This was a few years ago now. A dinner at the house of a successful author in the Hollywood Hills. A bunch of entrepreneurs and artists sitting around the table. One of those dinner parties that make you wonder if you’re really interesting enough to be there. That’s how I felt, anyway.
Halfway through the meal, our host — fresh off his second book, a guide to supercharging your career — hits us with the exercise.
“Okay guys, we’re gonna go around the table, and I want everyone to share the one thing they’re worried about the most right now.”
The host smiles. Everyone nods. A few nervous laughs. But everyone seems to be on board. Everyone’s ready to get vulnerable.
I’m the only one who seems to be weirded out by this exercise. I don’t want to do this. And now I’m actually stressing, wondering what the hell I’m going to say when it’s my turn.
The game begins.
The guy sitting next to the host talks about his mother. She’s having her first scan tomorrow after going into remission. He’s nervous about the results.
The girl next to him is worried about her husband. He’s up for a promotion, but he wants to be a good dad, and she knows he feels torn between his career and his family.
The guy next to her is worried about being single. He just got out of a relationship, and this is one of the first events he’s been to alone. It’s a new experience for him.
And on they go. Each person opening up about their deepest anxieties in front of all these strangers. The host nodding and smiling compassionately after each story. And me, still not sure what I’m going to say.
After all this time, I couldn’t tell you what I finally came up with. Probably something about the company. Or the podcast. Or my frustrations about living in L.A. I’m sure whatever I said had a kernel of truth to it, but I’m also pretty sure it wasn’t my biggest worry at the time.
In truth, my biggest worry at the time was not looking like an idiot in front of all these people. People who were brave enough to share their feelings. People who seemed way better at “being vulnerable” than I was. People who jumped at the chance to really connect.
When we finally finished, the host thanked us all for “opening up.”
“Vulnerability is the currency of intimacy,” he said, owning his role as the wise leader teaching his flock. “Without vulnerability, we can’t have meaningful connection. But we have to make an effort to be vulnerable, so that that connection is possible.”
Everyone nodded and mm-hmmed. I probably did too.
Then we all went back to talking about work, the news, the events where we had all met. I remember looking around the table, wondering if I had missed something.
I didn’t feel vulnerable.
I didn’t feel intimate.
I didn’t feel connected.
In fact, I kind of felt the opposite.
I felt false. I felt self-conscious. And because I seemed to be the only person who didn’t “get” it, I felt even more alone than when I first arrived.
Am I really that guarded? I wondered.
Am I really that afraid of opening up to strangers?
Is there something wrong with me?
The Truth About Vulnerability
It took me years to realize that my instincts that night were correct.
Because after a lot of experience and reflection, I’ve learned that what our host created that night wasn’t true vulnerability, but a scenario designed to simulate vulnerability.
Instead of allowing an organic, authentic, spontaneous connection to take place, he tried to manufacture it — which, of course, had the paradoxical effect of destroying it. The skepticism I felt was a normal reaction to a forced sense of intimacy, which isn’t really true intimacy at all.
At the time, I blamed myself for not wanting to participate. Now I know that my resistance was a normal reaction to the misguided ritual of forced vulnerability.
A couple years later, I found myself at another dinner party. Similar vibe. Similar group.
The host, a world-renowned therapist, busted out another one of these exercises.
“So I’d like everyone to share the one thing they’re most afraid of,” she said, just as we settled into our meal.
Instantly, all the old feelings crept back up. The resentment. The resistance. The self-consciousness.
But this time, I understood what was happening. I knew that I was having an authentic reaction to a manufactured moment.
So when it was my turn, I politely smiled and said, “Actually, I’d rather not share tonight, if that’s cool. I’m really happy to be here, I’m just not really feeling this exercise.”
The host’s face turned to a compassionate mask. “Sounds like opening up is your biggest fear,” she said.
“Maybe,” I said, with a little shrug. “Maybe we can talk about that in your office one day.”
Everyone laughed, and we moved on to the next person.
After the party, four different people came up to me and said that my decision not to share was the most vulnerable thing that happened that night.
“I wish I had done that,” one of them sighed. “I didn’t know that was an option.”
The Cult of Vulnerability
“What happens when people open their hearts?” asked Haruki Murakami in one of his novels.
