Brené Brown has done a fantastic job of bringing attention to the importance of vulnerability. One of the ways people misinterpret or misrepresent Brown, though, is by hearing her message as “Be Vulnerable.” This leads to countless leadership blogs around the internet declaring that “Vulnerability is a Strength,” perhaps reminding and encouraging the vulnerability faithful but doing very little to persuade the would-be invulnerable to reconsider.
This read on vulnerability isn’t wrong, but it is tragically imprecise. Vulnerability is not a strength, it’s a fact. Being vulnerable isn’t a choice, it’s an inevitability. The question of vulnerability isn’t whether you have it, but what you do with it.
So I propose the following lexicon of vulnerability:
1) Being vulnerable simply means that your identity is occasionally at risk. There are things which might happen which would expose you to shame. We say that those possibilities feel vulnerable.
Example: I identify as a provider for my family. If I lost my job and couldn’t get another one, I would feel a great deal of shame. While this outcome isn’t likely, the possibility does exist, and occasionally plays a role in my inner life. When I think about that possibility, I feel vulnerable.
2) Acknowledging vulnerability means recognizing these possibilities for yourself.
Example: I am aware of the risk above, and don’t try to hide it from myself.
3) Denying vulnerability is the alternative to acknowledging it. That might mean denying that the risk exists or denying that it would affect your ego. You know someone is really in denial when they kind of do both at once.
Example: “I can’t possibly lose my job, and even if I did, I don’t really care about providing for my family anyway.”
4) Fighting vulnerability is working excessively hard to minimize the risks to your ego. Whether you consciously acknowledge the vulnerability or not, you might put a lot of work into protecting yourself from it, suffering a great deal from that pressure.
Example: Working 12 hours a day, triple checking every detail of my work, to be super extra sure I never lose my job.
5) Embracing vulnerability means allowing yourself to feel, as a manifest emotional experience, the feelings that comes along with this risk when you acknowledge it. Often, this lets you come to a feeling of sufficient safety without fighting so hard.
Example: When I was once unemployed, I felt a great deal of shame. From time to time, I feel afraid of losing my job. From time to time, when that fear and shame act up, I might also feel angry at my circumstances, or sad, or grateful that I have relative security. I do my best to feel those emotions in my body and allow them to flow to resolution.
6) Collapsing in vulnerability means letting the emotions associated with your ego risk overwhelm you. You give up on fighting and declare that you are powerless to protect yourself. You might sulk or cower or hide. You may even bring on the very threat you’re afraid of.
Example: I’m so anxious about the risk of losing my job that I numb myself with procrastination and don’t get any work done.
Collapsing in vulnerability is not very fun or productive, but in the moment, for some people, it can feel like the safest option.
7) Revealing vulnerability means consciously showing other people the risks you’ve acknowledged to yourself. Here are three ways you might reveal vulnerability:
- Revealing while fighting: “Darling, I have to work 12 hours a day or else I’ll lose my job and won’t be able to support us, and I couldn’t stand that!” (As in this example, revealing while fighting often means denying responsibility: “I have to.”)
- Revealing while collapsing: “Boss! I’m so scared of losing my job, I can’t even get any work done. Promise you’ll never fire me?” (Revealing while collapsing often means asking someone else to rescue you from the vulnerability.)
- Revealing while embracing: “I’m having a really hard day. I’m feeling pretty scared and ashamed. I made a couple big mistakes, and I’m afraid I might lose my job over them. I don’t know what I would do. Do you mind talking it out with me?” (As in this case, revealing while embracing goes well with asking a friend for support, but not rescue.)
Revealing while embracing is also a great way to offer support. “Oh, I’ve been there. I get terrified when I think that my job is at stake. It’s a horrible feeling. Tell me more about what’s going on.”
With a good friend, it’s really okay to collapse a little bit: “I’m terrified I’m gonna lose my job. Tell me everything’s gonna be okay?” But if you do that too often, or if the friend takes on too much responsibility for protecting you from the vulnerability, eventually things get dysfunctional. The goal in that moment is for you and the friend to work together to get you feeling safe again while still facing reality as it is.
8) Leaning into vulnerability means consciously choosing to do something that feels vulnerable, making a choice that puts your identity at some additional risk.
Example: Making a choice that feels in line with my conscience, even if I’m concerned it might heighten the risk of me losing my job.
These categories are all related, which is why they are easily confused. Embracing, revealing, and leaning into vulnerability go well together and support one another, but they are distinct behaviors. When people talk about “being vulnerable” they often mean “embracing vulnerability,” “embracing and revealing vulnerability,” or “leaning into vulnerability.” But when people who aren’t bought into this notion hear “be vulnerable” they tend to picture some version of collapsing. Why would I do that?
Revealing vulnerability while embracing it can be a very powerful leadership move: “I’m scared. This project is bigger than anything we’ve taken on before, and I don’t know what will happen if we don’t pull it off.” But it’s important only to make that move once you’ve come through the feelings to safety. Finishing that speech with “So I need you all to promise me it’s going to work” is not inspiring leadership. Finishing with “But I know that if anyone can do it, we can, and I’m excited to go through this journey with you all” might be quite powerful.
Even when you don’t reveal the vulnerability, there’s a kind of charisma surrounding people who embrace their vulnerability. That aliveness to your own emotions is engaging and attractive, even when other people don’t quite know what they’re responding to. Feeling your feelings, especially vulnerable feelings, lets life force energy flow through you more easily, making you more dynamic, creative, and attuned to your environment. It’s also pretty fun, after you get through the scary part.
And, of course, if you never lean into your vulnerability, you will avoid all of life’s most exciting opportunities. Nothing great comes without a certain amount of risk. Ultimately, what Brené Brown is trying to do with her TED talk and her books is to encourage people to lean into the vulnerability of their own boldest, most creative, most life-affirming choices.
So vulnerability is a fact, but embracing vulnerability is a strength. Revealing vulnerability — skillfully, in the right time and place — is a strength. Leaning into vulnerability — consciously, intentionally — is a strength. And a conscious relationship with vulnerability also reveals many other strengths inside of us, the strengths with which we face whatever puts us at risk. This is what we really mean by “being vulnerable” and that’s what we want to see more of in the world.
Finally, embracing vulnerability is also a key skill for anyone working with others’ vulnerability. In our society, many people trapped in denying vulnerability feel shame about even having identity risks at all, so acknowledging and revealing vulnerability is the terrible threat made manifest. (Not only am I afraid of losing my job, I’m afraid of anyone knowing that I’m afraid.) When people are denying their vulnerabilities, telling them to “be vulnerable” only pushes them further into denial. Instead, we have to both explain and role model that embracing, revealing, and leaning into vulnerability is possible and life-affirming, so that they can start to conceive an identity that isn’t threatened by the emotions their vulnerability creates. Brené Brown’s TED talk did a fantastic job of this. We as leaders and practitioners get to continue the work.