Too many people look at being vulnerable as a weakness when it's really a strength. This episode tells the story of a football players awakening to vulnerability that I got to be part of. I also encourage and discuss how you can embrace vulnerability and implement it into your life.
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More and more I find myself having coaching conversations with people about keeping things to themselves, whether it be emotions, fears, or even their hopes and dreams. They claim they keep the negatives from people in order to protect the people in their lives. And they keep the positive – their hopes and dreams to themselves in order to not jinx them, or their afraid if they say it out loud it becomes more real and now people have the opportunity to ridicule or judge them – or worse, hold them accountable by asking how their plan is going.
So the end result is keeping everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly to ourselves. This in turn holds part of who we are back from the people in our lives. Inevitably this becomes a conversation about vulnerability and the power it holds.
I want to share the story of a football player’s awakening to vulnerability that I was blessed to be part of. This happened about 10-15 years ago. Or so, I’m not great at measuring time. Regardless of when this story was, it was a while ago. But it has stayed with me all this time – a story about a football player and vulnerability will stay with a person.
Years ago, I was a career coach at “The Career Transition Center” in downtown Chicago. Once a week I would sit in an office and work one-on-one - coaching people through their job search. Our job as coaches was not only to help job seekers with their search methods, review their resumes, and do practice interviews. We also discuss their struggles, in my sessions, it seemed the conversations mostly revolved around mindset issues. The thought in their heads, their limiting beliefs. Their insecurities and the things that keep them stuck in life and how that erected their careers, and as a result – their current job search.
I truly believe if we have things that keep us stuck, and when we have things we haven’t resolved, they are going to manifest themselves in all areas of our life. As humans, we are not that good at compartmentalizing. Even when we think we are.
Every week at the career transition center, a big, teddy bear of a football player schedule meeting with me. Being a football player was what he identified most with. After all, he had been one since middle school. (Wrapping your identity in your job is a podcast for another day)
Week after week we spent our sessions discussing what he was struggling with, both in his life and in his job search. He was open and vulnerable in all our sessions, One day he started talking to me about how his wife and 16-year-old daughter were starting to pull away from him. He was feeling more and more distant from them; he felt a disconnect and it was getting worse and worse. It was making him sad and uncomfortable, and he asked me what he should do.
I said to him, “Week after week you come in here and you talk to me about the things you are afraid of, you talk to me about the way you feel about yourself. You’re completely exposed and vulnerable with me. Do you tell them these things? Do you talk to them like this?”
He immediately responded, “No! I need to protect them,” in a tone expressing he was shocked I even asked. Based on how open and vulnerable he was in our sessions, I was surprised he needed an awakening to vulnerability, but here he was revealing to me that he most certainly does.
“Protect them from what?” I asked.
He stared at me, and I stared back. I can hold the silence like it’s an Olympic event and I’m the gold medal winner. It is an effective tool and I have no problem using it. I find no need to jump in. I’ll sit there all day.
He eventually responded very quietly that he didn’t actually know what he meant by that.
I asked him that when we don’t share our most vulnerable selves with the people who are supposed to love us the most and who we are supposed to love the most, how can we expect them to truly love us completely and unconditionally?
How can we really expect that when they don’t know all of us?
He explained to me that he was scared; he was afraid they wouldn’t understand. He was worried they would think less of him. Afraid they would pull away more, or worse yet, leave him.
I asked him if he really thought they would do that.
He sat for a little while and quietly replied, “No.”
I asked him if he thought they were really pulling away from him, or if he just saw it that way. Perhaps he was the one shutting down and pulling away from them.
He stared some more, thinking deeply about what I just said. I let him sit in his thoughts for a little while, the awakening was happening before my eyes. Just watching his face as he was thinking it through what I just said, I could see he was getting it. After some time, I asked, “What do you have to lose?”
“I guess nothing – or everything.” He said, “My money is on everything, but not in the way you mean.” I replied.
