After I started talking about vulnerability, I think I did a pretty good job at avoiding writing about it all together. Today is the day and I am not turning back. How do you feel about talking about vulnerability. Are you in the “never ever” camp? Is vulnerability a weakness? In fact, I am not sure I even know how to describe vulnerability.
Let’s see what the dictionary says:
- “openness or susceptibility to attack or harm”
- “willingness to show emotion or to allow one’s weaknesses to be seen or known; willingness to risk being emotionally hurt”
- “the condition of needing supportive or protective social services and community resources because of advanced age, poverty, disability, etc”
- “Biology, Ecology. likeliness to be classified as an endangered species in the near future unless circumstances improve”
How do you feel about vulnerability?
I mean honestly, with a definition like this, run as fast as you can right? There is nothing good in there. Open to attack. Willing to allow one’s weakness to be shown. Endangered species? Why am I even going there?
Well, I remember a talk I had at HBS back at the last reunion with Professor Scott Snook on Authentic Leadership. The entire talk was about the importance of demonstrating vulnerability as a leader. As a way to give strength and show strength. Now that certainly looks controversial with the above dictionary driven definitions.
I like the way Brené Brown approached it in her Power of Vulnerability book, by starting to break some of the vulnerability myths we have.
Brené describes the myths of vulnerability to break a bit into the reality of vulnerability and show us what it is not. I am choosing only the 2 that most resonate with me as a way to remember whet being vulnerable can be:
- Vulnerability is not weakness. In fact, it takes a great deal of courage to ask for help, to admit you don’t know an answer, to tell someone you love them (without knowing what the answer will be)
- Vulnerability is not something you can opt out of. Every day, we are exposed to an uncertain environment, every day our emotions are out there subject to all sorts of storms, even if we hide them. Every day, we are vulnerable, So pretending like that does not come with the job description may not be the most helpful!
Vulnerability is real
A couple of weeks back, someone asked me marriage advice, as I headed to my 10+1 celebration trip. The secret to a long lasting wedding. I thought it was sweet. And crazy as a question. I mean, who knows what works right?
But I felt I needed to give a real answer even if I was not given too much time to think. My first thought may seem controversial for someone that preaches a growth mindset. I reminded her that you need to go on the assumption that people don’t change, and that the ‘flaws’ they have today don’t suddenly vanish once you are married. It is not a fairy tale. Now, let me defend myself, I do think people can change and I have certainly done a fair amount of that in the last few years (for the better I like to thin, ha).
However, when you go into a long term commitment, you have to go on one belief:
“I love you because of your vulnerability not despite of it. Because of your flaws, not despite your flaws”
I did give her a fair amount of extra advice, don’t worry, but I still think this was the most relevant one.
Vulnerability is us
Don’t you think it is interesting that we see vulnerability with different eyes in others. When you see someone putting themselves out there, taking a big leap, admitting to a mistake, asking for difficult advice, is your reaction
Indeed I don’t think so. We tend to regard others to be brave when they venture into a culture of openness and vulnerability. Sometimes, deep inside, we kind of wish we did that too, but then we think we might come across as ridiculous, as out of place. Let’s face it
Keeping vulnerability at bay
Another way to think about vulnerability is to think about the ‘pieces of armoury’ we use to keep it away. Sadly, I can relate to a few of them, but the awareness is certainly making me think twice. Again, I am reflecting on the ones that speak to me the most, these are not exhaustive.
Joy is scary. Because when you feel it, it’s like you look around waiting for something to happen. If I am this happy, maybe I will jinx it. It’s like the concept of ‘the higher you climb, the higher you fall’. Whilst the logic makes sense (in strict meter terms), It is unclear whether it also does in real life terms. Because we don’t want to be blindsided by pain, we avoid joy. But let me ask you something: when you are just about to get that job offer, that house exchange, that much expected pregnancy result, do you hurt any less because you never celebrated as it approached, not to jinx it? We will never be prepared for suffering, so might as well allow joy on while we can, perhaps it will give us a buffer of resilience.
This is my expert way to avoid vulnerability. Or shall I say my perfect way. If I am perfect, there can be no shame or blame, there can be no weakness, because there is only perfection. Those of you that spend your days on this quest (like I sometimes do, despite a massive self-awareness against it), maybe you have hit the light already. The feeling of control is but a feeling. And like many feelings, it is temporary and illusive. You spend your time controlling all your variables only to avoid being seen, to hide flaws, to avoid shame.
I could argue I have no addictions therefore I don’t do numbing. People tend to associate numbing to the extreme of alcohol, drugs, meds. But really, there are many forms of avoiding being in contact with reality, with your feelings. I, for once, am an expert at powering through work when I am upset. An expert at ticking items off the to do list when I am frustrated and overwhelmed. Working hard is an element of prestige in our society, but no doubt a key numbing mechanism. I have to do a gigantic effort not to do this now that I recognise it. And still this afternoon when I was upset? I just powered through another set of slides. And by the way, gaming and Netflix zapping qualifies as well.
How do you feel about vulnerability?
Do you recognise the myths you have? Do you see the pieces of armoury you are using? If so, are you ready to drop the armoury? C’mon, go listen to the book, don’t take it from me!