Sometimes I wonder whether there’s anything I fear more than failing in plain view of others. And I’m not talking about your average “this is my first time” failure; I’m talking about “I worked really hard and I did not succeed” failure.
Maybe it was because I grew up dancing, tumbling, and playing the piano. The performance arts do wonders for your presentation skills and self-awareness, and they also make failure– especially in front of an audience– the worst possible outcome. You can practice the same pirouette a hundred times a day, only to miss a step in the spotlight. You can trill Baroque melodies to the astonishment of your piano teacher, only to slip on the keys at your own recital. In utterly results-oriented activities, failure feels fatal.
There are a few ways we performance-oriented people can respond to our conditioning. First, we can be private: don’t let others into the story until success is absolutely on the horizon. Second, we can disengage: don’t let others perceive how much we care and how hard we’re working.
Third, we can choose vulnerability: allow others to speak into our process, share in our burdens, and lament over our losses.
Over the past several years, I’ve started to more openly explore Option 3. Because as much as I’d like to be the principle dancer twirling through each life stage with ease and elegance, opportunities constantly abounding and never a misstep, I know too much about the world to believe it’s actually possible. So if I’m to portray such perfection, I know I’m choosing solitude. And I don’t want to be alone anymore.
Just tell people everything. That’s easy for the openhearted, extroverted, perhaps slightly narcissistic personality to say. Because there’s actually a tradeoff when it comes to vulnerability.
When we choose vulnerability, we let others see our true level of performance. It’s all too easy to give off an air of excellence when in fact, we are struggling or falling behind.
When we choose vulnerability, we allow others to see our true level of investment. Some people say success comes with a certain degree of obsession– the kind that can feel overwhelming to a bystander. Not everyone wants to go there with you. Not everyone approves of how much you care.
When we choose vulnerability, we invite others to enter into a story and stay for as long as they want. There’s the inevitable “how are you doing with that?” or “any updates?” or “are you still trying to…?” Questions can feel condemning, condescending, evaluative, or loaded. But the door we opened doesn’t close. At least, not on our account.
What makes vulnerability worth it
Vulnerability is worth it when we’re done being alone.
When we’ve decided the facade of perfection (which no one probably buys anyway) isn’t worth our anxious, quiet suffering.
When we’ve decided it’s better to receive empathetic insight and wisdom than empty praise and admiration.
When we’ve realized we need other people in order to accomplish anything of significant meaning in the world, and we shouldn’t wait until we’re perfect to ask for their help.
Vulnerability is worth it when we start perceiving life as a series of opportunities to try new things, rather than a string of stunts to pull before a crowd of critics.
I’m still learning this. In the meantime, here are a few practices I’m adopting:
1) Name the motivation, the action, and the emotion.
When we choose vulnerability, we need to tell the whole story: why we’re doing something, what exactly we’re doing, and how we feel about it. If it affects others, let’s be honest about that, too. Not sharing the whole story keeps us protected– and still alone.
2) Lead with mutuality and live in the tension of others’ successes.
All too many people try “vulnerability” by divulging every last detail of their lives, while showing no interest in the lives of their listeners. This doesn’t lead to deeper empathy or more meaningful friendships. So even when we’re working through a challenge, let’s remember that those walking with us have stories, too. And– whether eventful or not– let’s hear those stories.
3) Commit to the unformed narrative.
There’s always a temptation to reframe our failures as insignificant in light of graver realities, or part of a bigger story, or otherwise not as important as they feel. It’s a bit like retouching a photograph of ourselves: we clean up the scars, bumps, and discoloration to reveal an enhanced version of what was originally captured.
Some people in our lives only need the retouched version. Others– the ones with whom we’re choosing vulnerability– deserve the untouched version: emotions, frustrations, self-doubt and all.
The failure becomes the gift
Vulnerability allows us to move through defeat. It helps us to see that– even though we failed, embarrassed ourselves, or made poor judgments– we’re not alone, and the story is not over.
I’ve experienced much more courage when I rise up with people around me excited to see what’s next.
In what ways have you experienced vulnerability as a strength?