Like authenticity, vulnerability is a buzzword right now. Since Brené Brown released her now-famous TED talk on shame and vulnerability, it’s become an en vogue personal growth topic. While it’s great more and more people are talking about vulnerability, there are also a lot of myths about vulnerability and misconceptions about what it really means (beyond “vulnerability = weakness”—if you’re here reading this, I’m assuming you know that’s not the case!). Today, I want to share a few of the most common myths about vulnerability I’ve heard over the last couple of years and unpack the truth behind them:
1. Vulnerability is radical honesty
Like authenticity, one of the most common myths about vulnerability is that it’s the same as “sharing everything.”
One of the not-cool ways this plays out is when someone lets loose with personal attacks and judgements under the guise of “being vulnerable.” Vulnerability isn’t a justification for disrespectful communication, nor is it a mask for anger (in reality, it’s usually the other way around).
Vulnerability also isn’t about sharing our deepest, darkest secrets with people who haven’t yet earned the right to hear them. That’s not vulnerability, it’s not having boundaries. Not only is this a lot of pressure to put on a new or fledgeling relationship, but it leaves us open to people mishandling our disclosures and greeting them with a less-than-kind response. As Brené Brown points out many times in her work, vulnerability is earned. There are things that have happened in my life that only a handful of people know about. This isn’t because I’m ashamed of them or feel like I need to hide them, but because they’re personal and few people have earned that kind of trust and intimacy. I’ve learned the hard way that not everyone is a good candidate for vulnerability.
So how do we stay on the side of vulnerability without sliding into radical honesty? First of all, empathy. Thinking about how what we say might land with the other person. Being self-aware (and self-honest) enough to acknowledge—at least to ourselves—when there might be one or more other emotions underlying our desire to let loose and owning those feelings, however uncomfortable they might be. Perhaps this looks like saying “I’m feeling hurt” if that’s what we’re feeling or “I would like to ask for reassurance” if that’s what we want. It involves recognising our own shadow side and choosing connection over validation rather than becoming mired in self-righteousness.
When it comes to sharing the things that shape us the most, we can start with that question: has this person earned the right to hear this? Other questions I find useful to ask myself are: what is my intention for sharing this? What need am I trying to meet here? When I think about the times I’ve felt a sense of urgency to share something personal within a relationship that doesn’t have the foundation or context for it, I’ve noticed there is usually another motivation underlying this; perhaps a desire to be seen or to create a shortcut to intimacy (which is what we’ll address next.) That sense of urgency is my warning signal to acknowledge these desires, to accept them—which usually causes them to lessen in intensity—and to find other ways to meet my needs that also enable me to honour my boundaries.
2. Vulnerability is a short-cut to intimacy
Vulnerability is a building block in trusting relationships and it’s necessary for those relationships to form, but it’s not a short-cut to intimacy.
When we come into an interaction expecting being vulnerable will result in us leaving with a new BFF, we set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration. Sometimes, I feel it would be lovely if I could simply expedite certain friendships before they have ripened. The very act of becoming friends with someone is in itself a vulnerable thing. But true intimacy is created brick by brick. If we try to put the roof on before the foundations and walls are in place, it’s going to come crashing down pretty quickly.
When it comes to relationships, I’ve found that the vulnerability that counts is the kind that comes with zero strings attached. True intimacy-building vulnerability isn’t a single flash in the pan, it’s showing up consistently for the other person and being willing to be present, engaged and authentic time after time. To me, this looks like being willing to go back in, even if our bids for connection weren’t met the first time around. It looks like practising patience and finding joy in the “getting to know you” stage, exploring the other person’s world and sharing mine, brick by brick.
3. Everyone should be vulnerable at all times
Vulnerability isn’t an entitlement, nor is it something we automatically owe to people. I’m not particularly vulnerable around people I don’t know or whom I don’t trust. We get to decide when and around whom we’re vulnerable. Like compassion, it’s a gift.
Different degrees of vulnerability are appropriate in different situations. Vulnerability can also look like different things depending on the context. I recently talked with a client who was upset because she had shared something personal with an office colleague and hadn’t had the reception she’d hoped for. While I could see she was trying to meet a need for visibility and connection, I also questioned: was work the best place to get that? Or was there another setting where she would be more likely to meet these needs through sharing and connection?
Like all matters relating to vulnerability and boundaries, where these degrees lie for us is a personal decision. What feels comfortable for you? Which situations do you feel warrant a greater level of vulnerability and which less? Where does your intuition say the line falls in each situation?
4. Vulnerability is one size fits all
As we’ve already looked at, vulnerability looks like different things to different people in different contexts. Vulnerability with my husband or a close friend might look very different to the vulnerability that comes with hearing a coaching client talk about a deep struggle any being willing to sit with any discomfort that might provoke for me. Both those situations require vulnerability, but they are very different contexts.
Equally, different people have different thresholds for vulnerability that are defined by our experiences and beliefs. For one person, vulnerability might look like getting up on a stage to share a personal story in front of 1000 people. For someone else, it might look like showing up to their first dance class, unsure of what to expect.
Our personal brand of vulnerability is ours alone, and our responsibility to ourselves is to figure out what vulnerability looks like to us through self-exploration, experimentation and trial and error (yes, even the process of figuring out our relationship with vulnerability is a vulnerable quest). However, if we’re coming from a place of self-awareness around our intentions and expectations, there is no “wrong” way to show up and live it.
Which myths about vulnerability do you hear most often? And what do you know to be true? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
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