During my undergrad junior year, I took a class on Positive Psychology. Nearly a decade ago, I sat around an elongated table with other students discussing our reading assignments from Flow, Authentic Happiness, and The How of Happiness. Though I was shy and insecure, I was excited enough about the topic to raise my hand and share my thoughts.
Halfway through the course, the elderly professor shocked us all when he shared that he had been convicted of murder in his youth. Suddenly and inexplicably, everyone began opening up and sharing glimpses into their own lives. That class taught me that we are all cracked and damaged in some way, but also that we each have the power to glue ourselves back together and continue moving forward.
If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. ― Brené Brown
After graduation, I had planned to take a year off and then apply to PhD program in Positive Psychology. As fate would have, the field absolutely blew up during that in-between year and the people who had previously laughed at my ambitions began researching the same programs. Needless to say, the competition grew exponentially almost overnight.
Despite never moving forward in the application process, my interest in the field has never subsided. I have picked up every new release exploring the topics of happiness, positivity, resilience, and growth. I’ve built my life and habits around the research in order to optimize my health, well-being, relationships, and sense of fulfillment.
One of the most eye-opening lessons I’ve learned through all my reading and research is this: other people view our vulnerability more positively than we do.
When my former professor confessed to murder, my initial reaction was disbelief. What might have caused this sweet and zen intellectual to snap? The confusion was followed by logistical questions. How does one go from a prison sentence to tenured professorship? However, when the shock passed, I was left in awe of his honesty. He didn’t need to tell us about his past mistakes, but he choose to do so.
What happens when people open their hearts?
They get better. — Haruki Murakami
Admitting to our mistakes, seeking help, apologizing for past transgressions, and confessing one’s romantic feelings all involve the intentional expression of vulnerability–situations in which we may fear being rejected or negatively judged, but choose to take action anyway. Researchers are finding again and again that, contrary to our worst fears, having the courage to show our vulnerability in these ways is often rewarded.
Psychologists have noted that people tend to take a more negative view of their own vulnerability, while viewing others’ more favorably. The researchers have dubbed this “the beautiful mess effect.”
In Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, she suggests that her qualitative research and participant interviews suggest that “we love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we are afraid to let them see it in us … Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.”
When another set of researchers set out to quantitatively back up Browns idea, they consistently found that participants did, in fact, perceive their own vulnerability more negatively than other people’s.
In the beginning, people think vulnerability will make you weak, but it does the opposite. It shows you’re strong enough to care. — Victoria Pratt
Researchers have been digging into “the beautiful mess effect” and believe that a key mechanism explaining the contrast in perspective is how we think about vulnerability. When we think about our own vulnerability, we do so very concretely; whereas when we think about others’ vulnerability, we do so more abstractly. The abstraction we apply to others’ courage is associated with a more positive, risk-friendly perspective, so it follows that viewing the vulnerability of others with this mindset would lead to more positive impressions.
The benefits of expressing vulnerability have been well-noted. Self-disclosure builds trust, asking for help can boost learning, admitting to mistakes can foster forgiveness, and confessing one’s romantic feelings can lead to a new relationship. However, despite the clear evidence, showing vulnerability often feels like a display of weakness. It’s not easy.
I can’t help thinking about how vulnerable that professor must have felt when admitting his deepest, darkest secret to a small group of twenty-somethings. I think he knew intimately what recent finding have come to prove: his act looked more like courage from the outside. And it was an act that inspired at least one student in that room to question how they approach and practice vulnerability in their own life.
Given the countless positive consequences of showing vulnerability–in relationships, health, and career–it seems self-evident that each of us should work to overcome our fears and choose to see the beauty in the mess of vulnerable situations. Everyone could benefit from viewing their own vulnerable position from the other persons shoes, and gift themselves the empathetic understanding of a nonjudgmental stranger.
Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. ― Brené Brown
In my decade-long quest to understand the intrinsic ties between happiness and vulnerability, I have made repeated efforts to practice honesty, transparency, and self-disclosure–in dating, friendships, job interviews, and more.
This is who I am and this is what I can bring to the table; these are my fears and these are my dreams. Take it or leave it because I’m not changing.
Approaching life with an open heart has made me more comfortable in my own skin and has helped me to connect deeply with others who love me just the way I am, flaws and all. Over the last ten years, the practice of doing something everyday that scares me has become a mindless habit, a constant chipping away at my outer shell to reveal my authentic self.
In choosing to set aside fear in order to embrace and excavate my own vulnerabilities, I have unwittingly committed to continually unraveling my insecurities. And, in doing so, I have learned to love myself more deeply.