“They get better,” he wrote.
And for the most part, I’d agree.
But if that’s true, it’s worth asking another question:
What happens when people are forced to open their hearts?
In my opinion?
They get worse. At least they feel worse.
Because at the end of the day, we want nothing more in life than to be ourselves. That’s the feeling we’re all chasing: that simple, awesome joy that comes from not having to pretend to be something we’re not. We call that feeling “authenticity.”
Vulnerability is simply the state of being our authentic selves with another person. It’s real, it’s powerful, and it’s an experience we should all aspire to have as much as possible.
But when that vulnerability is forced, faked, or manufactured — by ourselves or by other people — we experience the exact opposite reaction.
Not only do we not feel like ourselves, we feel a host of other unpleasant emotions.
Discomfort. Resentment. Self-doubt. Fraudulence. Anger. Envy. Insecurity.
Because we know that what we’re feeling in those moments isn’t the real thing.
We know that we’re being forced to open up, despite the fact that opening up is only meaningful when we choose to do it.
We’re wired to feel that. We know the real thing in our bones. To put it bluntly, we’re incredible BS detectors. No one is better at knowing when you’re being authentic than you.
But when we find ourselves in a group setting — like the dinner parties I just told you about — it suddenly becomes a lot harder to trust that instinct.
When everyone else seems to be vibing with an experience that we’re not — even if they’re just playing along — we automatically wonder if we’re in the wrong. If everyone else is down to get vulnerable, then we assume there must be something wrong with us. We must really be bad at vulnerability. We must be missing something.
It’s social psychology 101. We take our cues from our surroundings, and we’re wired to seek the approval and coherence of our tribe. Suddenly, the risk of not playing along becomes really high. And so we sit there, quietly wondering why we can’t just opt out, even as we choose to go along with it.
That’s why no one questions these absurd vulnerability exercises. Because they usually come up in a setting where the perceived cost of resistance is too high.
And so we usually decide to just give in, reinforcing the myth that vulnerability can be manufactured. That vulnerability should be manufactured.
This is what I call the “cult of vulnerability.”
It’s a cult I see taking over team dinners, corporate retreats, networking conferences and idea festivals. In the spirit of “really connecting” and “being authentic,” people are turning vulnerability into an exercise, a process, an expectation. They’re creating strategic vulnerability. And just like a real cult, strategic vulnerability devotes itself to a larger purpose, rewards conformity, and frowns upon resistance.
So we go along with the cult. We buy into it, believing that there must be a reason that we’re engaging in it, that there must be something we’re missing. And then we wonder why we feel so alone. More alone, probably, than we would have felt if we just opted out.
The Two Types of Vulnerability
But the problem here isn’t vulnerability itself. The problem is the way we’re going about it.
As I talk about on the show all the time, social capital — the raw energy of our relationships — is based on meaningful connection, authentic generosity and emotional support.
These pillars of great relationships all depend on intimacy and trust — that is, on vulnerability.
We have to be open and available to other people in order for them to be open and available to us. We also need to feel connected to other people to experience joy, confidence, and fulfillment in life. Intimacy is the lifeblood of our relationships. We know this.
So I’m definitely not saying we should stop being vulnerable!
What I am saying is that we should stop trying to force it. And when we’re confronted by a situation that seems to be forcing it, we should know that it’s perfectly legit to opt out.
We should call strategic vulnerability out for what it is, and commit to being authentically vulnerable as much as possible.
So what does authentic vulnerability mean, really?
It means offering a true part of yourself — a feeling, an opinion, a story, a problem — without any specific expectation or goal in mind.
It means sharing and connecting because you want to, not because someone or something made you — whether it’s a host, a program, a requirement, or a social protocol.
It means being emotionally exposed — because you’re being yourself — in a way that can be risky, uncertain and sometimes even scary.
It sometimes means being exposed in that way when you least expect it — when you didn’t even think about opening up — because you’re responding organically to the other person, the conversation, the moment.
Oftentimes, it means being vulnerable without even realizing you’re being vulnerable.
Because the moment you actually realize you’re being vulnerable, all of that strategic stuff we’ve been talking about — goals, expectations, agendas, self-consciousness — starts to creep in. Suddenly, we become aware of our vulnerability and how it’s operating in the interaction. And that self-consciousness can infect the authentic experience we had going.
