Vulnerability is a curious beast. It feels counterintuitive that showing any vulnerability may lead to anything positive, but the surprising truth is that it does.
Studies have shown that being willing to show vulnerability helps in numerous ways. It indicates that you can be trusted because you are ready to disclose something about yourself that can be potentially exploited by others. It can boost your ability to learn as when you admit to yourself and others that there are things you don’t know there is a bigger chance you will learn them. Being willing to admit mistakes is the fastest path to fixing them and leads to forgiveness. All these things require you to show vulnerability.
Even in leadership, the image of a tough manager who is always right, who never makes mistakes, and who acts as a superhero, won’t hold up to scrutiny. The chances are that a person who acts like this is a bully and a jerk. Real leaders are comfortable showing vulnerability. It makes them more human, more approachable, and it shows that they are here for the team.
So why are we afraid to talk about our shortcomings and mistakes? Showing vulnerability takes a lot of courage. The team around Anna Bruk researched the issue and came up with a name for it, a beautiful mess effect.
Bruk and the team show that there is a difference in perception of how we think about our vulnerability and how we see it in others. They explain the difference by using the construal level theory. It is a psychological concept that describes a relationship between our psychological distance from an object and the way whether we think about it in abstract or concrete terms. The more distant the object, the more abstract our thoughts about it will be.
It makes sense. Because we have detailed knowledge of ourselves, our motivations, and thoughts, we think in a precise, concrete way about how we behave. When looking at others, we don’t have that level of intimate knowledge, so we think about them in more abstract terms.
When it comes to vulnerability, the effect is that we see our vulnerability in a particular and somewhat negative light, so we are afraid to show it. We see ourselves as weak, and we are worried that others will exploit our weaknesses. We are uncomfortable with sharing it.
When looking at the vulnerability of others, we see it in more abstract terms and much more positively. We think about others as more trustworthy, more courageous, more approachable.
Showing vulnerability takes a lot of courage. It means you allow yourself to feel the good, the bad, and the ugly, and you are willing to show to the world how you feel. Vulnerability is about showing up when you are unsure about the outcome of your actions, or when you have no control about the outcome at all.
Those who don’t show vulnerability are indeed protected from the outside world better than those who allow themselves to be vulnerable. If you erect a barrier around you, live in a protective bubble, you are safe. You are also less likely to enjoy life to its full potential. You don’t have the opportunity to fully express and live your feelings, you shy away from intimacy, from being hurt. All these things are part of life, and you deny it to yourself.
Being hidden behind a wall takes a lot of effort and a constant focus on what we say and how we act. You can’t enjoy the moment. You first need to make sure that you don’t become vulnerable, dial down your response, build a protective bubble, and only then show your response. Exhausting.
What are the things you can do to show a bit of vulnerability? What are the situations when it is a must if you want to build strong relationships and become a better human being?
Authenticity – being your authentic self is an incredibly powerful feeling. It also means you become more vulnerable. You live your life and behave in line with your code and values, and you don’t try to build a façade that is expected by others. That, of course, exposes you to potential frowns and ridicule. It makes you vulnerable. And it is great since you don’t care. If you commit to being yourself, then what others think about you doesn’t matter too much. You might be more vulnerable, but you are also more satisfied with your life.
Emotions – emotions are a great way to show your humanity and your vulnerability. And they are healthy to express as long as they are not extreme. If you don’t know where to start, and you lack the courage to cry in front of others, consider some positive ones. The genuine laugh is always a good way to show you have feelings. Of course, it doesn’t show much of a vulnerability. It comes later on when you are able to show more intimate emotions in times of tragedy.
Showing strong emotions makes you more readable. If you ever worked with someone who never shows how they feel, you know how disconcerting that is. It feels like working with a robot. Such a person also has trouble empathizing and creating a rapport with real human beings.
Limitations – acknowledging your flaws, skills, and knowledge gaps is a sign of strength, not a weakness. People are not fools, and they will quickly discover what the extent of your knowledge is. If you try to mask that you don’t know something, they will know it anyway, and all you do is to lose respect. They will ridicule your efforts behind your back. On the contrary, if you admit that you don’t have a particular knowledge or skill and you show any interest in learning, you gain the respect of others. They will see that you are willing to listen, they will see you care, they will see you acknowledge that they have something you can learn from them. You make others feel useful, needed, valued.
Asking others for help is the basic show of vulnerability. We all do this all the time. You can’t go through life alone. You need others to help you. You want others to help you. It feels good. It may show that you are not a superhero who can do everything on his or her own, but people understand that no one is. And even if you can do it on your own, it is more fun to invite others to join.
Mistakes – admitting your mistakes and accepting blame when you mess things up is a must for healthy relationships. Once again, people around you realize when you did something wrong and denying it won’t win you many friends. All it does is you losing respect. Admitting a mistake not only humanizes you, but it is also the first step on a journey to fix it. Only by formulating what error did you make you can learn from it.
Not all vulnerabilities are created equal. There are some vulnerabilities you don’t need to announce to the world. If you are in a leadership role, there is one vulnerability that can be somewhat dangerous to show. At least not too often. Showing indecisiveness and doubt in your skills, or direction you are leading the team. If people around you see that you are in doubt whether you are leading them in the right direction, it is unlikely they will follow enthusiastically. A brief moment of indecisiveness at the beginning is fine, but it needs to quickly turn into an absolute conviction that what you are doing is right. Constantly doubting and second-guessing your own decisions is not a winning strategy. Learning to pick a direction, commit, and then stick to it is a crucial trait for any leader. At least that is what we are being told, but let’s leave that for another time.
The same goes for unnecessary disclosure of personal details. Exposing on the internet or in a group of people details from your private life is not a show of vulnerability. It is a show of a hidden agenda. Why would you do such a thing? What are you trying to achieve? Did you lose all your senses? You are not vulnerable. You are just plain stupid or cleverly shrewd. In any case, it won’t help you feel better, be more authentic, and won’t win you the respect of others.
When you put it all together, you will realize that leading with your ego and your macho tough person self won’t lead to respect. By becoming a bit more transparent, willing to show vulnerability and weakness, is what will make you more human and more relatable. Will there be someone who will try to use that weakness against you? Possibly. But unless you work in a completely toxic environment, it will be a standalone voice that will be quickly silenced by the others who will praise you for being who you are.
What are your thoughts? Do you feel it takes courage to be vulnerable? Are there situations where you would never show your vulnerability? Are there situations where you feel it is completely appropriate?
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