Vulnerability has become the new mantra of self-development.
How to be vulnerable, “showing our true selves” and “removing our masks” are the new signs of strength and power.
But is it true?
Will vulnerability make you mentally healthier?
And will it make you stronger and more successful?
- What’s Vulnerability
- The Drawbacks of Vulnerability
- Vulnerability & Seduction
- Vulnerability & Relationships
- Why People Get Vulnerability Wrong
- When Vulnerability Works
Vulnerability has become a hot topic thanks to the work and Brene Brown, with titles such as “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly“.
And thanks to the (great) work of authors such as Lewis Howes, vulnerability has become more and more popular among men as well.
Well… What’s vulnerability, you might ask?
Vulnerability is the courage of showing up and being yourself, without a mask, and with all your flaws.
If it still sounds fuzzy, it’s because it is.
Let’s see some examples of vulnerability to gain more clarity:
- Talking about your weaknesses
- Speaking of what embarrasses you
- Sharing an unpopular opinion
- Standing up for yourself
And so far, so good.
And vulnerability is also:
- Confessing your love
- Crying in front of people
- Asking forgiveness
Basically, every time that we put our ego on the line and do something that might hurt us, we are being vulnerable. When we risk embarrassment, public criticism and, the big one when we risk shame, we are being vulnerable.
Vulnerability takes courage. Sometimes lots of courage. And people admire the courage of vulnerability.
That’s what the vulnerability pundits say, at least. And well, they’re (often) right.
So… Should you be vulnerable?
No, not so fast.
The Drawbacks of Vulnerability
There are times in life where vulnerability won’t make you stronger, more admired, or even help you move ahead in life.
There are several disadvantages to vulnerability.
The obvious one being, guess what?
The show of weakness.
And when that weakness is “too much”, critical, or not shown and perceived against the backdrop of a stronger, powerful frame… Then you move away from “admirable vulnerability” and into “pathetic weakness”.
There is a thin line between vulnerability and pathetic weakness
I will show you now a few examples of vulnerability done wrong.
1. You Can’t Be Vulnerable If You Want to Lead
Being a good leader, sometimes, means keeping your weaknesses to yourself.
This will not be very popular to say, but it’s how it truly works.
In this scene from Smokin’ Aces Bateman, the man in the hotel room is supposedly the leader.
But by sharing all his vulnerable insecurities he manages to comes across so slimy that he becomes disgusting:
His “vulnerability” sends him straight goes from potential leader to slimy guy
This is an especially bad case of vulnerability because he exaggerates his flaws and because they have just met, which compounds the issue.
But the general rule still applies: people in leadership positions don’t always have the luxury of vulnerability in front of those whom they lead.
The harsh truth of leading people is that, most of the time, you need to keep your personal worries and weaknesses to yourself.
When you share your full self with your subordinates, at best, they will think of you as “one of us”. And you can’t be “one of them” with your subordinates. You are not one of them: you are the leader and the one giving them tasks.
And at worst, you lose all authority and respect.
2. You Can’t Be Vulnerable In Result-Based Organizations
So you can’t be too vulnerable as the leader.
Maybe you can be vulnerable with your superiors?
Well, a little bit more maybe.
But still, not so fast.
In any result-based business, too much vulnerability gets you easily labeled as a softy or cry baby.
Look at this example from Platoon:
You can bet he lost much of his boss’s respect when he showed his vulnerable, scared side.
It might not be a coincidence that Brene Brown is a humanistic researcher at university.
Brene Brown probably wouldn’t have written about vulnerability if she worked a more cut-throat business (note: this is not to say that university is a bad environment and cut-throat business is).
- Executive strategies: coming across as powerful at work
- Career strategies
- Mastering office politics
3. You Can’t Be Vulnerable Upon Meeting Someone
Anything you do during the first phases of getting to know someone will have outsized consequences?
Because people naturally tend to extrapolate information and generalize it to your whole persona.
Even just a 20 seconds “opening up” about the hardship of life in the first 2 minutes of conversation will have people unconsciously slap a negative label on you.
In short: vulnerability during introductions and early socialization is a big no-no.
4. Some Specific Roles Don’t Allow For Vulnerability
There are some roles that almost automatically do not and cannot accept vulnerability in themselves and in others.
Army generals for example, or charismatic leaders during uncertain times.
Showing vulnerability when you have one of these roles or when you are interacting with one of these roles will almost automatically murder your status.
Here is a good example of vulnerability shown to an individual in an invulnerable role from the movie Paths of Glory:
The roles of army leadership allow for little or no vulnerability
Please note, this doesn’t mean that army leaders are invulnerable or “stronger”.
They are just as strong -or as weak- as anybody else.
It simply means that the expectation in those environments is that you need to hide your vulnerability. And people who don’t hide their vulnerability lose all their social status in those roles and organizations.
And it means that if you want to move ahead in those organizations, you gotta play the “hide your vulnerability game”.
