There is much ado these days about vulnerability. Seen and understood as that opening up of oneself, being raw, exposing messiness or uncertainty, even showing weakness. Leaders and icons of business, sport, entertainment, and public service are praised for it. And it is no wonder, that we too, drawn in by the realness and truth that we feel when someone is truly vulnerable, are compelled to experience it too. We’ve all collectively agreed that vulnerability is a good thing.
You may have noticed, as I have, that people among us are now wont to declare themselves vulnerable as a means of gaining favor or recognition or as a means of strategically positioning themselves with others. But is that it? Do we really know what it means to truly be vulnerable?
Real vulnerability is risk. Inherently. It’s five syllables and looks fancier, but at its root, it’s risk.
It requires letting go of the structures we rely on to keep us safe. It means being in the unknown, fully, and not explaining it away. It is uncomfortable, maybe even painful. It can be simultaneously sad and exhilarating; or just sad, feeling like loss. It means dropping boundaries and supports we are used to. It means releasing what we know to be safe and predictable, and allowing and abiding by whatever we don’t know that arises.
Like any risk, real vulnerability presents the opportunity for upside, for gain. But here’s the thing: that upside won’t be fulfilled under false vulnerability.
Surface level vulnerability won’t cut it. This is often spotted by self-proclamation on the part of the person who wants to be seen as being raw and open; by language and action that betrays fear, reluctance, and arrogance; and especially by the claim of a definite plan for how it’s all going to go.
No matter how strong the desire may be to open up and to take that risk, just talking about it, representing it as “true” externally without anything changing on the inside isn’t taking the risk. Maintaining protections and not truly letting go is like keeping your boat tethered to the dock but still expecting to arrive on the other shore. You’re not getting anywhere.
Make no mistake, talking about your plan to change and being honest with yourself and others (even just a few) about what you expect you’ll do or how you’ll be is an important step toward readying yourself and nearing real vulnerability. It is expected and understood that your final steps will come after preparation, contemplation, calculation, and decision (maybe repeated several times). The point here is that if you never get beyond the talk, if you never walk the proverbial walk, there will be no gain.
Not ever making the leap means you’re taking no real risk. For all the self preservation and safety in that, imagine the potential growth and opportunity that you lose as a result.
If there is a risk you know you want—or more importantly, need—to take, what is it that you’re not letting go of? What is the opportunity cost in maintaining that “security” (which may be assumed and not real, by the way)? What would happen if you really went for it and let yourself be exposed, truly vulnerable?
It could just open up the space for your enhanced, never before imagined, fuller and more satisfying success.