Authentic vulnerability means being open to other people as the truest version of yourself, simply because you want to be open as the truest version of yourself.
And strategic vulnerability is the opposite.
Which is a shame, because in most cases, people’s attempts at strategic vulnerability are actually coming from a good place. Managers want their employees to bond. Conference speakers want their audiences to connect. Hosts want their guests to have a great time. They know that vulnerability is the key, so they feel the need to create it.
What they don’t realize is that by trying to create it, they kill it. At best, they create a facsimile of vulnerability, a false substitute, then pride themselves on bringing people closer together. They don’t realize what’s actually happened, because they’ve spent their whole lives — as so many of us have — only participating in the idea of vulnerability. It’s been so long since they authentically connected that they don’t know what the real thing looks and feels like.
Which is fine. They mean well. But it’s up to us to recognize the difference, and commit to participating in the real thing as much as possible.
Ironically, opening up about our discomfort with being strategically vulnerable is one of the greatest acts of vulnerability. It means owning our experience enough to say, “You know what? This doesn’t feel quite right. This isn’t me. I love that we’re all trying to get closer, but I’d rather not share something personal because I have to. That’s just how I’m feeling right now.”
As we saw in the second dinner party example, responding authentically to these moments is way more powerful than whatever we would have said in a forced vulnerability exercise. Because unlike our canned responses, choosing not to play along when it feels manufactured is the very definition of authenticity!
So the question becomes this:
How do we encourage other people to be vulnerable without forcing them to be vulnerable?
How can we create organic vulnerability with our friends, our colleagues and our partners without falling into the trap of strategic vulnerability?
How can we get people to authentically open up to us, if getting them to open up is automatically inauthentic?
The answer is actually very simple.
We have to stop working on vulnerability directly.
How to Create Authentic Vulnerability
Instead, I find it much more powerful to work on the conditions for vulnerability to take place.
If we get the conditions right, then vulnerability will happen on its own — organically, authentically, and often without us even realizing that it’s taking place.
That’s what’s so hard for vulnerability “experts” to wrap their heads around. They know vulnerability is powerful, and they want other people to experience it too, so they try to create it directly. But as we’ve seen, this never really works.
So what are the right conditions for vulnerability?
The first is deciding to…
Be vulnerable yourself.
Every time I find myself in a strategic vulnerability exercise — and it still happens way too often — I notice that the person leading the exercise is usually the least vulnerable person in the room.
Like the host at the dinner party, the person architecting the vulnerability is usually playing puppeteer, sitting back while everyone does their bidding, enjoying the privilege of being the person who gets to demand vulnerability of others.
Even when they participate in the exercise — for example, by sharing something about their lives to kick things off — I can’t help but imagine how long they worked on their little story, their moment, their revelation, knowing they’d be sharing it later. If that’s not the very definition of inauthentic, I don’t know what is.
Imagine how much more powerful these moments would be if — returning to the dinner party scenario one more time — the host just shared a personal story, and started an open conversation with the guests at his table. Imagine how you might respond to that act of vulnerability, without the added pressure of returning it with some vulnerability of your own.
In the right setting, with the right people, with the right conversation, I bet you’d be willing to open up about your own experience even more. I bet you’d feel much more inspired to share. And, at the same time, you’d also feel more secure in your right not to share. I know I would.
And if you did decide to open up, what you’d share with that group would be authentic and reflexive, not coerced or pre-planned. It would be voluntary. It would be real. And as we saw before, real and voluntary vulnerability is the only truly authentic vulnerability.
Vulnerability responds to vulnerability.
Vulnerability doesn’t respond to exercises, requests or expectations, no matter how hard we try.
So if you want to create vulnerability in your social circles, team meetings or family dinners, the first principle to understand is this: if you want vulnerability, you’ll have to give it first.
That doesn’t mean preparing a “vulnerability piece” to have handy, so that you can bust it out before asking people to do the same. It means just opening up on your own, first, without demanding it of others. It means making vulnerability a layer to everything you do, as opposed to a mode you enter when you want others to do the same.