The next week he was the first person on my schedule. I was barely sitting down when he came flying into my office. He quickly closed the door behind him. He was still leaning up against the door like he needed to hold it shut as tears started rolling down his face. I could tell instantly they were tears of joy. I saw relief on his face and in his whole body. I could tell instantly a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
I thought for a moment back to how open, honest and vulnerable he was with me from the very first meeting we had. I remember thinking how mature and evolved this man was. Especially considering the stereotype of athletes, maybe that stereotype doesn’t exist so much today – but back then it was something that I took note of.
When he explained he was not that way with his wife and daughter I was surprised. It seemed to come so naturally to him. He sat down and told me all that transpired after he left my office last week. When he got home that night, he sat quietly with himself for some time and thought more about our conversation. He spent this time alone thinking about how things had been unfolding with his family and in his life in general. Perhaps it was him, and not them, who was shutting down, pulling away.
He knew he was feeling bad about himself for not knowing what to do next with his life. These feelings caused him to believe he was letting them down. Even though they never made him feel that way, he decided that all on his own. The next day he couldn’t wait any longer to talk to his family.
He explained to me that when he told them he needed to talk to them, they seemed a little nervous. Their nervousness started to make him feel nervous, he even questioned for a second if he was doing the right thing. Once he realized how shitty he’d been feeling he knew this was going to be his release. He was tired of feeling this way. And knew this was the right thing to do.
He sat down with them and told them he was scared, feeling lost, and unsure of himself. He told them he was afraid he wasn’t going to find another job he was interested in, he never thought about a life without football, He questioned if there was anything that he would be a good fit for. He told them he wasn’t sure who he was without football.
He said he was afraid he didn’t know what would be next for him. To go from knowing what every day of your life was going to look like since you were about 13 years old – to this great unknown scared him in a way he had never felt before.
Sitting in my office he explained to me that the interaction was like an out-of-body experience but he didn’t hold anything back. He told them more than he planned to, more than he expected to, more than he even realized he was struggling with or afraid of. He said even as he was doing it, he was surprised at how much he was telling them. But the words and emotions were flowing, and it felt good. He even revealed to them that he was scared to tell them all this.
That he was worried about what they would think of him. He shocked himself when he told them he was worried about what he would think of himself. He said he was scared they would leave him. He told them everything.
He sat across from me at my desk, tears still rolling slowly down his face. I still remember so vividly him describing to me how their conversation unfolded. When they initially sat down, his wife sat beside him on the couch to his right, she sat at a distance, his daughter also at a distance in the chair to his left. He described to me how as he spoke to them, as he stripped away all of his insecurities and removed the labels he had put on himself, as he exposed his true emotions they slid in closer to him. As he kept talking, not holding anything back, closer they came until they were embracing each other so tightly, together on the couch.
He said they cried with him, they put their arms around him, held him, and just loved him. They didn’t say anything, they didn’t need to. He told me in that moment he knew exactly what I meant when I said, that “My money is on everything, but not in the way you mean.”
He said he never felt love like that before. That everything was different now. Lighter, happier, freer.
He said he was grateful for learning that being vulnerable with the people you love is so much more important than only being vulnerable with people in the outside world, the people who don’t really know you, and aren’t truly invested in our lives. He realized when he said he was protecting them, he really meant he was protecting himself…But more importantly, He finally understood that he wasn’t protecting anybody from anything. He was actually causing damage.
Shortly after this, he found a job that was a great fit for him, still in the football world that he loved so much.
So let's talk vulnerability. Being vulnerable is - “consciously choosing talk about your emotions, your hopes dreams, and fears and this is important - regardless of the reaction you might get from others - standing confidently in all of that even if those around you cannot relate or understand where you’re coming from.
What vulnerability isn’t: it isn’t manipulation, victimhood, blaming others, or neediness, it isn’t ego or arrogance that is the opposite. When you tell someone something about yourself to get them to like you, or to “one-up” their story, that is not being vulnerable, that is manipulation. If you lie about something to make yourself “appear” vulnerable, likewise, that is manipulation, not vulnerability. Perhaps it will look like vulnerability to them and your trick worked, but you will pay the consequences of that because anything built on a lie will crumble at some point.
