Vulnerability as a Source of Strength
By Sharon Strand Ellison
We Can't Be Fully
Honest Without Showing Vulnerability
There is a power in honesty and we lose it when we hide. Showing our vulnerability is the segue to that power.
I put the tip for all of us first, followed by couples, parents, and professionals. I think it is valuable to read them in order as the information from one area can be generalized to another.
The message that exposing our vulnerability
when we are under attack shows our weakness and puts us in danger is part of the
atmosphere we are born into, the air we breathe. Most of us, no matter
how dedicated we are to communicating openly, would automatically be inclined
to hide our vulnerability at the very moment someone is intentionally
putting us down or embarrassing us in front of others. We typically show our vulnerability
when we feel safe, usually not when under attack unless we are "breaking
down" or "giving in."
I don't think we can tap into our full strength
until we see vulnerability as power rather than weakness,
even in the face of someone who wants to hurt us, personally or professionally.
Two reasons stand out in my mind. The first is that it is not possible
to be fully honest without showing vulnerability. I am hiding part of
what I think and feel and it inhibits me from giving accurate
feedback to you. If I don't want you to know that you hurt me,
how can I communicate with any accuracy about what is happening between
us? Second, when I feel vulnerable and try to speak without showing it,
I may show bravado or arrogance, thereby prompting you to shut me
out or try harder to bring me down.
When I integrate vulnerability and honesty,
the softness of my vulnerability melded with the directness of my honesty,
moves me out of all defensive posturing. You, the other person, now have
more capacity to empathize with me and examine your own behavior. Even
if you choose not to, anyone who witnesses the interaction is more likely
to see genuineness and wisdom in me. And having spoken from a place of
integrityintegration, I can walk away with more strength
regardless of how you respond.
Following are 3 sets of tips for: Couples, Parents, & Professionals:
For Couples — Showing Vulnerability Gives Us the Power to Build Trust
In the traditional thinking about vulnerability,
we only show it when we feel safe, when we can really trust the
other person. Ideally, intimate relationships are built on such trust.
However, in reality, even differences in personality can make it hard
for us to understand the other person's reactions. My way of being honest
may make you think I am harsh and your indirectness may make me think
you are dishonest. In each case, we will feel less cared about, and trust
will be damaged.
As we increasingly hide our vulnerability, we
begin an isolating spiral that leads to alienation.
So what happens next? By the old logic,
if I can't trust you, I can't be fully open. So the next time we are in
conflict, I close down a little more and hide my vulnerability. It also
spreads like mold, so if my trust is broken in one area, I begin to doubt
you in others. If you are indirect because you don't want to hurt me,
or are afraid of my reactions, instead of making it easier for you to
open up, I start accusing you of wanting to deceive or manipulate me.
If I am blunt in my honesty, you start accusing me of wanting to dominate
you or tear down your self-esteem. And of course, many relationships have
incidents that are severely threatening to trust, for example: your having
more loyalty to your family of origin than to me, your partner; one of
us feeling attracted to someone else; differences in child rearing habits;
issues around alcohol or drugs; breaking confidences. Every relationship
has breakdowns in trust. If we stop showing our vulnerability when our
trust feels damaged, then it will be a given that we become increasingly
guarded and walled off from each other.
Our power to build trust
is fueled by our ability to express ourselves openly
even when trust is damaged.
To break the cycle, I have to be willing to
show my vulnerability even when I think you're intentionally wanting to
hurt me. I can ask you directly, gently, "Are you wanting to hurt me?
If so, you are succeeding." And I can tell you about my hurt openly, whether
I trust that you will care or not. One person who reported asking this
question said that the response was, "Yes!! Just as much as you are hurting
me!" Although one person initiated showing the pain, the other, responding
first in anger, also admitted wanting to create hurt because of feeling hurt. If I reacted defensively to this admission, I might retort,
"What do you mean 'as much as I've hurt you?!' It's you who is hurting
me." This is an example of how couples can compete over who is the
perpetrator and who is the victim.
To build trust effectively, it is vital not
to slip from openness into defensiveness at any point. In conversation,
unlike war, we can be open, show our vulnerability, and still set limits
when we need to. In this case, each of these two people became able to
talk about their pain, which enabled them to look more closely at
the interaction that created it.
For Parents — Showing Vulnerability without Using It to "Guilt Trip" Our Children
Every time Hana picked up her daughter Lindy
at day care, Lindy would fuss and cry and say she didn't want to leave.
Hana was embarrassed in front of the teacher and other parents, so she
just coaxed Lindy, saying, "Come on, honey, we're going to have fun too,"
offering enticing things like going to the park or visiting another friend.
Once when they were in the car, she got angry at Lindy. Never did
Hana show her own tender, hurt feelings. As parents, we often hide our
vulnerability from our children, because we want to be strong and keep our
children feeling safe.
On the other hand, when, as parents, we do
show our vulnerable feelings, we often do so to try to manipulate the
child into doing what we want without setting effective limits. For example,
Hana might have said, "Lindy, honey, please don't cry when I come; you
make me feel bad. You don't want other people to think I'm a bad parent,
do you?" Here, the vulnerability will still be invisible, overshadowed
by the manipulation. Lindy will learn that when people do share their
feelings, she is being controlled.