Vulnerability & Seduction
Brene Brown in Daring Greatly shares the story of a young fella who embraced her vulnerable advice.
After dating several months with a woman, this is what happened (the dialogue is my own making from the story):
Him: I love you
Her: You’re awesome, but maybe we should start seeing other people
The young fella went back to his dorm and told the story to his roommates. This is what happened (dialogue is mine adapted from the story):
Roommate 1: What were you thinking man
Roommate 2: Women only like men who run the other way
Him: I was daring greatly
Roommates: (nodding) Right on dude
Brene goes on saying that (I paraphrase for brevity):
Vulnerability is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. Vulnerability is subversive and uncomfortable. Even dangerous at times.
However, The Power Moves is here to say that sometimes vulnerability, in the wrong situation, can also be counterproductive and boneheaded.
Vulnerability might not be about winning or losing.
But if you also want to win from time to time, then you would be well served to learn when vulnerability is not the most effective alternative.
There was a great example from “Dating in The Dark” that I linked to from here.
Unluckily, the video has been removed.
But this was the crucial exchange of that video:
Girl: what are you looking for?
Guy: I’m looking for a girlfriend. I have never had one, so I want to make some experience
I admired that guy. And I respect him.
But that male respect does not translate well into an effective dating strategy.
He didn’t need to say that he has never had a girlfriend.
That might lead some women to want to take care of him and make him their baby-lover.
But it’s a minority of women and you need to have lots of other qualities.
And if you don’t have them or don’t want to be a “babied lover”, then don’t spill all the beans that so much lower your status.
Vulnerability & Relationships
Many relationships books advising couples to face the demons of vulnerability and opening up about their struggles and insecurities.
As much as I believe in supportive and loving relationships, sadly I don’t think you can always be open about everything and anything.
At least not without some consequences.
Example of Bad Relationship Vulnerability
Here are some examples that I paraphrase from a relationship book.
It’s a couple fighting because of his jealousy.
Here is the dialogue the author suggests:
Him: This is not easy to talk about, but I want to try. I know it’s not cool and I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I was feeling some jealousy tonight. You and Matt, you seemed quit close. Both intellectually and physically. I felt hurt and lonely.
You know, I have been getting chubbier lately, developing a paunch. I need some reassurance. Do you still find me attractive?
I would love it if you’d look at me the way you seemed to be looking at Matt.
This was an otherwise great, high-quality book.
And still, the author failed on a basic understanding of dating psychology. The author says that such vulnerability would improve the relationship and even make him stronger.
I couldn’t disagree more.
That’s the type of bad vulnerability. This is not about momentary weakness. This is deep insecurity and nonexistent self-esteem, a big turnoff.
The relationship wouldn’t be stronger and her respect for him would tank.
If he wanted to share his jealousy, it would be OK, but I would do it like this:
Him: Hey, I need to talk to you about something. The way you were talking and joking with Matt, that felt like flirting to me.
I didn’t like it and it made uncomfortable.
He might have even shared that “it hurt him”, that might be OK, depending on the type of relationship they have -if he’s the leader and highest value, he would likely lose some value-.
But all that part that “he needed reassurance”, that’s the equivalent of asking her “baby me please”.
And some relationships can work that way. But it’s more relationships of equals -or her above him-.
Not relationships where the woman admires him and thinks the world of him, and not the relationships where she feels like she married the best possible catch.
And here is another example of doing vulnerability all wrong, from a female perspective:
Her: After the birth of our child I can’t seem to get in shape anymore. I have been 15 kg heavier and I can’t manage to shed it anymore. Those tiramisu cups are too good for me to give up.
And worse of all… You don’t seem to look at me like you used to.
I’m feeling ugly and unattractive. Even at work, my colleagues are not flirting with me anymore. Not that I care about that, but it’s another signal that I am not as attractive.
Can you hold me please?
There is nothing wrong with her sharing her need to be held. Quite the opposite.
Sharing worries about her weight, that depends on what personality her partner is, especially after she adds that “she can’t manage to shed it and those tiramisu caps are too good”. Men tend to be stricter than women, and especially driven men.
My first reaction there would be to ask “how hard have you really tried”.
And adding that other men find less attractive is completely unnecessary.
Vulnerability in Relationship Examples
Yes, women control most relationships.
But they don’t respect much the men who let themselves be controlled.
Maintaining attraction in relationships, especially for men, has a lot to do with remaining the leader of that relationship.
Here is an example of vulnerability done wrong in a relationship:
He loses the leadership of the relationship, and he loses relationship power. And yes she will respect him less.
Same woman, a different way of expressing vulnerability. In this example he might actually gain some point:
Aleksandr looks much more masculine in his vulnerability.
He is in a time of crisis, but he doesn’t show low self-esteem by calling himself a “big fat fucking loser”.
