Why Vulnerability is Strength

by | Nov 23, 2020

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My Inspiration for Writing About Vulnerability

I’ve had a few things happen recently that have inspired me to write about the importance of vulnerability:

  • I am writing a book about investment mental models. Even though it is non-fiction, my editor and book coach, Nancy Erickson, insists that I bring my own story to the book and talk about the mistakes I’ve made. She says that vulnerability will allow the readers to connect with me as a real person. In her book about writing, she notes that “When you’re real, people will love you. When you’re open and honest about your life, you give the reader permission to be open and honest, too. I’m not saying it’s easy. It takes a lot of courage to be this vulnerable.”
  • A few days ago I read an outstanding article in Newsweek by Dr. Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University, titled My Coping Skills As A Therapist in 2020: Fail, Fail Again And Then Keep Trying. In the article Dr. Gold reveals how she’s been struggling during the pandemic: too much social media, blurring of boundaries between work and private time, and failure to practice self-care routines that she knows would be helpful. I found her vulnerability refreshing, and, in a strange way, validating to know that even mental health professionals struggle with practicing optimal self-care behavior. After reading her article, I’ll not be so self-critical about all the things I know I should be doing but at which I’m failing.
  • Finally, a few nights ago I watched the new Chelsea Handler special called Evolution. While it was hilarious, she also revealed a lot about her issues and struggles. Notably, she talked about how the death of her eldest brother when she was age 9 had a major impact on her ability to trust and feel empathy. As she was sharing her issues she said she’s learned that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. Rather, vulnerability is strength.

Vulnerability is Strength

What exactly is vulnerability? According to Emma Seppälä of the Yale School of Management, “Vulnerability . . . does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It means replacing ‘professional distance and cool’ with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

It takes strength and courage to be vulnerable — it’s hard — but it’s worth it. One of the foremost experts on social connection is best-selling author and University of Houston professor Brené Brown. Through extensive research Dr. Brown has determined that vulnerability is what lies at the heart of social connections. In her TED Talk (which is one of the five most watched talks of all time), Dr. Brown says that “in order for connection to happen we have to be seen — really seen” . . . and vulnerability is “the birth place of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love . . . .” Her research has found that those people who “live wholeheartedly” are those who practice vulnerability.

Want to see a great example of vulnerability in action — check out this extremely popular TED Talk by model Cameron Russell which you can watch here.

Vulnerability is a Necessary Ingredient of High Performing Teams

Vulnerability is required in order to build an effective team.

My favorite leadership book of all-time is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. The lesson of the book is that there are five key things a team must get right to be a high performing. Mr. Lencioni depicts these five things in a pyramid format, and similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you need to conquer the elements at the bottom of the pyramid before you can move up. Each element within the pyramid is written as a dysfunction. Each element’s primary challenge written to the right of each category.

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The foundational element is trust and the biggest challenge to trust is invulnerability. According to Lencioni,

Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.”

Here’s another IFOD on an important ingredient to high performing teams: The Secret Ingredient to High Performing Teams.

How to be More Vulnerable

It takes confidence and strength to put yourself out there and be vulnerable. Based on my research and personal experience, here are some things to think about that can help:

1. Believe that “I am Enough”

Brené Brown believes that we have issues being vulnerable because we feel shame. In our perfectionist culture we often believe that we are not good enough. She says we think “we’re not good enough…not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough” etc. So, we hide our faults, mistakes, and who we really are. Social media makes this worse. People tend to only post positives. Everyone’s life looks perfect on Instagram.

Dr. Brown says that we should start with believing that we’re enough. Tell yourself this everyday: “I am enough” and that it’s okay to just be who you are. Believe that you are worthy of love, belonging and acceptance. Create a mantra to this effect and repeat it throughout the day.

2. Realize Your Strength

Being vulnerable is not weakness. It is strength. And we all are stronger than we know. Tell yourself each day that you are strong enough to just be you. When you feel the urge to hold back, put on a façade, or hide your weaknesses, remind yourself that you are strong and showing vulnerability is a sign of your strength.

3. View Your Own Vulnerability as a Gift to Others

I’ve been very open about both my own and my children’s struggles with mental health. With rare exceptions, people have responded with positivity to my sharing. Everyone is touched by mental health issues, yet they aren’t often discussed in the open. A few years ago, I shared mental health struggles in a group setting and afterwards I was approached by a group member who said said “thank you for saying what you did — by sharing you made it okay for the rest of us to open up and discuss our issues.”

This is an important concept. We all struggle and we all try to hide it. But hiding our weaknesses is hard. As noted in an article on vulnerability and leadership, “hiding vulnerabilities is exhausting. It is like being a secret agent, and no one must know.” Source. By sharing your own weaknesses, it frees other to stop hiding and to be themselves. This is a gift. By showing vulnerability, those around you can be themselves. Viewing vulnerability as a gift to others is a great way to get over the fear of opening up and sharing weaknesses.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for your honesty John. It is inspiring.

    Reply
  2. Really great reflections and so true! Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  3. John-
    I hope you are well. I love these, but this particular one struck a chord. Absolutely awesome! and Thank you!

    Cam from Nantucket

    Reply

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