When a parent shares vulnerable feelings openly, without any attempt to control or manipulate, even little children can instantly deepen their understanding and maturity.
While I think we have to decide which of our
vulnerable feelings are appropriate to share with a child, we can often
share more of them, and to a greater degree, than we think, even with very young children. As she worked on resolving this issue with
greater clarity, Hana said to Lindy in the car one day:
"When I come to get you, I want to just be
excited to see you, but I'm always afraid you will fuss and cry, so I
get nervous about coming. When you do get upset, then I get mixed up between
being sad and being angry at you all at once. And I feel embarrassed because
I worry that the other kids and the grown-ups might be thinking I'm not
a good parent."
I can express my vulnerability
to my teenager in the same way: "When you won't talk to me I get terrified
that I'll lose control over what is happening to you. I feel helpless
and don't know what to do, so I often try to force you to talk." In either case, with either a young child or a teenager, it is vital that once we express our feelings, we don't continue
to hit them over the head with them.
If Hana is still in a tantrum, then it would
be time for limit setting, not reminders of how bad she is making
mommy feel! In this case, when Hana stated her feelings openly, without
trying to convince Lindy to change her behavior, she said that Lindy looked
at her with wide eyes, as if receiving a revelation, and said spontaneously,
"I'm sorry mommy, I like to be with you too. I just don't like to leave
my friends." The next time Hana came to pick her up, Lindy said, "Hi mommy,
can you wait just minute while I say goodbye to my friends?"
For Professionals — Regaining Your Power When You Feel Intimidated
Can Equal Being Heard Up and Down the Hierarchy
One of the issues I often hear about is people expressing how hard it is to give feedback to employees
they supervise and/or their own supervisors. I think that most of us have
not resolved the authority issues we had with our own parents, so hierarchical situations bring up old issues and patterns
from our childhood. It's hard enough resolving conflict in any situation; issues around the power of authority can be an intense complicating
employee, I may not want to be truthful about what I am feeling, because
it could make the supervisor angry and he/she might retaliate. I might
not get my raise, or a promotion. I might even get fired. If I am the
supervisor, I might hesitate to give truthful feedback for countless reasons.
I don't like conflict any more than my employee does, I am afraid he/she
will get defensive. I don't want to say something that will cause wider
ripples, such as the employee going to HR or a union representative.
often intensify people's unwillingness to show vulnerability.
I believe the same principles that apply to
family relationships apply to professional relationships. When people
don't show their vulnerability, they damage trust and become alienated.
In hierarchical work relationships, the damage that comes from hiding
vulnerability means that people will not be able to give each other feedback
effectively. Not giving and receiving feedback effectively and efficiently
damages people's ability to function with increasing competence, be happy
in their work, and feel a sense of community.
A few simple words that express softer feelings
of vulnerability can make all the difference when giving feedback. In
one case, Bill, the supervisor, had been having a great deal of difficulty
giving feedback to Gary, his employee. Gary seemed to always respond
defensively, justifying his behavior and arguing. This made Bill get more
tense each time; the harder he tried to establish his authority
with subtle admonitions or more direct threats, the more Gary resisted.
Showing vulnerability can
have the power to dissolve barriers in hierarchical relationships
As Bill worked to develop his management skills,
he decided to try something new. He told Gary, "I am always nervous when
I need to give you feedback about how you are doing your job because I
anticipate you will hear it as critical and off base. Whenever you don't
agree with what I say, I try to prove my authority by getting more directive.
While my job does require that I give direction and feedback, I want to
do my part better. I'd like it if we could both walk away from a conversation
feeling respect for each other."
Gary didn't say too much at first, just, "OK.
Thanks." Bill said he felt much clearer and less triggered the next time
he talked to Gary, and Gary listened better, argued less. Starting from the
moment Gary shared some of his own vulnerability, their relationship took
a gradual uphill path. An employee can also approach giving a supervisor
feedback by starting with her/his need to talk about something and fear
of doing so. Supervisors also often feel less criticized about their own
competence when they see an employee's vulnerability.
Even a single
sentence can be effective. One time Sally told Anna, an employee she supervised, "This
is hard for me" while she was giving her some feedback. Anna told Sally,
"I felt different the minute you told me it was hard for you. I felt less
criticized and more supported. I was able to hear what you said so much
Sharon's Closing Thoughts on Vulnerability, Power, & Trust
When we become alienated and untrusting we
often act as "enemies." We hide our vulnerability and lose our
compassion. The spiral of emotional and even physical violence can then
spin out of control like a hurricane, unchecked. Sometimes the hurricane
remains inside each person, sometimes it spills out and creates open warfare
with innocent bystanders becoming victims — at home, at work, among nations.
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Tips & Examples:
Vulnerability as a Source of Power:
1. For Couples — Showing Vulnerability Gives Us the Power to Build Trust
2. For Parents — Showing Our Feelings without Using Them to "Guilt Trip" Our Children
3. For Professionals — Regaining Your Power When You Feel Intimidated
4. Sharon's Closing Thoughts on Vulnerability, Power, & Trust
Talking to Ourselves — Getting Rid of Old, Self-Defeating Scripts
Responding to Criticism Non-Defensively