It Takes Courage to be Vulnerable
“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and a struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” Brené Brown
We live in a vulnerable world, and one of the ways we deal with our own vulnerability is to numb it – grief, shame, doubt, anxiety, fear, sadness, disappointment, loneliness, the list goes on. We do not want to feel these, so we numb them. The thing is we cannot numb these hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. We cannot selectively numb because in doing so, we also numb joy, gratitude, happiness, and then we are unhappy because we feel vulnerable.
A Case Study
Vanessa’s Story of Vulnerability
Vanessa had been struggling for a while. While outwardly to begin with it seemed she was doing OK, in truth she was struggling to keep her head above water. You see Vanessa had been living with dyspraxia for two years, but she did not disclose this during the hiring process. The reason is because she did share it in her last job, following on from which she did not get the support she needed. Nobody took time to understand the impact this had on her WorkLife, and the help she needed to manage it. She also felt bullied by her co-workers, who blamed her when the team failed to meet deadlines.
Dyspraxia had affected her cognitive skills, and it was taking her longer to process and respond to information. People were irritated by her slowness, and branded her as being lazy. Her balance had also been impacted causing her to be increasingly clumsy, which people would laugh at. She became easily disoriented, and although she took a regular route to work, on mornings where there was disruption to her journey, something that may be simple to other people, such as not being able to take her normal exit from the station, would completely throw her, causing her to arrive at work flustered. People said she had given herself a label and was living up to that label.
In the end she could not take it any longer, and began to look for a new job. She successfully interviewed at her current company, managing to get through the onboarding process through sheer grit.
She also did not want to be labelled with being disabled, so she tried to hide it, and as a result found herself in hot water, with her manager Grace and the rest of the team who felt she was not pulling her weight. She knew she was responsible for keeping her disability invisible, but she was afraid of the implications if she did share what she was going through. She was afraid people would feel sorry for her, and she was afraid it would impact her career progression. But it had come to a head. She knew she had to share what she was going through, but she also knew that if the outcome was the same as at her last company it would destroy her, and she was not sure if she would be able to pick herself up again. So she made the decision to write her resignation letter.
Except Grace did not accept it. Instead she called Vanessa and asked to meet her in the coffee shop around the corner. Vanessa gathered her belongings and duly went along, thinking at least it is happening away from the office and she would not have to go back and face people.
But that wasn’t what Grace had in mind. She wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on for Vanessa. She liked her and she liked her work, but she knew there was something that Vanessa was holding back, and she knew she needed to talk to her in a relaxed space away from the office if she was ever going to get her to open up.
Vanessa was struck by Grace’s sincerity in wanting to understand what was going on, and this coupled with the feeling that she had nothing to lose as she had already made her decision to resign, caused her to open up to Grace, to tell her story of how living with dyspraxia for two years had impacted her WorkLife. Although she felt vulnerable, Grace’s kindness in listening, and the gentle questions she asked, allowed her to not just focus on the negatives, but to also share the strengths and positives of dyspraxia too. When Vanessa had finished, Grace asked what she could do to help that would make her stay. She assured her she would personally ensure that she received the support she needed to thrive.
Vanessa wanted to stay, and having Grace’s support meant a lot, but Grace was just one person. She was still concerned about the rest of the team. Maybe they would think she was being shown favouritism, and that this would lead to resentment. She did not feel strong enough to deal with any backlash – labelling, branding, judgement, being laughed at, talked about.
In an attempt to reassure Vanessa, Grace went on to talk about the first live storytelling show, called Humans at Work, that was taking place the following week. People throughout the company would be telling their personal stories on the theme of Identity. She went on to say that “we all carry things with us, that have shaped who we are as people, that affect our performances in our WorkLives. The experiences and emotions that make us fundamentally human, and that it’s the ability to understand the experiences of others and share their feelings that we can be fully supportive.” She encouraged Vanessa to tell her story, saying she would work with her to hone it.
And so a week later Vanessa found herself standing in the company theatre, sitting next to her fellow storytellers, as one by one each of them stood up to tell their story to a live audience of more than three-hundred of their colleagues in the room, and many more who were watching via live stream. The response was incredible. People laughed and cried together. The atmosphere in the room was overwhelming, as everyone in the room stood to applaud the people and their stories.
Each of Vanessa’s team came up to her and thanked her for her honesty in sharing her story; and it did not stop there. Over the coming days and weeks everyone took time to have a coffee with her. They took time to fully understand what it meant to be living with dyspraxia, the good and the bad, and to understand what was needed from them in support of Vanessa enjoying her WorkLife. It went even further, and it was not long before the domino effect took hold, with people opening up about their WorkLife stories. The workplace became a place where everyone was comfortable sharing their secrets, their vulnerabilities, their experiences as humans.
Develop Your WorkLife Story Chapters
Sharing your story makes you vulnerable. To tell your truthful personal story requires you to reveal a flaw, a mistake, or a difficulty in your WorkLife. This may open you up to being judged. You need to have trust in the people you are opening up to, a trust that gives you confidence that you will be safe, secure and supported. Remember you are in control of how much you want to reveal.
Opening Up About Your Vulnerability Assignment
Think of a time in your WorkLife when you felt vulnerable.
What made you feel vulnerable? Describe your experience.
Were you able to open up about it?
If yes, what followed on from that?
If no, why not?
Is there a message in what you did or did not do that will allow you to shape and tell your story that is both respectful of your need to protect yourself while also being brave enough to talk about your vulnerability?
Moral of this Story
In telling her story Vanessa raised awareness not only of her vulnerability, but also of the implications of living with a hidden disability, and the impact this has on her WorkLife. In doing so she caused her audience to take a closer look at their own vulnerabilities and the vulnerabilities of others. Stories draw people closer together and the power of vulnerability is transformative.
Develop a Practice of Continuous Self-Feedback
Take the time you need to reflect on the struggles you experience throughout your WorkLife. It is the low points that make the high points seem so high, not only by themselves but by comparison. This is really powerful because it helps you to be open about your vulnerabilities and tell your story from a place of truth.
Develop a Practice of Insightful Self-Questioning
Learning to ask the right questions will give you valuable insight into the role vulnerability plays in your everyday life. Ask:
Can I be more open while still protecting myself?
Who is someone I trust, who could provide a valuable perspective on my fears of opening up about my vulnerability?
Words of Wisdom
Vulnerability is something to be treasured, not hidden from. Embrace your vulnerability, what makes you vulnerable, makes you beautiful.
© Carmel O’ Reilly 2019 First published 2019 by WorkLife Incorporated
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