Is it ok to appear vulnerable or is it a weakness? Do we sometimes feel vulnerable but hide it because pride stops us sharing the fact? If we do expose our vulnerability to others, what are the consequences?
The American researcher and author Brene Brown Ph.D., LM.S.W has done a great deal in recent times to open up discussion around vulnerability and the importance of acknowledging it. Brown, who is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work has written three books1 on the subject, has featured on various media and her work is the topic of two TED talks2. The latter have been viewed by thousands of people and I recommend them for viewing.
I was prompted to write this post, and share the references to Brene Brown’s work by two recent discussions.
In the first case I was talking with a friend who was experiencing some significant change in their personal life. This is someone who is intellectually strong, capable and very self-contained. Suddenly they found themselves feeling unsure of themselves and emotional. They had been hiding their emotions from other friends and family because they have always felt it important to be self-sufficient and they felt that to expose how they were feeling was weakness. The consequence was that they were bottling up their emotions, going over and over them and feeling increasingly lost. I shared with them two things. One was the words of the American poet Robert Frost in his poem ‘Revelation’. The poem commences with, “We make ourselves a place apart, Behind light words that tease and flout, But oh, the agitated heart, Till someone really finds us out” and concludes with the words, “So all who hide too well away, Must speak and tell us where they are.” I also shared with them a link to the first of Brene Brown’s TED videos2. Encouraging my friend to acknowledge their vulnerability through these two references made a significant difference for them as they move forward. The underlying message is that it takes courage to share our vulnerability and that doing so can be cathartic4.
The second discussion is one that I have had with various people several times before. The person I was talking with has been given an extended acting opportunity in a role they have not occupied before. The dilemma? They have oversight of staff in areas where they have little subject matter knowledge or technical expertise. The individual’s initial sense was that they felt vulnerable because they were not expert in these new areas but that they should hide the fact in case staff in those areas thought less of them. Their pride made them feel they should hide their lack of knowledge in the new area. The dangers of the pretence include the risk that others will see through the façade become disrespectful and/or the risk that the relevant staff may not alert them to important considerations, because of the assumption the person is more knowledgeable than is in fact the case. The person concluded that the best strategy would be to acknowledge their vulnerability in the particular subject area and to build the status of the team members by openly expressing the importance of the team members’ expertise and their need to draw heavily on the knowledge and skills of the team5.
So, showing your true self, limitations and feelings can be cathartic and can be a less risky strategy than allowing pride to dictate that you should appear totally self-sufficient.
It would be remiss to conclude here with the sense that expressing our vulnerability is a universally good thing to do. It isn’t. When sharing our vulnerability we need to ensure it is with people with whom we have established relationships and who have our best interests at heart. It can be difficult to determine who we can trust and Brene Brown explores this in her book ‘Daring Greatly’ under the heading ‘Myth #3: Vulnerability is Letting It All Hang Out’3. Brown says that “Vulnerability is about sharing or feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them”. The trust is something that can only be built over time. Brown also talks of the risks of “over-sharing” or “purging” with people we do not know well.
It is worth emphasising the need for caution about oversharing or sharing with those we do not know we can trust. This can be particularly so when we are facing a problem of our own making in the workplace. Being honest, open and thereby vulnerable are good qualities but, as captured in the fable of The Fur Trapper, the Robin and the Timber Wolf, there are times when it is best not to publicise our failing too widely.
1. ‘I Thought it Was Just Me’, Gotham Books, December 2007; ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’, Hazelden, September 2010; ‘Daring Greatly’, Gotham Books, September 2012.
3. ‘Daring Greatly’, pages 45-53.
4. My thanks to my friend for permitting me to share our discussion this way. In their words, “it can be valuable to share lessons learned”.
5. This discussion is actually an amalgam of several very similar discussions. It is a recurring theme.
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