Vulnerability often connotes weakness in the US and other western cultures. Nonetheless, vulnerability is one of the most powerful and transformative postures we can take.
In a culture that champions competition, choosing a posture of vulnerability can be difficult. There is so much emphasis on establishing an unimpeachable reputation, a veneer of power and knowledge, and an air of assertive confidence, that to present oneself as otherwise is seen as foolish.
But vulnerability is powerful in building human connection, particularly when a defensive posture has been established between people or groups.
In community work, nonprofits, community organizing and so on, vulnerability is essential to establishing strong relationships. Here are five ways to begin to practice vulnerability in your life and work:
1) Trust in the empathy of those you are with. Even the most difficult of circumstances are not devoid of compassion. I have been in so many settings where empathy has bridged gaps that no amount of persuasion or argument could. Giving people the benefit of the doubt regarding how they will respond to my vulnerability has rarely been the cause of regret.
2) Take the lead on being vulnerable. If you wait for your other to be trustworthy in order to show vulnerability, you likely will wait a very long time. I have found that being vulnerable (not necessarily self-pitying) early in a gathering of strangers can greatly accelerate the formation of intimacy of the group. Someone must start.
3) Be mindful of your own response to vulnerability. Notice what is evoked in you when someone is vulnerable in your presence. How does it change your attitude toward that person? Remember those changes and believe that others experience similar transformation when you are vulnerable.
4) From time to time, refrain from vulnerability. Vulnerability only retains its power when risk is involved. Sad stories can be used to manipulate an emotional response from those around you. For vulnerability to be transformative in a relationship, the outcome of sharing must be unknown. In this way the vulnerability is more of a gift than a technique. It is not simply a tool to leverage a specific outcome. Refraining from vulnerability can help you retain a modicum of individuation where your feelings and thoughts remain your own and not simply a reflection of others’ reaction to you.
5) Understand the difference between vulnerable disclosure and narcissistic obsession. When you begin to experience the power of vulnerability, the danger is to become infatuated with the response others may have to it. A powerful disclosure of yourself can become a script that you repeat in certain settings hoping to recreate the sensation of being special or a leader. This is not always the case and it is difficult to judge in another person. Being mindful of this possibility is wise.
Practicing vulnerability is not easy and not without risk. Doing so leaves one open to criticism, rejection, and judgment. But it can also be the practice that transforms a cold relationship, a sense of disconnect, or even a space of dehumanization.
What are your thoughts on vulnerability? In what situations are you vulnerable? Do you think about it? How have you experienced the transformative power of vulnerability?