How does vulnerability make you feel?
Is it something you shy away from?
Do you see it as a weakness?
Do you believe vulnerability is best kept behind closed doors?
A good friend of mine, who also happens to be the CEO of a highly successful business recently shared she had been feeling extremely vulnerable due to the circumstances of an employee’s health, which made me wonder why vulnerability is something that many of us find difficult, challenging or extremely emotionally uncomfortable.
While being vulnerable can be unpleasant sometimes, it is also an invaluable gift.
It reveals you as the human you are. Flawed, imperfect and capable of stuffing things up big time, just like everyone else.
It’s a gift because it helps others know that they are not alone, in how they feel and that despite the pain or suffering, you can recover and learn from the experience.
When we choose to be vulnerable, we show courage.
The more we choose to be vulnerable the stronger our courage becomes.
My training as a doctor taught me certain unspoken rules required if you wanted to remain a respected and trusted pillar of the community and of your peers. These included:
- Don’t get emotionally involved with your patients.
- Never show your true emotions.
- Expect to always show up ready to stay late, do more, work hard and don’t complain about the sacrifices you had to make to be there.
I failed badly on the first two.
I cared deeply about my patients. I hurt when they suffered. I rejoiced when they got better.
I cried with my patients when they cried and shared their joy when they rejoiced.
I found it tricky to disassociate from the trial and tribulations people endured when going about their daily lives and worried about them.
The third element I excelled in, receiving A+++ on every report card. My work ethic, passion for my work and belief that what I did mattered drove me to work many long hours and to consistently put the needs of my patients first, my family second and to ignore my own.
My vulnerability was exposed when I burned out.
I lost my business.
I lost my physical and mental wellbeing.
I lost my self-respect.
Deeply ashamed and guilty at letting everyone down, I retreated to my cave to lick my wounds and recover.
And kept quiet.
I couldn’t bear the thought of revealing my weaknesses and my failure to succeed as a good doctor.
Over time, I healed and learnt a lot about myself in the process.
I learned to challenge those self-limiting beliefs and to let go of unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviours.
Listening to others I came to realise many people, just like me were struggling to meet the high expectations of our modern workplace, had bought into the idea that success only came through sheer hard work, grit and determination and were missing out on what allows us to enjoy a fulfilling and rich life.
I found the courage to speak out and the more I did, the more others came forward to say, this was also their story.
I determined to help others to understand that burnout is the result of our working environment. It’s not our fault. It is entirely preventable, and you can recover.
But. There was one group I hadn’t spoken to.
The group whose judgement I feared the most. The group I still felt ashamed to tell.
So, when the invitation came to speak on a virtual panel to a group of GPs about my story of burnout, I knew I had to stop hiding.
It was time to step into my courage, to be vulnerable and real.
It felt as if I had stripped naked, as I spoke into the void, baring my soul.
Was anyone actually listening?
Were they appalled, shocked or surprised to hear a story of burnout from one of their own?
They did listen and along with the two other presenters we then had a robust and meaningful conversation about the why, the how and the what needs to change to protect other doctors and health professionals from also burning out.
As anyone who has ever experienced burnout themselves knows, it’s not something you would wish on your worst enemy. Sharing our stories provides the social proof: none of us are immune to burnout. There is no vaccine available to protect us.
Vulnerability is something I have become grateful for.
Professor Brene Brown is best known for her work in courage, shame and vulnerability. If you haven’t seen it, her TEDx talk “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the top five most viewed talks of all time, with nearly 52 million views!
In her books Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead she defines vulnerability as:
“…our most accurate measure of courage.”
“Vulnerability is not weakness,
and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional.
Our only choice is a question of engagement.
Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose;
the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
Vulnerability is a leadership strength because we look up to those who have the courage to speak out about those things that are not working or went wrong.
It reveals self-confidence, self-acceptance and opens the door for open and non-judgmental conversation.
It promotes acceptance of failure and the adoption of innovative ideas.
It engenders trust and loyalty and builds relatedness.
If we as a society are serious about elevating mental wellbeing and reducing burnout in every workplace, it will be the vulnerable leader willing to share their own challenges who will pave the way for the associated stigma to be reduced, to model the behaviours that endorse the need for greater self-care which we are all responsible for and encourage a culture where everyone looks out for each other.
How does vulnerability show up in your workplace?
Are there opportunities available to you for practicing vulnerability such as asking for help, sharing lessons from when things didn’t go according to plan, or asking how someone is, really?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.