How Vulnerability Makes Us Stronger

You aren’t weak when you choose to let down your guard

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Photo by Will van Wingerden on Unsplash
Photo by Will van Wingerden on Unsplash

Imagine that you made a mistake at work and decided to own up to it in front of your boss or coworkers. Or that you had a big fight with your partner and chose to be the first to apologize. You just made a decision to be vulnerable.

In the past, the idea of vulnerability was usually associated with weakness. Being vulnerable meant being susceptible to being hurt; showing vulnerability was the same as showing weakness.

In recent years, the word vulnerability has come to be used in a broader context — as in when you choose to share parts of yourself that you might be tempted to keep hidden. If you choose to show vulnerability with another person, that’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a conscious choice.

Today researchers consider this kind of vulnerability a key part of emotional intelligence — one that helps us establish trust, connect with others, and build stronger relationships.

In her book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Vulnerability, she says, “is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” All of those are building blocks to become more resilient.

Vulnerability is also “a powerful tool in emotionally intelligent managers,” Harvey Deutschendorf, an emotional intelligence expert, says in an article in Fast Company. That’s because vulnerability is closely tied to trust, and trust is the keystone of strong (resilient) relationships.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy says that when people first meet someone, they ask two questions: 1. “Can I trust this person?” and 2. “Can I respect this person?” Respect is based on perception of competence, but only comes after trust is established.

Vulnerability helps establish trust because it is how we share common humanity. In addition to helping humanize our work, it’s a key element of courageous leadership, Brown says.

Showing vulnerability by sharing our feelings, asking for help, or taking responsibility for a mistake, can even make us more attractive to others. Researchers call this the “Beautiful Mess Effect.”

Inspired by Brown’s work, researchers Anna Bruk, Sabine G. Scholl, and Herbert Bless of the University of Mannheim in Germany studied differences in how we perceive vulnerability in others and ourselves.

They found that we often have a different view of others and ourselves in these sorts of situations. Although we might consider ourselves weak for showing vulnerability, we are more likely to look favorably on others when they do it.

Vulnerability also increases likeability. We are more likely to influence behavior and build resilient relationships when we are likeable. When someone likes you, they are more likely to overlook the negative and assume positive intent.

When you are willing to be vulnerable, it makes other people more comfortable to do the same. This doesn’t mean you should air dirty laundry or show people that rash that keeps spreading, but it is okay to let your guard down. Not only is it okay, it helps you build resilience.

One caveat: Being vulnerable requires authenticity, and that usually requires some shared history or experience between you and the person you are opening up to. Without that, it can come off as brazen over-sharing, which is anything but attractive. So instead of a “beautiful mess,” you just come off as a mess!

Vulnerability and authenticity are about becoming more of who you already are and tapping into your unique strengths, not molding yourself into the person you think others want you to be.

Choosing to be vulnerable can be scary. We crave certainty. Yet building emotional resilience requires us to get comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. It means that we risk being hurt but are still willing to forge ahead into the unknown because ahead is the only way to go. 

When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we are able to address core emotions and belief patterns that may be keeping us stuck. We all go through the universal experience of shame, judgment, blame, lack of self-esteem, and even self-loathing. It is only through our willingness to embrace our imperfections that we can find courage, emotional resilience, self-compassion, and that ever-so-elusive peace of mind.

This article was adapted from Anne Grady’s upcoming book “Mind Over Moment: The Art (and Science) of Resilience.”

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