How to Survive (Maybe Even Thrive) in Life’s Most Vulnerable Moments

vulnerability and gratitude

Photo Credit: lzf (Bigstock)

Last week, I released my first book.

Wait! Please don’t quit reading! I know, for the last month or so, I did the first-time-author thing and wrote repeatedly about Loveable. But that is behind us now. Sort of. This week, I don’t want to tell you about Loveable; I want to tell you about how I survived the vulnerability of publishing it. This is what I did:

I let it be vulnerable.

What I mean is, several weeks before the book was released, I was beating myself up for feeling so anxious: “Kelly, this whole book is about trusting you’re loveable and living from it. Where’s your confidence? Where’s your joy?” Of course, self-condemnation doesn’t produce much joy, so I just kept feeling worse. Eventually, though, what I realized (okay, what my wife told me) was this:

There is no way to live vulnerably without feeling vulnerable about it.

So, instead of trying to eliminate my sense of vulnerability, I decided to choose how I would live my vulnerability. That is, instead of trying to live my vulnerability with no anxiety, I decided to live it with no regrets. At first, I wasn’t sure how to do this. Eventually, though, what I decided (okay, what my wife recommended) was this:

Try to live your vulnerability gratefully.

This whole writing journey of mine began with a practice of gratitude—writing down one thousand gifts I noticed in my everyday life—so why not bring it full circle and start paying attention to the gifts right in front of me once again? Why not begin to notice this:

Vulnerability and gratitude can co-exist.

Then, in the weeks leading up to the launch, this is what I noticed:

I saw trees bending in the wind, instead of breaking. In them, I saw that every heartbreak is really a heart-bend. If this publishing thing doesn’t work out, my heart won’t be broken; it will be bent. And if the winds of disappointment start blowing, I’ll eventually figure out how to bend myself upright once again.

I heard the babble of middle schoolers on the playground across the street from my office. I listened to the sound of little ones trying to find their voice in the world. And I was reminded: Each of us is just one voice in a much bigger conversation, just one note in a much grander symphony called humanity. I was grateful to be a little part of the bigger whole.

I attended my son’s third grade talent show. I watched how unapologetic the kids were about showing up and being seen. Vulnerable, for sure—the pink cheeks and shy smiles testified to it. But afterward, when I told my son I was proud of him, he looked at me and said, “Thanks, me too.” I was grateful for childlike vulnerability, which is a lovely mingling of risk and pride and joy.

And then, finally, just days before Loveable released, I attended my oldest son’s community theater performance of The Shadow Box, a two-hour meditation upon life and death, love and grief, set against the backdrop of the early hospice movement. In the final scenes, a young terminal cancer patient named Joe rests his head in his wife’s lap and sobs, wondering if it was all a waste of time. The building of their home. The building of their life. The building of those things which will inevitably pass.

The play closes with these lines:

Someone should have said it a long time ago. When you were young. Someone should have said, this living…this life…this lifetime…It doesn’t last forever. A few days, a few minutes…that’s all. It has an end. Yes. This face. These hands. This word. It doesn’t last forever. This air. This light. This earth. These things you love. These children. This smile. This pain. It doesn’t last forever. It was never supposed to last forever. This day. This morning. This afternoon. This evening…These eyes…These things you see…Yes. Yes. These things you hear. This noise. This music…Yes…Yes…They tell you you’re dying, and you say all right, but if I am dying I must still be alive. These things you have. Yes. This smell, this touch. Yes. This taste. Yes. This breath. Yes…This moment.

And so, three days before the release of Loveable, I embraced that there’s no way to truly live at all without feeling vulnerable, because simply being alive is a vulnerable experience.

There is nothing more vulnerable than giving everything you have to something that will eventually pass.


Gratitude doesn’t just co-exist with vulnerability, it embraces vulnerability.


If life is going to end up in vulnerability anyway, you might as well choose to live the whole precious thing vulnerably.


You might as well choose to love the people you love without hesitation. You might as well choose to live the passions you want to live without protection. You might as well give yourself a chance at joy, while you still have time to enjoy it.

Vulnerable. Grateful. Alive.


