With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate, and the wisdom to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity. – Keshavan Nair
There is a lot of talk about ‘vulnerability’ these days, but it doesn’t seem to mean the same thing to people. One definition is well defined by this TED talk by Brené Brown. The term has also been used as a social engineering tool to change men from the bogeymen of ‘traditional masculinity’ – which supposedly did not allow men to be vulnerable.
Whether it’s true that men have not been allowed to be vulnerable depends on your definition. Under Brown’s definition, I’d argue that men have always been encouraged to embrace vulnerability and you could easily argue that her kind of vulnerability is at least as traditionally masculine as feminine.
‘Vulnerability’ is a terrible word choice. In normal English it literally means having a weakness and that confuses all the debate about the topic. It’s possible the word choice was meant to say that no one’s perfect and no one knows for sure how well anything they try will turn out. But that word choice hasn’t turned out well.
Using the word vulnerability has deceived people into making this debate part of the culture wars. In fact what is meant by ‘being vulnerable’ is actually very traditional and non-controversial. But the word choice has made it that way. So let’s talk about courage.
Vulnerability, Risk, and Courage
Brown’s definition of vulnerability focuses on action in the face of uncertainty. A man might take the chance to tell a woman he loves her, not knowing for certain if she feels the same way. A man might take the chance to reach out about resolving a disagreement. A man might attempt some work he wasn’t sure he could complete, or ask for help from someone more experienced. A man might ask for advice about his marriage.
In other words, people who use the term vulnerability in this way simply mean taking risks in order to grow or get what you want. The word for this is courage. It’s always been admired as a virtue in both men and women, but especially men. Traditionally you could not be considered manly without acting courageously in the face of vulnerability. This is illustrated in something as simple as dating dynamics. The man has to ask the woman on a date. The man has to say “I love you” first. The man has to be the one to propose. In so doing he is showing that he is strong enough and sure enough of himself to take the risk. If he can’t, he is worth less as a man.
More broadly, this is simply the virtue of hard work. The perseverance to fail, make mistakes, and endure hardship while you work toward being better is almost the founding myth of American manliness. We are told stories of the men who didn’t have anything or know anything, but went out and it did it anyway, even though they didn’t have the advantages that would have made it easy. We have never had to call this being vulnerable. Everyone always is. It was strength because people weren’t paralyzed by their disadvantages.
This understanding of vulnerability and courage is encapsulated in such traditional wisdom as “no risk, no reward” and “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. It’s something we’ve always known and embraced.
Vulnerability and Weakness
In fairness to Brown and people like her, she thinks this kind of courage is a good thing. The problem is that she looked at the importance of having the courage to move forward in the face of vulnerability and chose the wrong word to describe what she was seeing. Instead of saying that the courage, meaning action, was the good thing, she said that the vulnerability, or condition of weakness, is the good thing.
This is exactly the wrong word choice to promote the kind of behavior she thinks is healthy. The vulnerability side of the courage-in-the-face-of-vulnerability question is both static and universal. We are all weak in all sorts of ways, and everyone can always think of obstacles to whatever they want. The problem with telling people to embrace their vulnerability is that it too easily can sound like telling them to just acknowledge their weaknesses. Which is fine, unless it stops there. Action is what is important. What good is acknowledging an issue if you don’t feel obligated to summon the courage to address it?
We should have been focusing the conversation on courage. That is the action side of the equation, and the one that is in our control. Everyone is a weak and finite being, vulnerable and unsure of themselves, but not everyone understands how to take a step forward anyway. So we need to focus on encouraging that behavior. Action – courage – is what brings the happiness, not vulnerability. Acknowledging your vulnerability by saying aloud you are scared of rejection does nothing for you. Risking rejection is what makes you happier. You either fail and realized it didn’t kill you, or you succeed. Either way you feel the satisfaction of having acted with courage.
Courage As Action
Being vulnerable is universal and the reward for vulnerability is nothing. The reward for courage in the face of vulnerability is growth, and sometimes success. But not always success – that’s why it was courage.
This applies in virtually all aspects of your life. We discussed dating above. But it’s everything. At work courage is the interview for the job you’re not sure you can qualify for, the negotiation for the raise, or taking on new responsibilities and asking for what you need to learn to do it well.
Courage is asking your friends for help or advice when you need it. It’s having children, knowing you can’t control how it will turn out, or training your body when you know you’re not as strong or capable as others who will see you doing it.
The Wrong Kind Of Vulnerability
Done the right way, courage in the face of vulnerability builds your own self-respect and skills. It also can build the respect others have for you. People can see when you are dealing with difficulty in a mature and courageous way, and they will always respect you for it. We all know everyone has problems and fears. But seeing courage in a person tells us that person will be able to overcome them, and not be a liability to the people around them. We are happy to give help to someone who is helping themselves, because we know it will matter.
But the problem with calling this courage ‘vulnerability’ is that it can mean we lose sight of the action requirement here. Because of this we see people who transmute the focus of ‘vulnerability’ away from actions and into feelings. These are almost always the kind of people who believe that a form of ‘traditional masculinity’ kept men from showing their feelings. This was harmful to the to men and everyone around them and was ‘toxic.’
The problem is that this belief can lead to exactly the error these traditionally stoic men were trying to avoid – the error of showing feelings to the wrong person, or worse, showing feelings just to show them and not as part of taking courageous action. Focusing on vulnerability as a good thing in itself can end up with people thinking it’s acceptable to acknowledge weakness, fear, or despair without that being part of working to overcome it.