You are not being authentic and that will eventually catch up with you. Desperation, neediness, and victimhood are all weaknesses and will never draw strong confident people to you. It’s in authenticity where vulnerability is true and real. Pay attention to the dance between vulnerability and manipulation, both in the people in your life and in the way you present yourself.
Being able to openly and honestly express your thoughts and feelings regardless of the reactions, opinions, or criticisms of others helps you see why vulnerability is actually a strength, because vulnerability can’t really exist without confidence.
Allowing yourself to be exposed to the point of risking being rejected. Like when you are expressing an opinion even when you’re not sure how others might feel about it, When you’re expressing your emotions, When you’re telling a story that might make you look foolish, When you telling someone you love or admire them…
These are just some examples, the list goes on and on – it's about practicing actively doing these things and not avoiding them that makes being vulnerable easier and easier… practice putting yourself out there and see how people react. See how when you express these things with confidence people will rally around you - the complete opposite of the rejection you were anticipating… yes, it might feel risky, and if people do back away, you are only exposing the people who don’t believe in your or love you vs. those who do.
The key to vulnerability is you act and accept whatever the fallout is, whatever the reactions are. How people react can help guide you, it shouldn’t derail you. Know that you might not get the reactions you expected, keep in mind that is because you are interacting with other humans who are meeting you from where they are at in life. And they just might be in a place that is not capable of understanding or supporting you right now… and that’s okay. This is important, when we are vulnerable being willing to accept any and all reaction helps us continue to be vulnerable, if we take a reaction personally and we start to shut down again, we completely missed the point of being vulnerable.
Vulnerability allows us to be truly ourselves, to be one of the humans who can share their scars and flaws for all the world to see - like badges of honor That is so empowering. Pretending you don’t have flaws and imperfections - that is what turns people off and that is what prohibits people from getting close to you. Accepting people’s reactions and not taking them personally, allowing rejection and disagreement to be part of life makes you stronger and more confident.
We are not here to always agree with each other - we are here to understand each other - and we can’t do that if we’re all hiding behind walls to keep us “protected. Why is being vulnerable important? It puts you in control of the situation in your life. Strength, control, honesty, integrity, are words associated with vulnerability. These are not words associated with weakness and insecurity.
Many people are not taught how to be vulnerable - expressing emotions was not part of their upbringing, Maybe it was even discouraged. Walk it off. Boys don’t cry. Get over it. All those saying cause us to close the door to vulnerability. Childhood trauma, or not having role models to show the positive side of vulnerability are all valid reasons why many adults are out there not seeing the value in vulnerability – or seeing it as a weakness.
When you are not taught or shown how to do something or when you don’t see the benefit of something, you are not going to implement it into your life. Years of keeping thoughts, fears, and emotions inside can become a comfort zone.
Figure it out yourself becomes a mantra which then leads to the mindset that when you have to ask for help, or when you expose your emotions, fears or insecurities to others, it means you are weak, and no one will love or admire someone who is weak.
When we engage with people who are being the victim or blaming others, these are clear signs that these people do not know how to be vulnerable, or they don’t know how to be honest, they do not take responsibility for their contribution to situation or circumstances
Remember people meet you from where they are at in life, your struggles and insecurities might scare them because it touches on their own fears. Others might not be able to relate because their fears or life circumstances are so different from yours…. Allowing the reactions of others to cause you to close down is only hurting you - their reaction has little to do with you - it has more to do with them and where they are. This is why part of being vulnerable is accepting what other people’s response looks like.
People who love you will love you in spite of your fears and insecurities, especially when you are open about them and working through them.
Let’s look at different forms of vulnerability:
1. Like the football player's story, being open and honest with how you are feeling, exposing your emotions, your fears, and insecurity.
2. Taking responsibility for your part in how something unfolded and how you are going to take steps to remedy the situation is a strength.
