Did you grow up believing that vulnerability is weakness?
It’s OK — you’re not alone. Some of us were taught this by our relatives (sad face), and others tacitly picked this up from living in certain communities. Regardless, most of us learned that vulnerability is a form of oversharing that makes you “soft” — or prone to victimization.
In a nutshell, we’re taught that vulnerability is bad.
Here are the facts:
Human beings have an instinctual aversion to pain. Our brains are hardwired to protect us. If our ability to stay safe, protected, and balanced is threatened by external forces, our brains trigger us into survival mode.
Vulnerability is both a physical and emotional disposition that opens us up to uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. If our dispositions aren’t conditioned through self-compassion or self-worth, vulnerability stands to trigger our fears and insecurities — hence, throwing us into survival mode overdrive.
Imagine telling the person you’re crazy about that you love them before you know how they feel or deciding to become the CEO of a new startup and campaigning to ask for funding. In both cases, we are completely opening ourselves up and becoming vulnerable.
We fear being susceptible to any external elements which are completely out of our control — such as rejection, betrayal, or feelings of shame.
Our brains are also hardwired for storytelling, even for stories that aren’t true.
Why would our brains do this to us?
For starters, one of our brain’s many jobs is to protect us. Our brain creates a story — or a narrative that we need to hear about our well-being and the world around us. The story we hear when we perceive our well-being in danger is that vulnerability is bad — it stands to hurt us or cause us pain. So, the conclusion we draw is vulnerability is awful and should be avoided at all costs.
Sorry brain — no shade — but the belief that “vulnerability is weakness” is not only false — it’s total bullshit.
The Truth About Vulnerability
“Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.” – Dr. Brené Brown
Contrary to what our brains may have us think, to be vulnerable is to be human.
In order for us to exert the kind of influence we hope to have in our lives — courage, creativity, belonging, connectedness, leadership, spirituality, — we must embrace our vulnerability.
Dr. Brené Brown is an endowed research professor at the University of Houston, the top five most viewed TED Talk Speaker, author of five #1 New York Times Bestseller Books including Daring Greatly, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead, and is the first researcher to have a filmed talk on Netflix, The Call to Courage.
Dr. Brené Brown has inspired millions — including Fortune 10 companies and the tech giants of Silicone Valley — through her research on vulnerability, courage, and shame. Her goal is to share with the world importance of embracing vulnerability. If you want to live a more daring and creative life, embracing vulnerability, self-worth, and overcoming shame is the key to living courageously.
At the Science of Success, we’ve teased out four important lessons from Brown’s research on vulnerability and why it is necessary to embrace it rather than avoid it. You will undoubtedly have tools to create and lead the life you deserve.
Lesson One: “It’s Not the Critic Who Counts”
“If you want something you've never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done.” – Thomas Jefferson
In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave what would become one of the greatest rhetorical triumphs in history. A timeless classic, “The Man in the Arena” served as his impassioned response to cynics who dared to criticize those individuals seeking to make the world a better place.
This speech, while profound in its own right, served as the central tenet to Brown’s research on courage as well as the core of her own personal philosophy. Roosevelt said:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." – Theodore Roosevelt on ‘Citizenship in the Republic’
Brown urges us to recognize that it’s not the critic who counts — it’s not the person who lives their lives on the sidelines or viewing the deeds of others from the “cheap seats.” What are the cheap seats? It’s the seats for those “cold and timid souls” who sit back and criticize others who dare to live a brave life.
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” – Dr. Brené Brown
She goes on to say that the critics aren’t willing to show up to the arena. They aren’t willing to risk getting knocked down or be faced with the daunting task of getting back up — this includes risks related to love, parenting, leadership, creativity, or innovation.
Instead, the critics role is to point out the mistakes of “the doer of deeds” or those who strive valiantly to lead a brave life.
Brown says it’s easy to make a full-time career of hurling judgment, criticism, and shame to others. But it’s hard as hell to live a life of true courage.
She says true courage is the same as vulnerability — it’s the willingness to show up and put yourself out there and be all-in when you can’t control the outcome.
Her advice: Ignore your critics.
Lesson Two: Feedback is Required for Mastery
“If you're occasionally getting your butt kicked…and…you're also figuring out how to stay open to feedback without getting pummeled by insults, I'm more likely to pay attention to your thought[s]…On the other hand, [if] you're not helping, contributing, or wrestling with your own gremlins, I'm not…interested in your commentary.” – Dr. Brené Brown
Brown says that feedback is required for mastery.
Let’s face it, receiving feedback is tough. It stings. And for those of us who aren’t used to rejection, it can feel like a total blow to one’s ego.
In a recent interview, Brown acknowledges that receiving feedback is a vulnerable experience — however, the vulnerability should be experienced on both sides.
Brown says, "feedback should be as vulnerable for the person giving it as the person receiving it…[because] you…have no idea what's [going to] go down in that room."
She goes on to say "you're ready to give feedback when you're ready to sit next to the person, not across from them. You're ready to put the problem, not between you, but in front of both of you. And you should be prepared to own your part in the problem, too.”
