You just put yourself out there. Maybe you confronted a friend or asked your boss for a raise or Tweeted a passionate opinion. Now, you feel exposed. But it’s too late.
You can’t take back what you’ve said, requested, or expressed in 140 characters. Maybe your hands are hovered over your mouse, ready to delete, but you know it’s futile. Your followers have already taken a peek at your identity, gotten to know you a little better. Your friend looks at you, dumbfounded over your confrontation. Your boss thinks about your request in silence and now, it’s awkward. There’s no deleting that.
You feel a little regretful, maybe even a little sick. You vow never to Tweet again. You analyze every word of what you said to your friend. You feel silly and greedy for asking for a raise.
Research professor Brené Brown, who gave a TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability, calls this feeling a vulnerability hangover. And as awful as the feeling can be, it’s not always a bad thing.
Vulnerability Can Be a Good Thing
Being vulnerable feels like opening your front door in a pair of day-old panties and your worst bra. You never want anyone to see this side of yourself, and here you are, putting it all out there–on purpose! And once it’s out there, it’s out there. You can shut the door, yes, but it’s too late. That’s the rub.
Like most people, I can’t stand feeling vulnerable. As someone who writes for the Internet, I feel vulnerable all the time. Even now, I cringe at things I’ve written, comments I’ve left, things I’ve shared on social media. A friend of mine recently asked, “How do you do that? How do you stop feeling vulnerable?”
The short answer is: I don’t.
Some days are more intense than others, but almost every day, I feel vulnerable, unsure of myself, and sort of like a fraud. (Which is why I recently vowed to go on a digital detox). The idea that vulnerability is good for you, though, is what helps me recover from the vulnerability hangover and keep putting myself back out there.
Despite that awful feeling, vulnerability serves a purpose. As Brown says, it’s “our most accurate measure of courage.” It’s something that reminds us we’re alive and we’re growing. I like the way Roman Krznaric of the School of Life puts it:
We live in a culture where making yourself vulnerable – exposing your fears and uncertainties, taking emotional risks – is considered a form of weakness, and something most of us want to run away from. But Brené’s research reveals the hugely positive outcomes that emerge from stepping into the arena of vulnerability. It is precisely when we expose ourselves – perhaps in a relationship or at work – that ‘we have experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives’.
Here are a few of my own experiences with vulnerability in the past few years and how they’ve paid off.
- Writing about really personal issues I deal with: helping readers going through similar situations
- Pitching a bunch of publishers my book idea: getting a book deal
- Confronting a friend about something I was upset about: developing a deep, wonderful friendship
With these and your own specific experiences in mind, let’s look at a few general benefits of vulnerability.
Challenging Your Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out information that supports what we already believe. It’s when you just know Tom Hanks played Tootsie so you Google “Tom Hanks in Tootsie” instead of “Who played Tootsie?” (The correct answer is Dustin Hoffman and I highly recommend this video of him talking about his role, but I digress.) You see a search result that includes both Tom Hanks and the movie Tootsie in the same title, so you declare, YEP IT WAS HIM, put down your phone and tell your friends you won that bet. That’s cognitive bias in a nutshell.
Challenging this bias often means opening yourself up to the possibility that you could be wrong, and that feels vulnerable.
In college, I allowed myself to be vulnerable when I debated my classmates about a social issue. They felt strongly about this issue, and I parroted information I heard, having grown up in a very small bubble. My classmates and my professor completely leveled me with facts and reason. I cringe to think about how stupid my arguments were, but if I didn’t put myself out there, I might have been parroting the same stupid bullshit for years.
I was vulnerable, and no doubt my classmates criticized and judged me (rightfully so), but that vulnerability encouraged me to open myself up to other ideas and admit I was wrong.
Improving Cognitive Function
According to Yerkes-Dodson Law, a state of comfort equals steady performance. When you feel stimulated, though, even when that stimulation is the minor stress of breaking out of your comfort zone, your performance actually improves.
In other words, feeling the vulnerability of leaving your comfort zone might just improve your cognitive abilities. When you decide to take a chance and put yourself out there, maybe via raising your hand in a work meeting to share a new idea, you’re not just doing the same old thing. You’re stimulated, and mental stimulation and cognition go hand in hand.
Ditching Your Comfort Zone
Vulnerability makes you uncomfortable, and again, sometimes a little bit of discomfort is a good thing. Inertia, the tendency to stagnate or stay on the same course, can be debilitating. It makes even the simplest task seem overwhelming.
A lot of people feel vulnerable when they deal with money, for example. Instead of embracing that discomfort and taking a look at their bank statements, they keep doing the same thing. They spend as they please and ignore their budgets altogether. It’s uncomfortable to look at your numbers when you know they’re probably going to reveal you’ve got money problems, after all. You definitely feel vulnerable. However, putting an end to that inertia makes you stronger, helps you grow and, in the case of this example, can help you finally get your finances together.
There’s an important caveat to all of this, though: too much stimulation can be so stressful that it has the opposite effect and causes a decline in performance. In other words, there’s probably such a thing as too much vulnerability.
How to Embrace Vulnerability Productively
Yerkes-Dodson law says that too much anxiety can actually make you too stressed to be productive. So if your vulnerability hangover is so bad you can’t function, you’re no longer getting the benefit of putting yourself out there.
So what’s the optimal amount of vulnerability? How do you reap the benefits of ditching your comfort zone without letting the stress completely destroy you? There’s not a lot of science on this, but here are a few anecdotal tactics I’ve used to find that balance.
Practice: For me, nothing feels more vulnerable than negotiating. Yes, I love the rush of confidence I get from speaking up for myself (the money is pretty great, too, when I can swing it), but I feel so damn exposed every single time. Practice helps mitigate this anxiety.
I practice how I’ll bring up the negotiation, how a client might respond, and how I’ll respond to that, word-for-word. This makes it a hell of a lot easier to speak up in the first place, and it helps calm my nerves during the anxiety of a vulnerability hangover. Just like rehearsing helps when you’re giving a speech, it can also help with other vulnerable tasks like confronting a friend or bringing up an idea to your boss. The more you practice, the more comfortable you get putting yourself out there. The hangover isn’t quite as awful.
Find a friend: I’ve found that it also helps to have the support of a friend. After negotiating, the first thing I usually do is text a good friend to vent my anxiety (and she’s so great at reassuring me). It feels better to have that support, but it can also help to piggyback on their confidence.
For example, I absolutely dread networking events because I’m incredibly nervous when meeting new people Whenever possible, I try to invite a good friend who’s great at talking to people. She’s as introverted as I am, but she’s also a skilled communicator, super charismatic, and can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. Her confidence encourages me to relax and do the same.
Schedule your hangover: Back in the day, I used to write essays about my own experiences with money over at the blog Get Rich Slowly. When I knew my post was going live, I was a complete wreck. I would fret over the comments and potential judgment from readers. It was my first experience sharing personal thoughts, opinions, and events in my life, and it was terrifying.
After a few months of dealing with this anxiety, I learned to give myself some breathing room. I would wake up early and set aside an hour to go through comments, re-read my post, and allow myself to process the vulnerability hangover. Then, I’d shut down the page, walk away from my laptop, and start my day. Anxiety is even worse when it happens smack-dab in the middle of your schedule. When you schedule the time to deal with it separately, however, it’s much more manageable.
That aforementioned digital detox really helped me keep the stress at bay, too. Sometimes you need your comfort zone! Taking a few days to revel in my comfort and privacy made me feel recharged and ready to deal with the anxiety of putting myself back out there.
What do you think: Is vulnerability is a good thing? And how do you deal with the frustrating anxiety of a vulnerability hangover?