Being Vulnerable Is an Act of Service

By: Annie Rose Stathes in Psychological Safety

At Round Table Companies we like to say that Vulnerability is Sexy. Several years ago, when we first rolled out the idea, many of us retorted with “Sure, but first it’s scary as #$%&.” Others of us furrowed our brows in skepticism: seriously? Vulnerability is sexy? Maybe that’s not the right word. We looked at each other and shook our heads. The phrase would serve as one of our founding principles, and it had already shaped CEO Corey Blake’s TedX talk, inspired a vulnerability game, and been printed boldly on conversation-provoking t-shirts. Is vulnerability in storytelling a good idea?

What Is the Link Between Storytelling and Vulnerability?

On the surface, storytelling does not have much to do with vulnerability. Merriam-Webster defines vulnerability as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded” or “open to attack or damage.” Who wants or welcomes that? Still, “vulnerability” stole RTC’s heart and has also penetrated mainstream vernacular, evolving to practically being synonymous with “open,” “honest,” “authentic,” and other rainbow-kissed words. So, what gives?

Honestly? I don’t know. There are many cases in which even I, a steadfast communicator and emotional risk-taker, frown upon the word’s use as something dignified and powerful. As a social justice advocate, I can’t help but think about “vulnerable populations” whose “vulnerability” is imposed on them and synonymous with suppression, oppression, restriction, and pain. And yet, here we are, left to grapple with a new meaning of vulnerability or at least a more expanded one when using vulnerability in storytelling.

Drawings of entries to the United by Covid virtual vulnerability wall

My Experience With Vulnerability and Storytelling

So, for the duration of this article, let’s use the outcome of my own grappling with storytelling and vulnerability. I have come to realize that there are two types of vulnerability: chosen vulnerability and unchosen vulnerability, or vulnerability placed on us by force. In the latter case, vulnerability is decidedly unattractive and indeed something to fight against. Vulnerable people who’ve not chosen to be as such deserve to be held in a sacred, safe space, void of pressure to imagine their experience as anything but painful.

Chosen vulnerability, though, is something different. It’s something we go into with our eyes wide open, aware of the risks and able to say, “No, thank you.” Chosen vulnerability happens when we willingly put ourselves at physical or emotional risk and open ourselves to potential attack or damage. When we choose vulnerability, we often do so with a particular intention in mind and a hope that fulfilling the intention will improve our own or others’ lives in some way.

When we choose to be vulnerable, we understand that we have no idea what response awaits our expression. Our audience—whether one person, a crowd of fifty, or thousands of eyes on a viral post—might hear what we have to say and delight us by embracing us and demonstrating their love, understanding, and appreciation. Or they might judge us, hate us, or otherwise reject us. Perhaps worst of all, they might respond neutrally, leaving us to wonder if what we shared from the depths of our hearts or the corners of our minds mattered at all. We never know, and that’s what makes us vulnerable.

Vulnerable Messiness in Storytelling

Even when we choose to be vulnerable, it can be messy. We often don’t quite know what we want to say or how to say it. Or we know exactly what we want to say and what story we wish to share, but we’re scared, so we mince words and confuse ourselves and others as we share. Sometimes we offend people, and our vulnerable expression inadvertently picks a fight. Sometimes we say exactly what we want to say, and other people don’t understand, or it seems like they refuse to. In many instances, choosing to be vulnerable is simply the first step on a path of even more vulnerability. Blech!

But we continue to choose to be vulnerable.

You may have shared something deeply personal with us for a virtual art wall. You likely choose to be vulnerable in other areas of your life, either by opening up to people or taking big risks in your personal and professional spheres. Maybe you shared your story. I see us at RTC embracing vulnerability, and I certainly do so in my own life. Are we gluttons for punishment?

I think not, and you know so, too.

Vulnerability isn't just sexy it's a portal to a new and fuller life

We are people who crave freedom. We are people who want to expand our boundaries again and again to become more of who we are. We know we have something to contribute to our friends, our family, our communities, the world. We also know that we are trapped. Trapped in our own trepidation and fear. Trapped in our concerns about what others will think and how they’ll respond and whether or not we’ll die if we choose to be vulnerable and fall flat on our faces. And we know—intuitively and through experience—that contributing in the ways we want to requires us to open ourselves fully and pour our minds, hearts, and souls into the unknown.

Choosing to be vulnerable, and doing so again and again, forces us to pay attention to and deeply feel our emotions. When we’re present to the fear or excitement that choosing to be vulnerable produces, we’re pulled momentarily from our logical minds. And that’s where intuition lives. That’s where instinct lives. That’s where us being present in our bodies lives. That in and of itself is one of chosen vulnerability’s greatest gifts.

When we choose to be vulnerable, we give permission to others to do the same. We demonstrate that feeling fear, taking action, and dealing with whatever happens in response produces wonderful results, however hard-won. We say to others, to our communities, to the world that choosing to share what’s really there, however beautiful or messy, contributes to evolution. Evolution of our minds, hearts, souls, and connections with one another.

The wall that you contributed to offered one opportunity to be vulnerable. We invite you to continue to choose vulnerability and to trust that whatever you pour your chosen risk into will serve you and others well.

I’ll leave you with a favorite quote of mine from Dinah Maria Mulock Craik:

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

When we choose to be vulnerable, we discover who our sifters are, and we build a circle of safety that invites us to play bigger, love more bravely, and expand exponentially the gifts of being present.

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