Who, When, and Where Matters
Now, being aware that your shouldn’t open your feelings to everyone isn’t meant to be an argument for the other extreme. It’s right to say that NEVER asking for help, saying something is wrong, or talking things over has its serious pitfalls as well. But it’s wrong to suggest that traditional men, on the whole, ever were that extreme. They were just more selective about with whom and when they shared their thoughts and feelings. Often this was with their closest male friends.
In real life, a mature man needs to take into account several things. He needs to know himself and his situation well enough to know when he should just suck it up and do better, and when he really does need a helping hand or a sympathetic ear. And he needs to be socially aware enough to know when, how, and with whom it is appropriate to share his obstacles and his feelings about them.
Navigating these issues is knowing how you avoid showing weakness when it would disadvantage you or be an excuse to put forth less effort. It is also knowing when to open up to the people who are on your side and can help you be better. Being strong is not achieved by pretending to be invulnerable. You still experience and share your emotions. But maturity means that having your emotions doesn’t mean being overcome by your emotions.
Hostility, strangers, and connection
This is probably the biggest no-brainer, but you don’t show weakness to anyone who is actually your enemy or potentially hostile They are not going to appreciate your enlightened non-toxicity. They are just going to look at you with contempt, or use your admissions to try to hurt you. This is why we all instinctively hide our feelings from people we don’t like, which is a good instinct. There are two caveats to this – if the person doesn’t know you consider them your enemy, or you are trying to keep the conflict suppressed, it can be a good idea to show just enough emotion that it’s not obvious you are putting up a wall while at the same time not giving anything important away.
The other caveat is that you shouldn’t try to compensate for fear or discomfort by projecting strength you don’t have – showing unjustified overconfidence is just another signal of weakness. It shows you are afraid of what you have to hide and it can end up pointing them at the vulnerability you didn’t want them to exploit.
The less of a danger someone is, the more you should feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings. The school bully is different from someone who is on the opposite sports team, who is different from a stranger with whom you have no competitive relationship, who is different from a friend of a friend, and so on until your own friends and family. Because sharing this dimension of yourself can help humanize you and show that you aren’t trying to hide yourself.
Just remember not to slop your emotions all over the place without consideration for the impact on others. Being courageous means that you don’t dump your feelings on the nearest available target just because it makes you feel better. We all know there is such a thing as oversharing, or being needy.
Power and relationship building
The relative power and the exact relationship between you and the people you are speaking to matters a lot, as does whether you need something from each other. The relationship between bosses and employees is an example. Bosses have power over the employees’ futures that employees don’t have over their bosses’. At the same time, those higher ranking people need something from the employees.
This power dynamic affects the proper interaction. An employee must be careful to constructively show needs and emotions in a way that is always based on action. It should be done in such a way that it is clearing obstacles to success for everyone, and not in a way that could diminish confidence in the employee’s abilities to be productive and learn to be more so. Helping the employee grow is good. Making the boss feel like the employee will always need extra help is bad.
A boss, because they have power over people’s futures, similarly cannot freely and spontaneously show frustration or anger with the people they work with to the same degree peers can with each other. That would be unfair due to the fear it could cause. The boss cannot show fear or weakness the wrong way either. The employees don’t want to fear that the leader doesn’t know what they’re doing because that could mean disaster for everyone. The boss has to walk a fine line. Show just enough of their feelings in other ways to give a human edge, but not enough to presume an intimacy with employees that doesn’t exist.
The best people to share true openness with are always your peers.
Another factor, of course, is whether you are in public or in private. It is generally good practice not to be loud or emotional in public. You don’t know who’s watching or what the effect on your reputation will be. In other words, when you have something to share, do it in private. Generally people don’t like people who display questionable judgement and having a potentially revealing conversation in public can make people uncomfortable when they didn’t need to be.
As a man part of your purpose in life is to have others depend on you in hard times. Which means that while you have every right to need and ask for help or share whats been bothering you, or just to vent and have a good cry, you never have the right to come first in these areas when someone else needs you more. They come first.
What I mean by this is that being strong for someone else is not achieved by pretending to be invulnerable. To provide support to your wife during a difficult time, you might seek comfort and support from a friend, not from her. You are able to seek comfort from that friend because you can reveal your vulnerability with that person and trust that they are not looking to use it against you. Through this experience, you deepen your connection with your friend who learns they can safely be vulnerable with you when they need support in the future. And you avoid making your wife feel like she can’t fully rely on you when she really needs you because you can’t handle her full pain.
You should be able to rely on your wife for emotional support when you need it too, of course. If your childhood friend dies, you should be able to open up to her about your loss just as when your wife experiences a similar loss, you would do the same for her. But if something happens that affects both of you, you are required to be stronger, at least between the two of you. You need to give her the support she needs and not ask her to carry you. When she is well, you can let go and ask for her support, or you could have been getting support from your friends along the way while you helped her. But as a man you always come second when people need you, and you can’t betray that responsibility by being weaker than them in the moment of their need.
The Path of Courage
So don’t fail to act because you are afraid of failure, and don’t fail to ask for help when you need it or vent when you need to. But do it constructively. That means doing it in a way that shows your maturity and helps move you forward to taking action to overcome the obstacle. Rely on your friends and family and be open with them, but have the sensitivity not to be a burden to them in their own times of need.
And never call this vulnerability. Vulnerability is the circumstance. It’s not about you and not what you own. You own your action.
Call that courage.