I can remember the first time I let my guard down at the beginning of a dating relationship. I’m rarely the first to show my cards, but after a first date I took a deep breath and sent a message: “I’m really into you. I’d like to see you again. I can’t remember the last time I connected with someone in this way.” It felt incredibly freeing to express how I felt.
That feeling lasted for exactly 30 seconds before it was washed away by hot wave of panic – a mix of frantic uncertainty and searing regret. I was now susceptible to being hurt – the very definition of vulnerability.
In one of her TED talks, Dr. Brené Brown calls this post-exposure feeling of regret and dread a “vulnerability hangover”. It’s the perfect term because it captures the euphoric high of being completely open, paired with a subsequent crash of anxiety.
It takes guts to put yourself out there. So, why do we do it? Why bother? The answer is because vulnerability is the key to connection.
While connection is obviously important in dating relationships, it’s also important for our work relationships. And since vulnerability is a key ingredient in connection, we must learn to be vulnerable at work.
If we keep ourselves walled-up there’s no opportunity for a meeting of the minds and hearts. Whether it’s making amends with a colleague, asking for a raise, requesting help, admitting you don’t understand, or going for the promotion, good things can happen when you take down your walls. Yes, bad things can happen too, and there is the risk of disappointment.
Some will say that by wearing your heart on your sleeve you relinquish the power of cool. You’re out there on a limb, naked and exposed. Maybe so, but if you don’t put yourself out there people won’t know what you want. Playing it cool is overrated.
Another reason for biting the bullet and putting yourself out there is because it’s better than the alternative. “You cannot selectively numb emotion”, says Dr. Brown. She explains, we’d love to numb out the bad emotions like grief and shame and fear, but you can’t do so without also numbing yourself to emotions like joy and happiness.
Is this inconvenient? Very. But because we can’t selectively numb emotion, we have to feel the scary ones in order to fully experience the good ones. In essence, feeling excruciating vulnerability is better than closing yourself off and feeling absolutely nothing.
Dr. Brown argues that being vulnerable is an unavoidable part of life – people feel it when they get fired, initiate sex, or say ‘I love you’ first. Vulnerability is unavoidable at work, too. You’re going to feel it when you ask for help from your boss, fess up to a big mistake, apologize to a colleague, strive for a big career goal, or quit your job to make a career change. Feeling comfortably numb seems safer, but think of the possibilities (and not just the pain) when you courageously wear your heart on your sleeve.