It shows we can go with the flow and adjust, even if we need to stop for a minute and be vulnerable, check in with our fears and emotions, but keep powering through.
To say to the people in your life that you are struggling with something right now, maybe you’re even in some sort of trouble, but you are going to fix it, you are going to figure this out and come out the other side. This is strength and this is honesty and this will not cause people to reject you - if it does - good riddance, they don’t belong in your life then.
3. Standing up for yourself. It is incredibly scary and leaves you in a vulnerable position to stand up to someone, to tell them what they are doing isn’t right, it's hurting you or hurting someone else. Maybe you’re scared of the reaction from that person, and maybe the reaction will be negative, but you will still walk away with self-pride, knowing you did not let their actions go unrecognized. And knowing you stood up for yourself or someone else.
4. Letting people know we love, admire or respect them, Regardless of if we know them well or not can be extremely vulnerable.
A few years ago my sons and I went to a play downtown Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theater. My sons were probable 19 and 21 at the time. Rainn Wilson who played Dwight Schrute in The TV show “The Office” was the star of the play. After the play, we were hanging out in the bar of the theatre. Rainn came up next to us to order a drink. I said “excuse me, I just wanted to say, we really enjoyed the show, you were so fun to watch.
This was one of the few times my children were not embarrassed by my tendency to talk to people wherever I go… but this tendency has taught me not to be intimidated by people. To me, he was just a man, who did a job and who enjoys being told the job he did was liked and appreciated… just like any other human would like to hear.
Rainn was welcoming and engaging, one of my son’s, surprised me by saying to him, “ I really enjoyed your book, Soul Pancake, I read it at a point in my life where I really needed it. It made a big impact on me.” He even said to him, “Thank you for writing it”
I was so proud of him for allowing himself to be vulnerable in that moment. He could have just said he liked his book. But instead, he really put himself out there. I know he was putting into practice the life lesson of not missing an opportunity that regret is harder to live with than an opportunity not unfolding the way you wanted it to. That made me even more proud.
I was equally grateful for how Rainn stood there and talk with us for a while. He never made us feel like he was put out or he needed to get back to his table of friends. Later when we were leaving, tucked back against the wall at his table with his friends, he made a point to call out to us and say goodbye as we walked by. My son took a huge risk and it paid off.
I know my son would have been prepared if his reaction was cold and aloof because again that would have said more about Rainn than it did about my son. Because my son was willing to take a risk, he has no regrets, and even better, we all had a positive interaction with someone we admire. When you don’t know how someone is going to react, you are being vulnerable. But you are also being confident and honest, both to that person and to yourself, there is nothing weak about that!
How to be more vulnerable?
First, be sure you are in a safe space, with people you trust enough to be vulnerable with. Openly admit your flaws, your fears, your dreams, the emotions you are experiencing in this moment - whatever, exposing things like this is vulnerability - as long as you're being truthful and coming from your heart.
You gain respect when you are honest and authentic.
Ask for advice or simply seek to be heard when you’re struggling, these are all ways to be open and allow people in your life to get closer to you and know the real you.
These are also the times where people will rally around you and give you the strength and encouragement you need in that moment - just like my football player received. The conversation he had empowered him and gave him the strength to drop the shroud of depression he was engulfed in and gave him the energy and drive to make positive things happen. He stopped wallowing and he found a new place where he belonged.
Second acceptance, it’s okay for you to change your dreams, to see something has run its course and move on to something new. This is growth and this is being true to yourself. The fears, planning, and struggles that go along with the shifts in our lives, this is where adventure is found.
Talking about all you’re going through and feeling doesn’t mean you’re weak. This is especially important if you are a role model to someone, showing them you can switch gears and go for the life you want is positive and so important. You are Teaching that being vulnerable makes you human and owning it brings love and connection.
