Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

Walking the middle path – the limits of vulnerability

In Personal Reflections on August 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Vulnerability has been trending of late; a meme that has captured the minds and hearts of many people I know. Moreover, it seems to have changed their behaviour. I experience myself and others being more vulnerable with each other, deepening connection and building community. While vulnerability can create greater connection, empathy and understanding, I have also experienced and witnessed it have painful consequences for people.

Brene Brown’s wonderful TED talks titled “The power of vulnerability” and “Listening to shame” have done a lot to fuel this meme. TED talks and social media offer us bite sized bits of inspiration and information. It is tempting to read 140 characters or hear an 18 minute speech and consequently conclude we are experts or accomplished in the content matter. Brene researched this field for over a decade, engaging in deep inquiry and personal exploration to understand these principles.

Whether we are acting as facilitators, educators, social workers or systems diplomats, we owe it to ourselves and the people we serve to understand these topics more fully. Vulnerability can be powerful in our work, but it can also have negative impacts.

Vulnerability is different for everyone

My experience of vulnerability started when I was young. At the time my parents and others just referred to me as a sensative child. While this was true and in more recent years has become a more endearing and useful quality, for a good period of time it caused me a great deal of angst. My natural sensitivity and willingness to be vulnerable left me open to being taken advantage of by others.

More recently I had a series of professional experiences where my being vulnerable in a work context had mixed responses and wasn’t always respected in the way it was intended. While colleagues who reported to me saw this at times as endearing, authentic and confidence-giving, those in positions of authority ‘above’ me perceived this as a weakness and confidence-depleting. It seemed that not every context or group of people interpreted or experienced vulnerability in the same way.

In social organisations and communities there are often highly blurred lines between professional colleagues, friends and therapeutic relationships. It can happen in workplaces that we open up to others and share our experiences, and find ourselves confused at the blurred relationships that have developed. In friendships we can fall into the trap of ‘accidental counselor’, only to find that friendship be tarnished or confused by the changed role. It can also happen that we expose part of ourselves to a boss, colleague or client only to later regret it.

Vulnerability is not authenticity

To be vulnerable is to expose oneself and has an assumed quality of risk about it. Authenticity is about being real and genuine, but usually doesn’t imply risk or danger. It is possible to be authentic without making oneself vulnerable.

Vulnerability is not empathy

While vulnerability can lead to empathy, it is not a prerequisite. Have you ever listened to another person’s story and responded by recounting a similar story that happened to you. I know that I have fallen into the habitual trap of thinking that sharing my own story is an act of empathy. It is not. Empathy is about being able to understand the feelings and experiences of another. We don’t need to be able to bring our own stuff into it in order to be able to have empathy. In fact, by bringing our own stuff into it we run the risk of causing disconnection and diminishing the other person’s experience.

The hidden dangers of vulnerability

In the world of doing good, we live, work and play with people who each have their story. For some people their past story can contain such immense hurt and pain that to expose that or bring it to the surface can be scary and difficult to deal with. In being vulnerable ourselves by sharing our own story, we give a kind of permission for others to be vulnerable. We say; “it is safe for you to share your story here”. I have witnessed people share stories only later to regret it and felt hurt or angry and having exposed themselves.

Self-protection is an act of self-respect

For me at least, vulnerability requires mutuality. Sometimes when we are vulnerable, others will appreciate it and open up themselves. Mutuality is created in the exchange. But where there is no mutuality or respect for vulnerability, it can be wise to be cautious.

The basis of self-protection is having boundaries and being clear on the lines we draw with people. Exposing oneself unconsciously and indiscriminately can lead to misinterpretation of behaviour, false conclusions about intention, and regretted experiences. It is wise to be conscious of who we are being vulnerable with. Finding people we trust and respect, who have the skills and strength to share our vulnerability is important.

Being conscious of this in professional contexts is also crucial, so much so that many therapeutic professions will have guidelines around this in their codes of ethics.

We need to be able to walk the middle path

Whether it is systems diplomacy, coaching or any kind of human oriented pursuit, whenever we engage with others we walk the fine line of how much to bring ourselves into the story. Neutrality is a critical skill in this area. We need to be able to remain neutral and see a higher (or other) perspective. Getting caught in emotional traps or human drama pulls us away from being able to stay in this neutrality.

