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Beyond Vulnerability – Love Your Work, Episode 296

February 23 2023 – 07:30am

beyond vulnerabilityThe term, “vulnerability” has spread into realms where it’s not an accurate description of what’s going on. The case for being vulnerable often doesn’t make sense. In the creative realm – and possibly in others – we should pursue something beyond vulnerability.

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When I wrote about vulnerability to my Love Mondays newsletter, saying some of what I’m about to say, I got a lot of pushback. In the current – and what I believe to be incorrect – parlance, some might say I had made myself vulnerable. I don’t agree. I’ll build up to why in the course of examining the vulnerability movement.

I’ll try to keep this organized, so that if you disagree with my line of thinking, it’s easier to identify where. It’s hard to talk about vulnerability in an organized way, because the more the term is abused, the more vague its definition gets.

Vulnerability means “open to harm”

Let’s start by defining vulnerability. In the most basic terms, vulnerability means, “open to harm.” If you want to be more technical and specific, “open” in this case doesn’t mean “inviting” harm, but rather “susceptible” to harm.

Now I’ll paraphrase some examples of how vulnerability is espoused in the current movement:

I don’t deny that a person might feel vulnerable in these situations. I’m not convinced they are vulnerable. I’m definitely skeptical that striving to be or even feel vulnerable is helpful.

Emotional harm is the most-subjective harm

If being vulnerable is being open to harm, to understand vulnerability we have to define what harm is. There are many types of harm, but I think most are covered in three categories: physical, economic, and emotional harm.

Physical harm is the least-subjective realm of harm. Yes, people might perceive their physical wounds differently, and someone can have physical pains with an emotional cause, but for the most part, you can measure physical injury.

Economic harm is slightly more-subjective. If you lose your job in a flourishing modern economy, you won’t necessarily have scars, such as if you experienced physical harm. You may ultimately be better off.

Emotional harm is almost entirely subjective. What seems like emotional harm to one person may not to another. Some can’t stand to be looked at by a stranger. Others don’t care if someone criticizes them. Importantly, what causes emotional harm to a person when they’re inexperienced in a realm may not – later, to that same person – cause emotional harm after they become experienced in that same realm. More on that later.

The vulnerability movement: “Be vulnerable, and benefit”

Now that we’ve defined vulnerability as “open to harm,” and identified most harms as physical, economic, or emotional, let’s try to identify the case being made for vulnerability by the vulnerability movement.

When I say vulnerability movement, I’m not talking about any one person, but rather my perception as a very-confused outsider, trying to make sense of the conversations being had about vulnerability in TED talks, on social media, on podcasts, and at cocktail parties.

As far as I can understand, the pitch of the vulnerability movement is, “be vulnerable and benefit.”

To paraphrase, using the prior examples from work, love, and art:

To be clear, I think these actions can be wise. But I don’t believe they’re objectively vulnerable, and you don’t have to make vulnerability a goal – and maybe you shouldn’t make vulnerability a goal – to catalyze these actions.

These are all cases to “be vulnerable and benefit.” To be vulnerable is to be open to harm. If you ultimately benefit from an action, were you vulnerable – were you open to harm – in the first place?

Is it vulnerability if it needs boundaries?

Some might say, Well, you don’t know the outcome of these actions in advance, so you’re risking harm by taking them. Yet anyone who speaks intelligently about vulnerability rightly says it should come with boundaries. A CEO shouldn’t freak out about the potential fate of the company, in front of employees and shareholders. You shouldn’t spend your first date complaining about your ex. You shouldn’t share your struggles with depression in writing a user manual for a Bluetooth speaker. Too much vulnerability is oversharing.

So, according to the movement, vulnerability should be a calculated risk, one you’re likely to benefit from, and one that isn’t likely to ruin you.

Don’t seek vulnerability, seek ideals

It seems to me the case being made for vulnerability is in pursuit of important ideals, including but not limited to truth, security, and alignment. The more we’re honest at work, the more effective we can be in an efficient marketplace. The more we share our feelings in our relationships, the more secure we feel. The more of our true selves we put into our art, the more it resonates with others.

“Fear” is the word you’re looking for

I think a better term for what we experience in pursuit of these ideals is “fear.” Fear is a feeling of discomfort in the face of perceived danger. Fear can be irrational. The perceived danger can be entirely in your head. Some people experience fear just looking at a spider that has no chance of physically harming them. Some people experience fear looking at birds.