Third, recognize the importance of being vulnerable and knocking your walls down. I have seen people build walls to protect themselves only to find in almost all cases it does not protect anyone from anything, it only hurts the person building the wall. (I am talking about walls here – not boundaries, these are two different things and a topic for another podcast) When we hold back parts of who we are under the pretense of protecting ourselves, we run the risk of holding back the very part of ourselves the people in our life need in order to love us completely. There is nothing more attractive and more engaging than someone standing in their insecurities and fears, while confidently expressing them with the intention of gaining strength to powering through them and making their life happen. Admitting fears and reluctance but going for it anyway is such a strength that brings respect and admiration from the people in your life.
My football player in my story thought he was protecting his wife and daughter. But the fact is, people are not stupid, people can FEEL things. People know when you are holding back. They might not mention it to you, but they feel it. And the scary thing is they’re not mentioning it probably means they feel you hurting them, not trusting them, disappointing them.
Now everyone in this situation is stuck in their head making assumptions while no one is opening up and being vulnerable enough to fix the situation. We all feel it when people do it to us, when people say they are fine, or hold something back, we all know what that feels like, so, I am not sure why anyone feels like they are pulling this off when they are holding back from others.
You see the secret of the power of vulnerability is that when you put it out there, show your emotions, your fears, your insecurities and you stand in them, you own them, you carry them as you work towards making yourself a better person while you go after what you want in life… exposing all of this with confidence and honestly will cause all of those negative, scary things to lose their power over you.
The things that cause you to be insecure or the fears you have will all still exist but they will not have power over you - they will not control you. You’re not fooling anyone. I am willing to bet the person you're protecting feels you pulling away, they know you're worried about something and perhaps they have even asked you about it and you continue to hold back, and you continue to back away. You're letting them know that you don't trust them you either don't trust them with information or you don't trust them with your heart, either way, they feel it and it causes them to start backing away too. You know they can feel it because I am sure you have felt it when people in your life are struggling with something and keeping it to themselves.
Protecting people is just an excuse, you are trying to protect yourself, but all you are doing is t keeping yourself stuck. I get that this can feel like it doesn’t make sense “if I tell people about my flaws, they will like me more” but it’s true. People connect on this level because it helps them see and take comfort in the fact that they are engaging with someone who also has fears and limitations… just like they do… just like we all do.
Be comfortable with your fears and insecurities, you need to practice talking about these things and you need to stop caring with other people think or how other people will think of you. Who cares, don’t let other people be the authority on you and your life. Being proud of who you are in spite of your scars, flaws, and fears, cause we all have them. You can only get there by opening up and letting people in is the goal here.
Start small - just make sure you start. Your walls are not protecting anyone. More importantly, your walls are not fooling anyone. Here is a very important message I want to be sure you walk away with: When you are with the right people - the people who are meant to be in your life, the parts of you that you hold back to “protect yourself” are the things that person or those people needed to truly love you.
I hope you heard that – because when you hold back, and someone walks away from you - you only have yourself to blame because the part of you that you held back is the very part they needed. – when they are the right people – remember, we are not meant to fit into everyone's life.
Remember our need is to connect to others but we cannot do that and have real connections if we are not vulnerable. Being vulnerable is about relinquishing control of fears and insecurities over our lives. If we can talk about them and own them, when we take responsibility and make a plan, nothing controls our lives or has power over us. Ego and arrogance or victim and blaming as well as manipulation are all weaknesses and not in line with the power of vulnerability - they are in fact, the opposite.
Know that all humans are flawed and have fears, it's the ones who walk confidently in their insecurities and emotions who can truly live freely in acceptance and embracing change.
One last note – As the person on the receiving end of someone else being vulnerable, your job is not to solve their problem, or disregard their feelings. Your job is to just listen and love them anyway. Love them no matter what their insecurities are, let them know, and feel safe and loved. That is your only job.
My name is Wendy Pilcher and I think you for listening to this episode of Identify and conquer, I hope this helps you see vulnerability in a different way – a positive way, and I hope you find ways to incorporate it into your life, even if it’s just baby steps.
Go to my community at changing my brain. Com to continue this conversation. You can also see the various ways you can work with me listed there. You can also support this show by buying me a coffee, link is in my show notes.