You’ll be amazed at the effect this practice has on the degree of vulnerability you feel and see in your life. I’m not promising that it will be immediate — it might not even be noticeable for a little while — but over time, you’ll find that the best way to spark vulnerability in the people around you is to model that vulnerability. Open up, and other people will start to open up to your openness.
That’s what the best parents, bosses, speakers and coaches do. They show people how to embrace vulnerability, rather than artificially demanding it.
Understand your motivations.
The difference between authentic vulnerability and strategic vulnerability comes down to our reasons for engaging in it.
When our vulnerability comes with an agenda — whether it’s to get closer to someone, to win their sympathy, or to be perceived a certain way — we can be sure there’s a self-interested motivation lurking behind it. And if there’s a self-interested motivation at work, your vulnerability will never be fully authentic.
But let’s be honest: Even authentic vulnerability has its motivations.
We don’t choose to open up for no reason, and we all know that vulnerability plays a powerful role in our lives. If we’re choosing to be more vulnerable, we must have our reasons.
The fact that these reasons exist doesn’t make our vulnerability any less meaningful. We just have to have a good grasp of what those motivations are, so that we can be sure we’re being vulnerable for the right reasons.
So what are the right reasons to open up?
In short, to be ourselves, to create connection and rapport, to feel less isolated, and to own, explore and share all of the feelings and experiences that make us who we are. It’s the timeless stuff of friendship, self-expression and empathy.
What are the wrong reasons for opening up?
In short, any motivation that hinges on achieving something specific: to make people like us, to win someone’s sympathy, to paint ourselves as a hero/saint/victim/etc., or to get something from another person.
The right motivations for opening up are about being: being ourselves, being connected, being authentic. The wrong motivations for opening up are about getting: getting sympathy, getting friendship, getting approval.
Whenever you find yourself reacting negatively to vulnerability — either to your own, or to someone else’s — you’re usually responding to the motivations behind that vulnerability. Think about it, and you’ll probably find that you rarely resent someone for opening up. You usually resent them for why they opened up — if those reasons struck you as inauthentic.
In my experience, the wrong motivations for vulnerability always backfire, and they never actually work over time. People know the difference between authentic and strategic revelations. They know when they’re in the presence of an organic or goal-oriented connection. Relationships, projects and experiences are only truly meaningful if they’re built on authenticity.
The irony, of course, is that you will attract all sorts of desirable things — love, friendship, empathy, loyalty, attraction — if you have the right motivations for opening up to other people. But that’s only because you won’t be trying to achieve any of those things in the moment of vulnerability. Organic vulnerability will automatically invite them in, without you having to strive for them.
So as you work on becoming more vulnerable, check in with yourself to understand your own motivations.
With more self-awareness, you’ll begin to notice when and why you open up, and you’ll start to catch yourself forcing vulnerability — or demanding it from other people — for a strategic reason. By checking in with yourself consistently, you’ll avoid that inauthentic brand of vulnerability, and consciously commit to opening up for the right reasons.
That’s the self-awareness that makes vulnerability so powerful.
Remember that vulnerability has its time and place.
Another common myth perpetuated by the cult of vulnerability is that we should become more vulnerable in every area of our lives, as much and as often as possible.
I actually think that idea is misguided, and fails to appreciate the role vulnerability plays in our lives.
We should all strive for more vulnerability overall, for sure. But that doesn’t mean we need to embody or publicize that vulnerability every single moment. There are contexts in which vulnerability is unnecessary, inappropriate, and sometimes even dangerous.
Let’s explore a few specifics.
A parent who really understands the value of vulnerability is probably well-equipped to raise children who are open, available and secure. It’s a virtue all parents should strive to embody.
But that doesn’t mean that all parents — especially of young children — should be recklessly vulnerable to every challenge, doubt or fear that pops up. (And, as we all know, there are tons of those in parenting!) In fact, being overly vulnerable as a parent could create all kinds of problems in children, who need to feel secure and taken care of by an adult with a firm grasp on themselves and the world. During critical periods of development, too much vulnerability in a parent could work against a child — if the parent isn’t thoughtful about how the child perceives their vulnerability.
At the same time, parents have to move through wildly different roles and scenarios as they raise children. Interactions that call for guidance and discipline probably benefit from less vulnerability. Moments that call for empathy and affection obviously call for more vulnerability. So it’s essential for parents to have a good handle on their vulnerability, and how it functions in the lives of their children.
