable.

Certainly, the closer to home the setback is, the more it hurts. Failures and losses that are a few degrees separated from us, and are not so closely tied to who we are, are much easier to take. This is why a grandchild misbehaving is not as unsettling as a child misbehaving. And this is also why things we are personally responsible for generate much greater feelings of shame and vulnerability when they don’t go our way—because there is no one else to help share the blame.

But setbacks don’t have to be so severe to make us feel vulnerable. Because as Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, describes, what ultimately underpins the feeling of vulnerability is shame.[ii] We feel shame any time we feel as though we are not accepted. Not accepted because the presentation was laughed at. Not accepted because we are from a different background. Not accepted because we are not as intelligent, pretty, thin, recognized, whatever, but somehow, just not enough.

What we do, Brown explains, is develop shields to avoid the feeling of vulnerability. Because vulnerability is “exposure, uncertainty, and emotional risk,” we learn that it is unsafe and it makes us appear stupid, unsure, and unprepared. Brown cites numerous examples of just how vulnerability is discouraged in business, society, and life.

Yet it might be that vulnerability isn’t just discouraged from many external sources in our daily lives; perhaps we are instinctively wired to avoid it. In several interesting experiments studying the responses of poker players after losses, Tim Harford, the author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, describes the erratic moves players make after losing a hand: “Acknowledging the loss and recalculating one’s strategy would be the right thing to do, but that is too painful. Instead, the player makes crazy bets to rectify what he unconsciously believes is a temporary situation.”[iii]

Yet setbacks—and the vulnerability they lead to—are integral components of strength. Setbacks render us vulnerable and then call upon us to rise. It is the struggle, the inherent uncertainty of a complex and novel problem with no easy answers, the failures along the way, the recognition of our weaknesses, and ultimately, our willingness to change course and adapt to the new circumstances that fosters strength.

Post-traumatic growth researchers describe this as the identification of strength being correlated, almost paradoxically, with an increased sense of vulnerability; they go on to say that growth is experienced as a combination of the knowledge that bad things can and do happen, and the discovery that “if I handled this, I can handle just about anything.”[iv]

Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun use the quote of a bereaved parent to further illustrate the transformative power of traumatic experience on the sense of personal strength: “I can handle things better. Things that used to be big deals aren’t big deals to me anymore. Like big crisis problems, they will either work out or they won’t. Whichever way it goes, you have to deal with it.”[v]

In recognizing the paradox—that strength is about being vulnerable and powerful—there is tremendous advantage.


[i] Diana Nyad, “Never, Ever Give Up” (lecture, TED Women, 2013).

[ii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham Books, 2012).

[iii] Tim Harford, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

[iv] Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, “Post-traumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence,” Psychological Inquiry 15, no. 1 (2004).

[v] Ibid.


Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, visit

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Vulnerable Yet Stronger—The Paradox of Strength

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). Vulnerable Yet Stronger—The Paradox of Strength. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Aug 2016
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