The Vulnerability Paradox: Inverted & Applied
Vulnerability has been brought to the mainstream in the last 10-ish years, largely due to the popular Ted Talk by Brené Brown. Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, unpacks the idea that courage, trust, and love are not possible without first allowing oneself to be vulnerable.
Merriam-Webster defines vulnerable as "capable of being physically or emotionally wounded". It is a position where one might be injured, and so it is a position that most people would gladly avoid.
It seems to make sense, seems to protect us from the risk of appearing foolish or having our feelings hurt or being embarrassed. But 'capable of being wounded' is the existence in which we live, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. To live is to be exposed to risk, and to grow is to persevere in spite of that risk.
"I can tell you as a researcher, [with] 11,000 pieces of data," Brown explained in an interview with Krista Tippett, "[that] I cannot find a single example of courage – moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage – I cannot find a single example of courage in my research that was not born completely of vulnerability."
The courageous person does not rush to save someone else because there is no risk of injury; the act is courageous precisely because of the risk. Likewise, one does not love because of absolute certainty that nothing will go wrong. The knowledge of what might go wrong is part of what makes love meaningful.
Our role models are rarely people who live only in positions of safety, who act only when they know they cannot be hurt. Rather, the people we admire are moved to do what is right or follow their dreams despite knowing the personal risk involved.
In a 2013 tweet, Brown called the Vulnerability Paradox "... the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I want you to see in me." In other people, vulnerability appears admirable, courageous, honest; in ourselves, though, we perceive it as weakness, something to keep hidden until we know we are safe.
It’s uncomfortable and scary to open oneself up to criticism, rebuke, and rejection, to allow someone to know that you may not be perfect. Facing that discomfort and fear, though, is exactly what is required for courage, honesty, and love.
I have seen this in my own life over and over again. When I have been more rigid and closed off, my position of ‘safety’ brought isolation and self-doubt rather than comfort. When I have been open, honest, and unguarded, my life has flourished and my self-confidence grown. The less I worry about being judged, the more comfortable I am sharing my ideas.
It seems to not make sense when we look at ourselves, yet we see this around us all the time in others. A person who seems unconcerned with being admired becomes more intriguing. A person who dresses confidently appears more stylish. A person who seems unconcerned with appearing intelligent seems to have a deeper kind of knowledge.
If we apply an if/then framework to the Vulnerability Paradox, we would get something like "if you will first be vulnerable with me, then I will be vulnerable with you". Or perhaps, "if I trusted you, then I could be vulnerable."
Brown's research suggests that the exact opposite is true. We need to invert the 'if A, then B' structure to get at the heart of what it means to be courageous, honest, and vulnerable. "If I am courageous, then I will be able to face danger" becomes "if I am able to face danger, then I will be courageous".
I started thinking about other ways to apply this 'Vulnerability Paradox Inversion' in everyday life. (It works best with non-monetary statements, though there is some overlap.) Here are a few that came to mind:
"If I was more successful, then I would be more confident."
- becomes -
"If I was more confident, then I would be more successful."
"If I could relax, then I would enjoy my days more."
- becomes -
"If I enjoyed my days more, then I would relax."
"If I was a better singer, then I would sing in public more often."
- becomes -
"If I sang in public more often, then I would be a better singer."
"If I had all the things I want, then I would be content."
- becomes -
"If I was content, then I would have all the things I want."
Spend 5 minutes with a pencil and piece of paper writing down your own if/then statements. There are no rights or wrongs, but it is important to be honest with yourself.
If you want more time to play golf, that's great! (If I did/had/was [_____], then I would have more time for golf.) If you'd like to quit your job so you can pursue your dreams, write it down. (If I did/had/was [_____], then I could quit my job.)
What happens if you invert those statements? Some of them may seem nonsensical, but it's likely that at least a few are profound. Which ones have been holding you back the most? Which ones are most likely to lead to the life you want?
It is unavoidable that we will be hurt, embarrassed, or come up short of our goals. It is the cost of admission for being alive, but it need not keep us from living our fullest lives. In the words of Brené Brown, "one of the definitive moments in my life was realizing that most of us are brave and afraid in the exact same moment all day long."
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