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Many of my clients struggle with the concepts of authenticity and vulnerability especially at work. They understand the importance of being authentic, have an incorrect understanding of vulnerability, and struggle to show either of these traits. They think that showing vulnerability and/or authenticity will make them look weak and undermine their position as managers and leaders in their organization.
According to Brené Brown in her book Dare to Lead, vulnerability is the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
Authenticity, on the other hand, is the quality of being real or true. That means that we are not always a superhuman. We do not know everything, we experience fear, sadness, anger, and happiness like everyone else. That sometimes we make decisions we later regret.
Because, like my clients, I had an incorrect understanding of vulnerability, I used to see it as a weakness. I thought vulnerability was to spill my guts out for the world to see, which understandably so made me extremely uncomfortable.
To my surprise, it turns out that showing vulnerability (with boundaries) is a sign of strength.
Remarkably, there is no authenticity without vulnerability. To show our authentic self, which goes beyond our hair style, clothes, or the choice of accessories, we must experience vulnerability. Otherwise, we will come across as phony and people will see through it.
The key word when showing vulnerability, and therefore authenticity, is boundaries. We control what we want to share, with whom, when, and for what purpose.
“The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fail while daring greatly.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Here are some considerations when displaying vulnerability and authenticity with boundaries.
1) Think about why you are sharing something
In all communication there is a purpose even when it is not initially apparent. Usually we want to inform, obtain approval, teach, heal, or connect.
When we share a story showing our less than perfect selves, the intent is to connect, teach, or heal. For the latter, we want to do it with a professional like a psychotherapist or psychiatrist.
To connect with people or to teach, we want to convey that we can relate to their difficulties, that we have experiences similar to theirs, and that we have walked the path. This is what we tend to do with close friends, family members, and colleagues when we tell them about a challenging situation, an embarrassing moment, or an event with unexpected results.
For example, I may relate my path to organize my personal finances. Part of that story will serve to connect with other people who may feel less than adequate or impotent because they are living paycheck to paycheck as I was a few years ago. Another part of that story will show the techniques I followed, which ones worked, and which ones did not since I have tried them firsthand.
2) Set boundaries
Have you ever met someone who shared too much too soon? And when we have been that person, usually because some substance (i.e., wine or spirits) took away our filter, the regret afterwards could be much worse than the hangover.
I was once at a wedding, and I sat next to another couple. I introduced myself and started the usual chit chat at these types of events: are you friends with the bride or the groom? How do you know them? Suddenly, this woman, who I did not know before that night, told me her entire story about how much she wanted to have kids, how hard it had been, and the IVF treatment she and her husband were going through. Too much too soon.
Not everyone is equipped to receive the same type of information. There are things we discuss in our immediate family only, others that are disclosed at the therapist’s office, and others that can be edited to share with a wider group of people. It is important to decide what and how much of a specific personal experience we relate and to whom.
3) Authenticity is not an excuse
Many people confuse being authentic with being obnoxious, loud, and lazy. They are living ‘their truth’.
Authenticity is not an excuse to not be professional, honor your commitments, and do and be your best.
You may not show up to work wearing your bathing suit, for example, in the name of being your ‘authentic self’.
Your ‘authentic’ self is not allowed to disrespect people, either. If you say something that others may find offensive, you apologize and commit to being more considerate going forward.
4) Ask for and receive help
I wrote about productively asking for help. There is also an art in receiving help. Most people love assisting others. Even more if the person they are helping is perceived as a mentor or role model.
You may not truly need their help. And yet accepting it, and even asking for it, will gain you points for life. The other person will feel better and that they contributed to your well-being. And you may gain additional information that you did not have before.
The best example I see are from kids who are four or five years old. Do we truly need their help when we are baking cookies or tidying up the kitchen? Not really. But they love helping; they believe they are contributing and that feels ‘grown up’. And we accept that help because we do not want to hurt their feelings. We can extend that courtesy to other adults around us and accept their assistance.
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up, we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” – Madeleine L’Engle
We spend a huge amount of time crafting our perfection, keeping it together, being self-sufficient. I know I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to accomplish these impossible standards. The reality is that to connect with people we want to show our process: the struggle, the triumph, the lessons learned.
As Brené Brown puts it the irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness—even our wholeheartedness—actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls.
Oddly enough, showing vulnerability appropriately, increases our respect and credibility as well as the trust others have in us. By showing ‘our belly’ we are the firsts to say, ‘I trust you’. Unless the other person turns out to be a psychopath, the response invariably will be ‘I trust you too because you trusted me first’.
How do you go about being authentic and showing vulnerability? Which consideration resonated the most and the least? Please, let us know in the comments. You can write in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French.
My mission is to help women transition from mid to senior level leadership positions by creating awareness, increasing emotional intelligence, and unveiling the tools and choices available to them, so they can confidently realize and fulfill their potential.
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