Vulnerability is defined as the state of being open to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.
While growing up, our parents, teachers and friends may have told us not to cry as it portrays weakness. We may have grown up in a society that conditioned us to believe that exposing our vulnerabilities makes us weak, unsuccessful and makes us feel like a loser.
Professor Brené Brown in her book “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone” states that vulnerability is a key measure of courage. Vulnerability reflects authenticity, truthfulness and transparency. In addition it fosters genuineness, trust in relationships, builds resilience and self-confidence.
"Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they're never weakness." Brené Brown.
Then why are people so afraid of vulnerability? People are apprehensive to embrace vulnerability because they fear shame, rejection, disappointment and suffering, to name a few. The process of isolating ourselves and putting-on appearances is a skill that we all learn early and fast. As a child we are open and carefree but as we grow and experience hardship and abandonment we start wearing layers of armour to protect ourselves. We don’t realise that the same is preventing us from feeling many positive emotions. Living in this shell may be safe, but is definitely lonely.
We often find it hard to be kind to ourselves and can feel awkward loving our authentic self. To combat the fear of vulnerability, we must first learn to love and accept ourselves. What we all fail to understand is that blemishes, slip-ups and embarrassing moments that make us ill at ease are universal. It will be impossible to find an individual who has not committed mistakes and does not have awkward and uncomfortable experiences that they have failed to share. In addition we make every effort to conceal our flaws and imperfections and always wish for them to disappear.
Accepting our imperfections, forgiving ourselves and being empathetic and compassionate to ourselves give us greater strength and confidence. Trying to please people and prove our own importance and worth is a common theme. We live with this insecurity that we will be rejected if we do not constantly prove our worth but seldom do we realise that we fail to live as ourselves and we portray our altered ego. Actions driven by fear or anxiety of being judged are often lacking in “joie de vivre” (enthusiasm, vitality, energy and exuberance).
The first step to embrace vulnerability is to learn to recognise your emotions. For this, stop, think, recognise the emotions and deal with them. A common example could be conflict with a colleague in the presence of an audience. We will often just move on, remain withdrawn and possibly be unproductive. When this happens it kills the enthusiasm in us. What really helps is take a few minutes and move to a quiet place, think:
What emotion are you truly feeling - shame, anger, regret, grief, frustration, worry, anxiety, loneliness or fear of being misunderstood?
What is it that is really affecting you - your ignorance of the subject, a genuine mistake on your behalf, a difference of opinion, rudeness of the colleague, not being recognised for your work etc?
Once you have recognised the above, you need to release your emotions and open up to a trusted person. When negative feelings build up, they affect our well being, mental health and functionality. Talk it through with the people who care about you, like your family and close friends with whom you have high levels of vulnerability-based trust. Talking to a trusted person gives us the opportunity to look at the situation objectively, get a different perspective, sets us free of the negative emotion, assists us in developing strategies for the future and helps us to move on. This definitely takes a little courage but it is worth it.
Some examples of vulnerability in our workplace are; talking about failures, admitting to knowledge gaps, accepting our mistakes, being honest about boundaries and expectations in our work relationships, taking chances that might lead to rejections. I am certain that we have all experienced these situations (vulnerability) at some stage in our journey through our professional or personal life.
Conquering a failure is easier said than done.I can share one of my failures with you and how I got over it. I applied for a senior position and failed to get the position. I felt hurt, ashamed, humiliated and disappointed in myself. I could not talk to anyone and did exactly what should not be done and isolated myself, stopped exercise, meditation, music and dance. Everyone around me went quiet and people probably did not know what to say to me. Finally what shook me out of this spell was my husband’s powerful words (among many other things that he said), “Both failure and success are short lived, the key is to keep moving and learning at every step”. He taught me to separate the failure and my identity and reminded me that even though I had experienced failure, I was a very successful person both at work and at home.
Taking the time to reflect is paramount and try not to be defensive - acknowledge the failure and learn from it, separate the failure from your identity and this distinction will give you insight and allow you to be kind to yourself.
Set aside your hurt ego and the fallacious shame that you are experiencing to take constructive feedback from people you know have your best interest in mind. In health care it is always good to have mentors with whom you have high levels of vulnerability-based trust. This gives you some new perspectives to generate an action plan.
Don’t isolate yourself or continuously stress over what has already happened. Practise healthy coping mechanisms to help you move forward, like physical exercise, walking in nature, meditation, journaling, painting or listening to music.
All of us are familiar with committing mistakes – as soon as we acknowledge the error, half the stress is over and the mind is more open to learning. One other common human behaviour is the fear of being different and as a result we conceal our outlook. Success comes from standing out, not fitting in.
In summary, embrace vulnerability and concede your blemishes; it will allow you to value the world around you and make you more compassionate. Make certain you have mentors with whom you share high levels of vulnerability-based trust and debrief with them and debrief often.