This does not preclude us from being authentic, open and empathic. On the contrary, these skills are vital. It means that we need to be wise and conscious in how, when and if we bring our own story into the conversation or space. In these roles we need to walk a ‘middle path’ between being guarded and vulnerable. In the Buddhist and other spiritual traditions, the middle path is finding the harmonious balance between the two extremes, and to the Buddha this was seen as the path of wisdom.

From expert to explorer

So please don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to dismiss vulnerability as unimportant or not powerful – it can be. I have experienced on numerous occasions how my being vulnerable has led to important shifts in myself and my relationships with others. At times I have been vulnerable consciously and found immense value from this, and others practiced vulnerability indiscriminately and been burnt. I have friends and colleagues report similar experiences.

In view of my earlier criticism of the ’18-minute’ expert, I run the risk of hypocrisy in trying to deliver these views in a short blog post. Please don’t take my views here as expert; they are the accumulation of life experience and observation to date. I am still playing and exploring with this.

If you are interested in understanding vulnerability, authenticity and connection more, I encourage you to be conscious of what comes up in your day-to-day experiences. Be an explorer. Take time to reflect after on what occurred, how it felt and what impact it might have had for you or others. Practices like writing in a journal or meditation can help with this.

If you like Brene Brown’s talks, perhaps follow up with her books which explore these topics in greater depth. There is a great deal more to her work than what she communicated magnificently in her talks.

Either way, I wish you all the best in finding your middle path.

@bennycallaghan

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  1. Thanks Benny for a very insightful post on vulnerability.
    I am going to take a stab at sharing my own perspective: I have actually worked very hard to be ok to be open, to drop my guard, to be vulnerable, to let people in. In that regard I now see my vulnerability at my strength. But you are right in that you need to choose who you are vulnerable with. Especially the old guard, who are often threatened by this new found openness, by this exposure, especially if it confronts them about their own vulnerabilities.
    I am also grateful to people who are open and vulnerable. Openness allows true depth of connection and understanding, compassion, empathy in one’s situation. The path of personal development is often tumultuous, it is confronting and emotional. But it is a shared journey and it is great to have a support team around who appreciates the strength vulnerability.
    Choose the people who you are vulnerable with, understand that if it has negative consequences it may not be the vulnerability but the opportunity for personal development and further strengthening in one’s own personal journey. That’s my take.

  2. Benny I really appreciate this post. So timely and very insightful. You’ve raised many points that have been part of the discussions I’ve been having in the last little while and several which haven’t, which gives me much more to consider! I love what you’re doing. Looking forward to exploring more.

    • Thanks Lara. Funny you connect as I just read your blog on learning the other day and loved it. I am on the move and haven’t had a chance to reply properly to it. Look forward to connecting.

  3. Ben

    You raise some very good points. In reflecting on my own situation, I have learned over the years NOT to be vulnerable, but to protect myself first. This was a basic survival mechanism in high school. I have also just left a company where vulnerability is most certainly seen as weakness. There was a strong culture of shifting blame and saving face. However amongst such a hard culture I found myself in a small team of great people who I quickly built trust with. I reflected in leaving that I had shared with that small group things I would not have normally shared. I was comfortable that they would not judge me for my experiences/beliefs/mistakes etc, that they would not pass that information on to anyone else, and ultimately that sharing enriched our team and our one on one relationships. I also came to see these people as friends first, and colleagues second, which in this case was not a cause of conflict. For me, trust comes first, then vulnerability.

    • Thanks Izaac for sharing your story, and for emphasizing the importance of trust. It is encouraging to hear a story of how trust can be cultivated even within a broader culture blame and mistrust.

  4. Thank you all. I only discovered Brene talks 2 months back and they got in to me, so you will forgive my ignorance. but one thing I remember Brene say is: Set your limits and allow yourself to be valnerable. and to me Benny is saying exactly the same thing.

    • Hey Alotsi, thanks for sharing…it is wonderful stuff to get into, so glad you enjoyed the Brene Brown talks. Really cool lessons to be learning hey. Setting your limits is a nice way to capture it!

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