I’m skating on the surface of a ton of parenting theory here — we can’t possibly explore every nuance in this article, I know — but the takeaway remains. Great parents embody vulnerability so they can model it for their children. But they also know when and how to embody that vulnerability, so they can model it in a healthy and effective way.
The cult of vulnerability tells us that being vulnerable at work is one of the most powerful keys to motivation, loyalty, and culture. And that’s true. But the degree of vulnerability we bring to work depends on so many important factors — context, politics, goals, decorum, and brand.
We know this instinctively. Opening up about your fears and challenges to your fellow VPs could be a really powerful way to acknowledge your weaknesses, build bridges, invite new perspectives, and develop as a leader. But confessing that you were really hurt by a subordinate’s comment to your entire team in an all-hands meeting would probably be unnecessary, inappropriate, and potentially damaging.
Just as in parenting, vulnerability at work functions differently depending on the context. We have to cultivate a high degree of self-awareness to understand when, where and how to be vulnerable in our professional lives.
Is opening up with your colleagues forging connections and creating a tight-knit work environment? Or is it creating drama, sowing doubt and conflating personal and professional concerns?
Is sharing parts of your personal life with your colleagues improving the quality of your work? Or is it becoming self-indulgent, unfair and distracting from the task at hand?
Does your job and company as a whole benefit from your vulnerability? Or does your industry, role or project demand less vulnerability?
Every company is different, and every employee has a different set of goals, considerations and styles. Again, we’re skating on the surface of very complex workplace dynamics, but the bottom line is this: We have to consider how our vulnerability operates and comes across to other people at work, so we can calibrate it effectively.
In the right contexts, it can be a gamechanger. In the wrong contexts, it can become a liability.
Friendships and Romantic Relationships
One of the unique gifts of friends and romantic partners is the ability to be more vulnerable with them than we are in other relationships. You could even say that these relationships are impossible without a high degree of vulnerability. It’s that rare openness that makes friends friendly, that makes romantic partners romantic.
But even in our close relationships, we need to have an awareness of our how vulnerability operates. Open up too little or too infrequently, and we fail to invest the emotional energy that makes these relationships flourish. Open up too much or too often, and we risk becoming emotionally overwhelming.
So how do we calibrate our vulnerability in close relationships?
As we’ve touched on, self-awareness is essential. Consciously checking in with ourselves to make sure we’re offering the right amount of intimacy will usually keep us from under- or over-sharing. Ultimately, that’s our responsibility. We need to cultivate an understanding of how much vulnerability is appropriate, and learn to read the responses of the people we’re vulnerable with. That way, we don’t have to wait until they tell us we’re being too much — or, worse, be left wondering.
Of course, we can also simply ask. We can check in with the people we’re close to, and ask them if we’re giving too much or little, connecting too often or too infrequently. I do this all the time with my wife, and she always tells me the truth. (I’m also willing to hear it, and am comfortable being vulnerable to her opinion. Well, okay, fine. Sometimes I get defensive and have to admit to myself that I just want her to tell me what I want to hear — but most of the time, this works out great!) If these connections are authentic and strong, we’ll usually get an honest answer. So that’s the other way to make sure you’re vulnerability is calibrated.
At the end of the day, context matters in our close relationships, too.
For example, you might decide to open up about your hopes and insecurities in a deep conversation with your best friend about the meaning of your relationship. But you probably wouldn’t share your fears and anxieties if, say, you were helping your boyfriend deal with the death of a parent. Similarly, you probably wouldn’t burden your roommate with a rant about your awful day at work as soon as you get home, though you might share a story from your professional life if you were helping her decide whether to quit her job.
As always, instinct and common sense prevails. We usually have a good internal compass about when and where our vulnerability should appear. We know when it’s an asset and when it’s a liability, when it’s an instrument of empathy and when it’s an excuse for self-indulgence. We just have to be disciplined about following that compass — as well as checking in with ourselves and the people around us — to make sure we share ourselves in the right way, in the right amounts, in the right contexts.
That’s where the real work exists. After that, authentic vulnerability has a way of developing on its own, and growing organically over time.
[Featured Image by Shane Rounce]