Instead, he is the kind of successful man, with lots more success potential, going through a tough, high-pressure time. That’s the type of men women want to help because they’re likely to deliver once back on their feet.
Why People Get Vulnerability Wrong
People who market vulnerability as the cure to relationships and the best way to present ourselves to the world make a common mistake.
And the mistake they make is to blame society -our competitive society in particular- for forcing people to hide their weaknesses.
But if we can be ourselves, they say, we will show everyone it’s possible to be ourselves and be loved.
Competitiveness does play a role indeed, but discounting our human nature is a failure to understanding our nature.
The truth is, there is also a lot to gain from hiding our vulnerability.
It’s because there is much to gain in hiding weaknesses that hiding weaknesses is the “default setting” for most people.
Just think about, in a world where everyone is good at hiding vulnerabilities, the person who admits too much vulnerability will naturally look weaker and dumber and, comparatively, less attractive.
On the other hand, in a world where nobody manages to hide their vulnerability, the first human being who managed to hide theirs, would look comparatively stronger, brighter and more secure. A real catch.
Hiding vulnerabilities indeed can also help people secure a mate better than they actually are. And that’s the exact reason why people hide weaknesses.
Instead, showing too much vulnerability without being able to also market one’s good qualities can lead to a worse partner.
And that’s what the peddlers of vulnerability fail to warn people about: vulnerability can be damaging when misused.
When Vulnerability Works
There are situations where vulnerability can make you more relatable, improve your relationships, and even make you look stronger and sexier.
Here are some examples:
- Admitting fear when everyone else has the same fear
When everyone else has the same fear, admitting it first actually makes you more leader-like.
I remember once sitting around a table when the book “Games People Play” came up. I said right away that I had to go through it so slowly because it was “way too F complex”.
People burst out in laughter and one guy admitted: “man, I’m glad you said that, it was the same for me”.
If nobody had shared the uncomfortable truth, we’d all been left with a big lie and failed to really connect.
- When you’re strong, a weakness makes you more relatable
Research shows that when people who seem “too good” make a mistake or show vulnerability, they are much more liked (example of Johnny Depp).
This goes back to the example above on jealousy.
It can be OK admitting jealousy if you are an otherwise relatively secure, relatively fit, relatively well off person.
On the other hand, the worse you are compared to your partner, the more vulnerability is likely to damage you because your partner will unconsciously think “I can do better than this”.
- In momentary weaknesses
An otherwise strong personality having a moment of weakness, then building themselves back up is extremely endearing.
Women love it as well in men, as it’s the type of byronic man that only needs a bit of their “fixing”, which hopefully will make him dependent on him as they get to keep an overall awesome guy.
- When it shows an emotional, human side
Vulnerability can show our human, emotional side.
Again, women love it, especially when it comes from a man who seemed always so strong and in control.
Here is The Godfather:
- When both are sharing vulnerability, it deepens your bond
When both partners are opening and sharing their hearts, opening up will increase trust, bonding, and intimacy.
- To gain trust and make others open up
Revealing a weakness first can be a strategic move to make people comfortable and help them open up.
Especially when people seem to put up a wall you, revealing your weakness first can be the best way to show that you provide a welcoming and open environment where to share without judgment.
- When both feel the same weakness
Have you heard of the impostor syndrome?
You have impostor syndrome when you feel like you aren’t good enough to be where you are.
But that’s how most people feel! And when you share a weakness that most other people feel -and most will-, then it will indeed make you look braver and more courageous.
- When your vulnerability doesn’t stop you
You know those public speakers who say “my knees are shaking and I’m super nervous” and yet they look like they own the stage?
That’s the type of vulnerability people love.
Make yourself the kind of person delivers and people will love you for your weaknesses and honest vulnerability.
- In supportive, intimate close relationships of equals
Finally, let’s admit it: a relationship where you can really be yourself is awesome. If you develop that kind of relationship with your partner, then be your vulnerable self.
However, these relationships should be partnerships of equals.
If he or, more rarely, she is the leader of the relationship, too much vulnerability on the leader side will result in a decrease of admiration and respect.
Don’t get angry at me for saying it. Don’t hate the players. And actually, don’t hate the game either. That’s just the way it is. That’s just the way we’re wired.
- In “scorched earth” power moves
Well, see check the power dictionary for a definition, and see here an example:
Vulnerability in the sense of “showing up” and “risking embarrassment” is a worthwhile pursuit and it will empower you.
You cannot achieve success without risking failure. And learning to overcome embarrassment as quickly as possible will make you so much stronger.
This article is not telling you to avoid vulnerability.
You will gain by developing good friendships where you can be as honest as possible.
And you can probably gain by welcoming more vulnerability in your close relationships.
This article tells you that there are many misuses of vulnerability that will not help you but harm you.
And hiding vulnerability in the right moments and places will make you more powerful and effective.
Vulnerability is a tool.
And as for most tools, a blanket application makes no sense. Understanding it and using it in the right situations instead will serve you well.