Valid vulnerability isn’t the type being promoted

I’ve ventured into unfamiliar territory thinking about vulnerability and putting together this critique. I found many areas where truly being vulnerable resulted in benefits, such as in combat, activism, and workplace inclusion.

True vulnerability, it seems, is the product of power, and people sometimes have to be vulnerable to dissolve that power. These areas are outside the scope of this short critique. Besides, I haven’t come across much chatter in the vulnerability movement that makes cases for vulnerability in these valid areas.

But aren’t I a “vulnerable” writer?

One area I am very familiar with is creative work. Some readers have described some of my work as “vulnerable.” I’ve written about the death of my mother, the death of a lover, and published a conversation about grief. I’ve listed my failures and published my private doubts in my pursuit of a career as a writer. I’ve written about my health struggles in graphic detail, and shared my struggles with moving to another country. I’ve been publicly reporting my income for years, starting when it was even less-impressive than it is now. I’m further critiquing vulnerability in this article, even though I got angry emails in response to my short newsletter on the topic.

Was I, am I, vulnerable in creating these things? I don’t think so. Am I risking physical harm? Not likely. Economic harm? I don’t think so. Emotional harm? That’s not up to someone else to decide.

What looks like “vulnerability” is “antifragility”

Have I ever felt vulnerable writing these things? In retrospect, I guess I did. More accurately, I felt fear. Because I was not vulnerable. I benefitted greatly writing these things. I grew, and got to know myself. I found my voice and got closer to doing work that comes from my core. It was all real and came from an authentic place, but I grew my business in the process.

I took calculated risks, and I got better at calculating along the way. I thought that by writing public income reports, I would improve my thought processes and grow my business – I did. I thought that having a public conversation about grief would help me live with it – it has. I thought that by writing about my mysterious health issues, readers would send me ideas that would help me get better – they did.

I’m not claiming to be Galileo or Harvey Milk, which is kind of the point – their work made them objectively vulnerable. But I know I’ve never set out to deliberately be vulnerable. I’ve set out to face fears, because I believed they were irrational. Somewhere along the way, I stopped being scared. What once felt like fear morphed into excitement to see what would happen – to see if this action would take me closer to truth, security, and alignment.

Vulnerability as a boundary, not a beacon

Now that I’ve been at it a long time, if I were to feel vulnerable, I would see that as a boundary, not a beacon. That would be a warning sign that I’m oversharing, and needlessly putting myself in danger.

That’s one problem with espousing the pursuit of a subjective feeling: Being afraid is not the same as being vulnerable. The more experienced you get – in work, love, or art – the more adeptly you can recognize when you really are vulnerable, and decide it’s a good idea to stop.

Performative vulnerability is a slippery slope

When I wrote about this in my newsletter, some readers said they had been in communities where appearing vulnerable became a sort of contest. People seemed to be oversharing just to outdo one another.

That’s another problem with espousing the pursuit of a subjective feeling: If vulnerability is the goal – whether that’s being, feeling, or appearing vulnerable – you incentivize vulnerability. The definitions and the actions fitting those definitions tumble over one another down a very slippery slope.

Vulnerability can be a productive lie

Sometimes we tell ourselves productive lies. You can commit to working for ten minutes, knowing you’ll keep going once you’ve reached that goal. You can give yourself permission to suck – notice that’s “permission,” not “directive” – knowing you’ll improve or do better than you had expected.

Maybe the pursuit to feel vulnerable is a productive lie. It teaches you to face your irrational fears. But at some point you hopefully grow beyond vulnerability – where feeling vulnerable is a sign of danger. There are cases where danger – true vulnerability – is worth the risk, but that’s only because the ideals you’re pursuing are worth that much.

What looks like vulnerability is a byproduct, not a goal

Choosing your actions with vulnerability as a goal is like building a boat designed to splash water. Boats splash water because they’re traveling to a destination. You feel or even are vulnerable in the pursuit of something more important. A boat designed to splash water won’t travel as efficiently as a boat designed to go somewhere.

I believe that a person designing their actions to feel vulnerable won’t be as effective as a person driven to pursue an ideal. That’s what lies beyond vulnerability.

Image: Error on Green, Paul Klee

Thank you for having me on your podcasts!

Thank you for having me on your podcasts. Thank you to Brilliant Miller at The School for Good Living podcast.

As always, you can find interviews of me on my interviews page.

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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

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