Embracing Vulnerability (Especially When You’re Bad At It)

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.” 
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

The past few months have been challenging on the work front, but in an unusual way: most of what has challenged me has been a result of success and advancement more than setback. This is not a bad problem to have! I’m gratified by the opportunities I’m getting, while simultaneously intimidated or by many aspects of them at the same time.

Almost every day week I am confronted with a challenge or issue that I have never faced before. On the one hand, this is extremely good for me and my career as it compels growth. I enjoy the opportunity to shape my work and take ownership of certain issues that I want to improve or contribute to. On the other hand, it’s also been difficult navigating uncharted territory 100% of the time. I fret inordinately about making mistakes and being out of my depth–even if these worries are usually unfounded when I take a step back and look rationally at my situation.

This past month, after a particularly bad and long lasting bout of anxiety in the face of yet more unexpected challenges, I decided to try and do something that is very difficult for me: be more vulnerable.

Opening up. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve been thinking lately on how I’ve confused honesty with vulnerability. Honesty is not difficult for me; I’m notoriously lacking in poker face and tend to operate on a policy of complete transparency. This applies to my professional life as well as my personal. I have neither the skill nor patience for personal politics and would ten times rather attack problems full on than sidle up to them sideways. I also don’t tend to hide my opinions or emotions (even when I wish I could). However, honesty is not vulnerability. The former implies providing something to me, the latter requires receiving, and often also involves an element of risk. I took a few risks this month and tried to communicate more openly with key people about how I’m coping (or not) with certain circumstances and ambitions. In some cases I’ve tried to be humble and ask for help or guidance, in others I’ve pitched new ideas or projects. While I haven’t always gotten the answers I’ve wanted, these conversations have helped reduce uncertainty or confusion.

Being out of my comfort zone. I’ve had to make some tough decisions in areas which were new for me. Whether it’s balancing bigger budgets or running different kinds of projects or dealing with new-to-me people management situations, I’ve had to make judgement calls which have higher stakes. And I’m going to have to manage the consequences of these decisions, both good and bad, and only some of which I can anticipate. Which leads me to….

Learning to be uncomfortable. There is a world of difference between things that are bad for you or toxic, and things that are simply temporarily difficult or unpleasant. After a few years dealing with the genuinely toxic in a few areas of my life, I am still learning to differentiate between the two. Discomfort isn’t fatal–it’s probably a larger part of the human condition than thrilling joy–and learning to navigate periods of discomfort and difficulty is a skill that I need to hone. I am am trying to learn how to be more at peace with my own inexperience and fears–to acknowledge them and deal with them while not allowing them to cripple me. This is very new emotional space for me and not very good at existing in it yet, but I’m trying.

Let’s chat about vulnerability in the comments. What does that look like in your life and how have you leaned into it–or fled from it, as I tend to do?

2 thoughts on “Embracing Vulnerability (Especially When You’re Bad At It)”

  1. A few thoughts:

    1) if you come from an environment where you’re expected to be tough, brave and a caretaker — and make sure everyone else is fine, no matter how YOU feel — this is entirely new territory. I know! I very rarely show vulnerability because no one in my family noticed or cared if I did, hence…I became hermetically sealed but stressed and resentful. Not good.

    2) I got a brilliant and compassionate response to this last summer at an event on mental health from a lovely young psychologist — if being treated kindly WHEN vulnerable is not (yet) your lived experience, trying it is hard! It’s a risk. What if no one cares or responds?

    3) Cancer shattered my shell. It is simply not (for me) something I could hide or power through. And people’s kindness, when I showed my anxiety (not all the time!) was overwhelming. Even yesterday, an editor asked How are you? (standard thing to say). I sighed and said….Tamoxifen. “Oh,” she said (a woman my age.) I get it.” That helps. As my therapist wisely said — people can’t know you’re vulnerable until you show them.

    4) It sounds like you could REALLY use some coaching and/or a mentor. Not clear if you have asked boss for $$$$ for this but it could much relieve your stress…No one can function well in wholly new situations without it.

  2. It’s gonna bloody well hurt either way. I can either pretend it’s not happening, stuff those feelings back down inside and then wish I knew how to deal with the gnawing inside. Or. I can be nervous and scared, brave and stupid and just say it. Get it all out. Free it. My body might react by crying or shaking, but I had the courage to do it. Sometimes I will regret it. Sometimes I will feel liberated. People will say I have great perspective, an brave, an idiot, wear my emotions too close to the surface or wish they were like me. This is my life and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

    Read the top five regrets of the dying for some brilliant tips on how to live life while you can.

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