Vulnerability and our beautiful flaws
What do you think of when you hear the term vulnerability? Is it weakness, fear, hurt or betrayal? Many people are afraid to express certain thoughts publicly for fear of rejection and shame. This shouldn’t be the case, however. Psychological research suggests that we may be exaggerating this fear. The way we view our vulnerabilities and the way other people interpret them is different. Whereas we often think that showing vulnerability – our flaws – will make other people see us as weak or inadequate, research indicates something different. Recent studies (http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-34832-002) suggest that we should be less afraid of baring our souls than we’ve thought. Researchers Anna Bruk, Sabine G. Scholl and Herbert Bless, the University of Mannheim, also found evidence of this in studies where hundreds of people participated.
“Exposing yourself” emotionally
The researchers were inspired by the work of Professor Brené Brown at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, who has written about the importance of vulnerability in her books and spoken about it in TED Talks. Bruk and her associates define vulnerability as “the willingness to expose yourself emotionally to another person despite being afraid and despite the risks.” They found when people imagined themselves in vulnerable situations, they believed that revealing their fears would make them appear weak and inadequate. Yet, when they imagined other people in those situations, they tended to describe showing vulnerability as “desirable” and “good.” This lined up well with Brown’s findings that displaying vulnerability is desirable and good. “We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people,” Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly, “but we’re afraid to let them see it in us.”
In an attempt to explain this, Bruk and her colleagues explored a theory about how the human mind processes information. The reason why, they found, is our own vulnerability is more concrete and real to us, and that makes all our flaws seem greater than they really are. But the vulnerability of others is more distant and abstract, which enables us to see both the good and bad. Additional research indicates that people admire vulnerability in others. By asking for advice, people appear more competent to the people they’re asking for help. Other research hints that how we view a person’s vulnerability largely depends on what we thought of that person before. We tend to be more sympathetic toward people who we perceived as being strong and capable before they revealed their vulnerability. Apparently, you have to establish your credibility first. One of my earlier blog postings is a case in point.
Afraid to be called a “wuss”
About halfway through my rehabilitation after surgery for a complete knee replacement, I began struggling with opiates. I found it strange because I had had morphine, etc. for previous operations. I began to document my struggle but couldn’t decide whether to post it or not. And yes, part of the reason was that I didn’t want to bare my soul and part was that I was afraid people would think I was weak although my background (former Navy SEAL, rugby player until the age of 71, etc.) surely would indicate otherwise. Once I posted it, comments just flooded in. It turned out to be by far my most successful post ever. I had feared that people would write negative comments and call me a “wuss,” but people praised me, encouraged me and thanked me for posting it.
Of course, you have to know when and where to show that you’re vulnerable. If you’re overly familiar with people you don’t know very well at work, for example, you might risk making them think you’re unstable and needy. It’s probably safest to bare your soul to someone you know well – someone with whom you have a history and someone with which there has been a reciprocal sharing of personal information. But, and this is a huge but, you can never be 100% safe about revealing your vulnerabilities. It’s a huge risk, and the possibility of getting hurt is always there, but it usually pays off in the long run. Sharing can help you build new and deeper connections.
Vulnerabilities in the workplace
When it comes to revealing your vulnerabilities in the workplace, emotions, such as enthusiasm and happiness are always welcomed and acceptable. But what if you are sad or afraid of something? Are you forced to leave work early or run to the restroom to cry so that no one will see you? Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, argues that expressing fear or sadness can actually be helpful at work. Her book, Emotional Agility, looks at how companies and employees can help prevent organizational failures by acknowledging and utilizing uncomfortable experiences appropriately. According to David, “the suppression of negative emotions and thoughts at work can lead to harmful results, so much so that some business school professors have taken to recommending that companies perform premortems before starting big projects to identify reservations that team members are too reluctant to speak up about. Often, a can-do attitude can mask existing problems.”
Many organizations are still structured in an old-fashioned way, viewing people as production units instead of as humans. It’s no wonder that employees are feeling less and less engaged at work. If we want people to be happy at work, the workplace must help people work through their painful experiences. “Positive emotions, like being happy, can help with particular kinds of thinking and particular kinds of work. But negative emotions can help us in the workplace to be more effective thinkers, to dig into the facts of what may go wrong. To mandate that we should just be positive at work takes away from the idea that emotions have evolved to help us adapt,” David says.
Vulnerability is not a weakness
To quote Brené Brown again: “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think. Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” Rather than a weakness, vulnerability can be a great strength. Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a Persian poet and Sufi master born in 1207, said: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Removing these barriers and revealing your vulnerabilities is an act of courage because you merge with your true self instead of hiding behind a facade to appease others.” Don’t be afraid to reveal your beautiful flaws.