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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

30 thoughts on “How to Survive (Maybe Even Thrive) in Life’s Most Vulnerable Moments

  1. Vulnerability is really hard to live, especially when what you are experiencing is overwhelming in the moment. When it means opening yourself up to vulnerability when you appear to be facing a loss, as I am now. Loss of assets, loss of ego, loss of self confidence. At the head level knowing that this too will pass. But with a heart feeling pain because it does not yet know what the head knows. All without wanting to be overwhelmed by anxiety and worry. Now, let me look for gratitude in all this.

    • Catherine, it’s so true, and I’m sorry to hear about the hardships you are experiencing. I’d encourage you the same way I did Patricia below. Gratitude is easier to approach, so start there. And eventually it might sweep you up and carry you into your vulnerability all by itself.

  2. Living vulnerably, what a concept! I think it’s easier to have gratitude than to live vulnerably but your writing intrigues me. I’m going to try and get in touch with my vulnerability this week and see where it takes me. It shall be an adventure!!
    Looking forward to seeing you April 9th at Anderson’s in Naperville. So happy for you that they accepted your application!!

    • Patrician, looking forward to seeing you on the 9th! And for what it’s worth, I’d say focus on practicing the gratitude first. Vulnerability is easier to approach when accompanied by a sense of abundance and benevolence.

  3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you married a wise woman!

    Thanks for the post, the message and the vulnerability. I need to follow your example.

  4. Vulnerable is what we truly are…along with co-dependent. We need to embrace and love who we are at our core to truly live an authentic life. Love and live without hesitation….YOLO!

  5. Just want to tell you I am getting so many helpful insights out of your book. Thank you for all your effort and vulnerability that went into it.

  6. Thank you, Kelly – I SO needed to hear what you’ve shared in today’s post. You are definitely on my gratitude list!

  7. I am loving the book, especially the brilliant idea that there is a necessary order to finding worthiness, belonging, and purpose. Intellectually, I have been able to grasp the sentiment about the importance of feeling worthy and allowing myself to enjoy life without shaming myself for not doing more for awhile, but the way that you present the topic has affected me on a deeper level where I can actually FEEL my inherent worthiness for the first time in a long time. I don’t know how long the feeling will last, but right now, it feels life changing and I’m so grateful for your insight.

    • Courtney, I’m so very encouraged to hear that, because my hope was to present that big picture idea, but hopefully within the actual EXPERIENCE of worthiness while reading. I’m so glad that is how you’ve experienced. The feeling probably won’t last, but it’s what I call a True North. When you get lost, you’ll always know which direction you want to head once again.

  8. Oh my, this post took me back to when I was young and had to read Thornton Wilders “Our Town”. The line above all lines (in my opinion) impacted me then and still impacts me today: “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it?-every, every moment?” Spoiler alert if you haven’t read it, but that was spoken by someone from the other side of the grave. I couldn’t help but be grateful that your son took part in a play that had that same kind of sobering and enlightening meaning. My guess is that he’ll take that into adulthood with him, and with you as his guide who “gets it” will continue to learn to be grateful for every, every moment. And regarding vulnerability? I got way too old before I realized that vulnerability came with a gift of its own..freedom. I found out that the lack of vulnerability was self protection, and although there’s certainly places for that, usually mine was in an attempt to “look ok”. Exhausting and rarely worth the effort. I’m still learning!! Great post, great reminder!

    • Donna, thank you for this and the reminder of the beauty of Wilder’s play. At the end of each performance, Aidan sits up on stage and talks with the cast and the audience about the issues depicted. It seems to be shaping him in a positive way. Hopefully he’ll learn earlier what it took you and I so long to learn!

  9. “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” Ursula K. Le Guin
    These are the best days in which to live because these are the ones we’ve been given.
    And this is a lovely post!
    (A smattering of thoughts, as I dash around in our day, contemplating your good thoughts.)

  10. Isn’t vulnerability easier to embrace when we realize that our feeling of fear is worse than the actual experience that we are fearful of?