Unlike the man in the arena, the critics are unwilling to take the same kinds of risks. And often times, they overlook the amount of effort it requires to fight in the arena. This is something Brown refuses to tolerate in own her life and business.
In sharing feedback with one another, we are best positioned to see the errors and think outside the box on how to self-correct. In an organization that’s open to feedback, it creates a culture that’s vulnerable, honest, and courageous.
The takeaway here is this: feedback that’s genuine and honest is not only necessary for growth, it helps to improve relationships and creates a climate for creative, innovative, and forward-thinking cultures.
Her advice: Only accept and pay attention to feedback from those people who are also in the arena.
Lesson Three: Adversity—The Mr. Miyagi Teacher of Getting Back Up
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett
One of the challenges with living in a vulnerability adverse culture is we aren’t trained on how to deal with failure or disappointment.
Brown says, “If we don’t know how to get back up after failure, disappointment, or setback, we will spend an enormous amount of energy making sure we never have to get back up.”
She goes on to say that when we don’t know how to get back up, we tiptoe around to ensure we never fall. In fact, we spend the majority of our social and emotional lives tip-toeing around, being utterly terrified.
Brown says we need adversity — it is necessary for growth. However, she cautions that there is an enormous difference between adversity and trauma.
Let’s say your adolescent teenager is trying out for their high school’s varsity basketball team. Despite their ample attempts to prepare for the big day, they don’t make the varsity squad. The feedback given from their coach is while your child shows great promise — their dribble skills are poor, and they desperately need to work on their jump shot. This is an example of an adversity (or a difficulty). The feedback given in this situation is a clear understanding of what they need to overcome to make the team next year.
Now, let’s say you want your child to join the basketball team, but they tell you they don’t want to because there is evidence of bullying from the other teammates. As a parent, you demand that your child become a part of the team because you don’t want them to be seen as “weak” or a “pushover.” By not showing your child empathy or investigating the matter further, this act of parenting can create trauma (a deeply tormenting experience).
In a talk Brown gave on The Power of Vulnerability , she asked the audience whether a parent who truly loves their child unconditionally is capable of turning a deaf ear to their child’s struggle with bullying? Her answer, absolutely.
How does this happen? In the above example, instead of showing empathy and being vulnerable, parents can ignore their children’s needs and unintentionally create trauma. Moreover, some parents are fearful of what would happen if they gave into their own vulnerability — e.g. “my child’s pain reminds me of my previous or current struggle with bullying at work/at home/in relationships, etc.” Without empathy, it’s not uncommon for parents to respond with “toughen up” or “don’t be soft” or “I’ll give you something to cry about.” If we aren’t in tuned with our own vulnerability, we can inadvertently shift the shame and trauma that was given to us onto our children.
Trauma not only sets our children back; it sets us back as well.
Brown encourages that a healthy exposure to adversity is needed for us to grow and learn to pick ourselves up when we’ve fallen. Adversity helps us become braver because it presents opportunities for us to exercise our courage.
Lesson Four – Remove the Armor
One of the most defining lessons Brown highlights in her study on leadership is the importance of courageous leadership.
Dr. Brown told the Science of Success that during one of her talks to a group of special forces soldiers, “If vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure, give me a single example courage that you’ve witnessed or experienced yourself that didn’t involve vulnerability.”
After a long pause, one of the soldiers, who just completed three tours, finally spoke up and said, “Ma’am, there is no courage without vulnerability.”
The takeaway here is that vulnerability is needed to be courageous, but it doesn’t mean that if you’re courageous, you don’t experience fear. She goes on to tell us that, “even brave and courageous people are scared all the time.”
However, she notes that it’s not the fear that gets in the way of us being brave or vulnerable, it’s the armor. What’s the armor?
The armor is what you wear to self-protect when you feel emotionally at risk or exposed. While the armor can wear many masks, the most common examples are perfectionism, cynicism, the know-it-all (or more important to be right than get it right), the people pleaser, or the blustery, posturing tough guy. Most of us who were taught that to be vulnerable means to be soft or weak, learned to suit up in the armor to prevent the risk of emotional exposure.
Brown says that armor weighs 100 pounds, but the resentment built behind weighs 1000 pounds. The problem with armor is that it prevents us from showing up or being authentic.
Brown says, “When you work so hard to keep the peace on the outside, you wage a war internally.” When we aren’t able to express ourselves in an authentic way, we harbor resentment and jealously towards those who are courage enough to show up.
One common way to spot this resentment oftentimes comes from our being judgmental—or the inner gremlin who’s hurling criticism from the cheap seats.
Brown says that there’s a way we can remove our armor. It starts with practicing three crucial tasks:
And asking yourself the following questions:
How does my armor serve me?
What’s the cost of the armor?
What am I afraid of if I lose the armor?
Am I wearing this armor for myself? Or for someone else?
How do you stop caring what other people think about you?
Her advice: You can replace the armor with something that helps you — curiosity. Get curious about who are you, who are you showing up as, how is the armor serving you? And through your exploration of wanting to connect with the person you truly are, be sure to exercise self-compassion towards yourself. Get to a place where you belong to yourself. And by embracing your vulnerability, you’ll find true belonging in yourself and the courage to lead a daring life.
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” – Dr. Brené Brown