Positive and Negative Vulnerability

Been doing lots of thinking about vulnerability lately.

It’s becoming in vogue to talk about embracing vulnerability, but what does that even mean?

Be weak? Of course people are going to push back against that.

There’s some great literature out there on vulnerability (Brene Brown 100% owns that space) but I think there are more conversations to be had regarding the various forms of vulnerability, how it can be both positive and negative and these conversations are especially important for young men. 

In this piece I hope to differentiate between positive and negative forms of vulnerability, touch on some of the ways positive-vulnerability can be beneficial and also explore the negative ways vulnerability can impact people. 

Some of this was Inspired by a conversation I had with my CrossFit Games judge Lachlan Learg earlier this year. We were chatting about resilience and fragility and we both agreed that vulnerability was one of the best tools for improving resilience. 

However vulnerability is often still seen as weakness and it’s kind of hard to argue when the Oxford dictionary defines it as: “the fact of being weak and easily hurt physically or emotionally.”

I believe that definition deters people from exploring the potential benefits of, what I’d like to call “positive-vulnerability,” which I would argue is the cornerstone of any and all positive self-change.

Positive-vulnerability is an exploration and acceptance of one’s faults, flaws and failures and is one of the most powerful and authentic forms of self awareness.

It is also one of the first, crucial steps towards making meaningful changes in your life, building resilience and improving your relationship with yourself and others.

If we can acknowledge and accept that weakness is part of what makes us human, we can dive deeper within ourselves and unpack the darker aspects of ourselves and how they’re impacting our lives. We can’t understand what we won’t explore and we can’t accept what we don’t understand. If we don’t accept where we currently are, how can we figure out how best to move towards where we want to be?

Let me give you an example. I’ve always loved a drink. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’ve always loved getting drunk. On the one hand, I think it’s fine and even heathy to go out and get a bit tipsy and have a few laughs with mates. However from the very first time I got black out drunk at 16 years old (and threw up all through my friend’s parents car and house) I knew I was dancing with the devil every time I hit the piss. I’ve battled anxious voices in my head for as long as I can remember. When I drink, those voices slow down and if I drink more, they stop altogether. I learnt that pretty quickly and whilst getting blackout drunk has produced a ton of funny memories, I’ll look back on fondly for the rest of my life, it’s also caused plenty of pretty shitty ones and is almost always followed days of horrible anxiety and anguish.

This may seem like a pretty straight forward situation. Don’t get black out drunk to try and manage your mental health. However it wasn’t until last year I realised how much this self medicating was actually a negative thing and how much it was impacting my life. Australian culture celebrates drinking. There was a part of me that took pride in my willingness to get absolutely hammered with my mates whenever the occasion arose and I know it was a source of enjoyment to many of them. It was the perfect storm. Partying was a break from the stresses of the real world, an antidote to the anxious inner dialogue I battled day-to-day and a means of connecting with people. Accepting that this was actually a negative thing in my life and a form of weakness took me 13 years. HOWEVER, coming to that realisation and changing my relationship with myself and with alcohol has allowed me to grow so much and enjoy a few drinks and the company of the people I care about on a deeper level, rather than just as a destructive coping mechanism.

Developing that kind of self-awareness and vulnerability is fucking uncomfortable. It flipped a lot of thoughts and feelings I had about myself, some of the people in my life and something I had always seen as a positive upside down. It was confronting and the only way I managed to get through it was by being committed to change.

That’s a scary part of positive-vulnerability. If you acknowledge something as a weakness, it means you are aware it is somehow detrimental to you and therefor there is a level of responsibility to change that. To do the work.  

This is where people misconstrue vulnerability for weakness. It’s the opposite. It takes incredible strength to show weakness, WITH THE INTENT OF WORKING ON IT.

When we uncover our own weaknesses and accept them, we create space to work on improving them. By space, I mean mental bandwidth that would otherwise be spent trying to suppress, hide or disguise the things that make us vulnerable.

Second to that, by accepting our vulnerabilities and owning them, we remove their capacity to cause us shame or embarrassment, again allowing more energy for constructive personal development.

This is what separates positive-vulnerability from negative. 

Positive-vulnerability is an exploration of our weaknesses with the intent to release ourselves from any power they have over us and our sense of self worth. Positive-vulnerability is about embracing weakness as part of being human and thus feeling more comfortable in our own skin, which allows us to be more productive and committed to working towards our goals.

Negative-vulnerability on the other hand is using weakness as a means of justifying ongoing negative patterns in your life, rather than working to try and change them.

There are parallels between negative-vulnerability and the victim mentality. Society sort of encourages victimhood these days and as such, there’s a sense of identity and belonging that goes with suffering.

It is easy to suffer and let that suffering become a safety net of sorts, allowing you to fall back into the soothing arms of sympathy, rather than face the difficult task of moving on. For many people, suffering is something they’ve received positive reinforcement for. Whether through sympathy, kindness, nurturing or help, this only deepens the bond between the sufferer and their suffering.

It is important to be given space to grieve when you experience trauma and be supported through that grieving process, even if that trauma is self inflicted and surfaces through the process of introspection. We must be allowed to feel negative emotions, rather than be made to suppress them.

However when we become attached to those negative emotions and derive meaning and purpose from experiencing them, that’s what I mean by negative-vulnerability. 

How Are You Spending Your Mental Energy?