  11. Love it, Dr. Kelly. Absolutely agree with you. Accept your vulnerability, learning to just be vulnerable is amazing. When we are willing to feel our vulnerability, feel our fragility, delicateness, it is amazing how powerful it is. It may seem strange, but power (not toughness) comes from allowing oneself to be feel vulnerable. I too have learned to let myself be vulnerable and surrender to it, and have felt just how powerful I can be, steady and rock solid.

    • Steady and rock solid. Those are words that you can only say after entering into your vulnerability and discovering you could handle it. Another good word, Beverly, thank you!

  12. Dear Kelly, sorry I am late to comment! I saw the post coming but couldn’t read it till now. I love a poem of Jane Kenyon, that describes all the things “that could be otherwise” and how we should try to appreciate what there is, here, with us, ready to experience now, because it won’t be always like “this”. And this reminds me how I am most of the time trying to do things great and perfect to start enjoying them, because I want to be sure I have “the best safer experience”, but that is a manipulation and not embracing what is here. I like the word “embrace” which is different from “relax”, and I like the word “gratitude” towards what we are presented with, instead of “live the moment”… and that is what I strive for, to live my life beautifully. Hugs, Cris

  13. This post is truly powerful for me. I’ve spent the last few years focusing on authenticity and becoming stronger. I realised just before the year rolled over during a conversation with my best friend that perhaps all the focusing on being authentic and strong had made me kind of hard.. I had built a defensive shell around myself to protect me. I couldn’t feel any more like I used to, so intense and passionate and impulsive.. I had lost part of myself, part of what was so very important and necessary to my soul because it wasn’t “safe” and “kept getting my heart broken”. It’s true that being so open and vulnerable had in fact got my heart broken many times but it also allowed me to feel everything so intensely and connect with others and the world around me in a way I couldn’t do inside my protective shell. So instead of authenticity I chose for my focus word for 2017 vulnerability. I will admit that it led me straight into heartbreak but before the heartbreak was the most intense and real love that I’ve felt in years and I have never felt more loved by another in probably my whole life. Vulnerability is not an easy road to travel, but it is worth every mile.

  14. Reminded me of the lyrics to the song “Just Give me a Reason” Written and performed by Alicia Moore [Pink] and Nate Reuss. Lyrics: “Just
    give me a reason, just a little bit’s enough / Just a second we’re not
    broken just bent, and we can learn to love again / It’s in the stars,
    it’s been written in the scars on our hearts / We’re not broken just
    bent, and we can learn to love again…” As the song tells a story of a relationship where both parties have a desire to hold on when it seems on the surface like things are falling apart, it could be analogous to the inner me and the outer me figuring out how to live vulnerably with gratitude. Of course, in my ever wordy way I also thought about one of my all time favorite songs with a similar title “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman. Lyrics: “Give me one reason to stay here; And I’ll turn right back around; Give me one reason to stay here; And I’ll turn right back around;

    Said I don’t want to leave you lonely; You got to make me change my mind.” Again, I’m seeing an analogous conversation within myself to myself. — My daughter made my wife and I smile last night. She wanted someone to play Uno with her but it wasn’t a time where that was going to work and my wife apologized to her an said, “Sweetie, you’ll have to play by yourself.”. My daughter without missing a beat said, “It’s okay” and with a cute little wry smile, “I’m going to win!”. It makes me think about how I can take one of two attitudes with myself. 1) I’ll never win when going up against myself because I’ll lose every time. 2) I’ll never lose when I go up against myself because I’ll win every time. And the fun thought to help me smile the rest of the day goes with a cartoon that makes me think of how I can keep trying this because the glass isn’t half full or empty…it’s “free refills”.

  15. Kudos, my friend! The book is amazing. What the process has done in you is amazing. You are amazing.

  16. “The urge to avoid is a fear response that feeds upon itself.” Wow. I deal with avoidance on a regular basis and have the hardest time actually identifying the fear. Another excellent article with always something thought provoking. Keep up the great work!

  17. You hit a nerve when you wrote…W hen I was a boy grace was a word that harbored shame.” Shaming theology, hmmm… You mean it’s not just me? Thank you.

  18. Thank you. Needed to read this…. While goal focussed me is vunerably to hear back on a job application.

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