How you do anything is ABSOLUTELY NOT how you do everything.

Being less motivated could be the best thing you can do to improve your motivation.

I do not make my bed every morning.

I will push myself so hard in competition/training that I black out.

I am prone to eating take out when I can’t be bothered cooking.

I ran and rowed 100km through some of the worst physical pain and discomfort I’ve ever been in, just to see if I could.

I forget tasks, and/or leave them to the last minute.

I will never miss, or be late (without good reason) to something hosted or organised by someone I care about.

I find it extremely hard to sit, focus and study for more than short 30-60min blocks (at best).

Yet I’ll sit and read an entire book (sometimes a text book), cover to cover in a day and fill an entire notebook with my thoughts on it, if I like the topic.

I hate math and did basic maths at school as it was easier.

Earlier this year I wanted to apply for a job with numerical, spacial and abstract testing in it. When I looked at my first practice test it may as well have been a foreign language. However I studied my ass off and placed in the top 1% of applicants (of which there were thousands) in that test.

The above are all examples of me expending my mental energy (for the pop-psychology folks, let’s call that ‘willpower’) on things I value and not wasting it on things I do not.

When I don’t care about something, I put little effort into it.

When I do, I pour my soul into it.

Mental energy is a finite resource and, like physical energy, how much we have and how well we can use it varies person to person.

For someone with a highly conscientious personality (meaning they score highest on that attribute on a 5 factor model test) tasks that require being extremely organised and meticulous will expend a lot less energy than someone lower on that scale (eg. me).

For someone high in extraversion, being in a big group will be far less taxing than someone introverted.

For someone high in openness, being creative and coming up with thoughts and ideas will be easier than someone who’s less that way inclined.

Figuring out how you’re wired, what you value and how to best use that to divvy up your mental energy is a huge step towards being a better human in almost every way.

Values can be tricky though. Society has a very one dimensional view of what is of value, especially when it comes to success and hard work. The guy or girl who spends long hours in an office, building an empire and making millions of dollars is seen as the embodiment of success and their ruthlessness and cold lack of care for others etched over moody pics of lions and sorts cars, with catchphrases about being a lone wolf, or a leader who doesn’t care for the thoughts or opinions of others and further earns them praise. (Likely a highly conscientious and less agreeable person – as is the typical personality type of CEOs and successful business people).

Yet the local larrikin at the pub, who’s stories always make everyone laugh and is always there to pick up their mates when they’re feeling down, who works a normal job Monday to Friday, but makes sure he puts aside time for his wife, kids and friends is just ‘normal’ – rather than being seen as exceptional at what is of value to them (the people they care about – likely a highly agreeable and extraverted person).

This narrow mindedness is where axioms such as the one at the beginning of this piece are born. The idea that success can only be measured according to status and power, causes the 99% of people who will never be as conventionally successful as the other 1% (which is how hierarchical success works, there needs to be a 99% of comparatively unsuccessful people to make the one percent’s achievements deemed successful) to waste time and energy pursuing conventional successes such as a certain title or amount of money in the bank, wasting mental energy that could be better spent on things they care about AND are more suited to pursuing.

I am an average business person (too agreeable and low in conscientiousness) yet I am fitter than 99.9% of the population (which I’d attribute to higher levels of neuroticism, being channeled productively into an exceptional ability to willingly choose to endure pain).

It’s important to understand where your mental energy is best spent, both from the perspective of your personal strengths and weaknesses (and therefore the costs of certain types of expenditures) AND what is of value and important TO YOU – which involves actively figuring that shit out… and that can be a process.

From there, allow yourself flexibility in the things that aren’t important and focus your full effort, mentally and physically on the things that you care about and will improve your life.

It’s interesting to note that, though in some of the above examples I make it seem like certain types of success aren’t achievable for certain types of people, there are different ways to become conventionally successful that suit people with different personality types. The better you know yourself, the more you’ll be able to mould your path to whatever type of success you’re chasing

Two important things to note on this are:

First, be wary of anyone besides your closest friends and family who tries to tell you what is important to you. Chances are it’s important you do it FOR THEM. I find the ways people will try to manipulate each other for their own personal gain fascinating. Mostly because it’s so foreign to me. I was raised to always put other’s feelings first, almost to the point I have a hard time acting on my own (which sounds like a good trait, but is actually just as bad as being callus half the time as it’s impossible to please everyone and often causes as much damage as intentionally being and asshole). 

This sort of leads into another point altogether on mental energy expenditure and your values. I listen to people try to get what they want from me every day. I choose to be involved in lots of different projects and activities and make myself available to lots of people for lots of reasons (see people pleasing problem alluded to above). 

As such, I get to enjoy the various ways people will try to get you to do what they want, or make you agree with them and they often make me chuckle. The guilt trips, the flattery, the trying to make it seem like you want whatever it is t they do. I’ve experienced it all.  These days, when I disagree with someone about something, I’ll weigh up how important the situation is to me and the amount of energy it’s going to cost to try and push back about it. People REALLY enjoy being right and these days I’m really ok with letting them be, in return for some mental energy I can better use elsewhere.

Second, this is not a call to not try your best in anything. Using ‘I’m saving mental energy’ as an excuse for not doing something well, or at all and then not using that mental energy somewhere else is called being a lazy asshole. Don’t be a lazy asshole.

It’s cool to care about things and try real hard at them!