23 January 2015

Vulnerability and the Quest to Create a Life of Purpose

There’s been a lot of talk of late about vulnerability, about showing up in life and letting ourselves be seen. Researchers suggest that shame and fear often motivate people to go to extraordinary lengths to hide who they really are. I’m the first to admit that being vulnerable doesn’t rank high on my list of  ‘skills and endorsements’ on my Linkedin profile.

I’ve spent the better part of my life and a great deal of energy avoiding vulnerability. Professionally, I carefully crafted and then hid behind my online social persona that I managed with military precision. As a master of avoidance, I threw myself into countless pro bono projects to mask an ensuing mid-life crisis and consumed enough books, blogs and articles on personal and professional development to stock a library.

I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure- Brené Brown

Living behind an alias afforded me to keep people at a safe distance and control their perceptions of whom I am. Sounds like the social norm these days, right? Indeed, there’s a Botox app for almost every occasion that allows us to hide the years and make us shinier, happier, without the sting of the needle. One could argue that the sting comes later, as we become more and more withdrawn interpersonally and distanced from life and reality.

If you’re wondering about your personal vulnerability threshold consider what you post daily across the various social network sites that you subscribe to. Do you ‘live out loud’ with unedited abandon, sharing life experiences, the good, bad and ugly as they unfold or have you fallen prey to the ‘selfie-stick’ generation who seem to only ever post glossy, glamorous, brag-worthy snippets of an envious, idyllic life?

My insatiable need for approval played brilliantly into the hands of mediocrity. I had an enviable career with significant income, which was often accompanied with industry notoriety and accolades. Yet, all the while I was dodging the vulnerability bullet, avoiding true connection with self and others, gradually becoming overwhelmed by a sense of numbness and commonplaceness that lacked vitality and inspiration. What lay between my reality and the life I craved for was the courage to show up and allow myself to be seen.

In the midst of it all I was certain of two things. Firstly, I no longer wanted to live an ordinary, passable life and secondly I had come to realise that ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.’ If I wanted to live with greater clarity, purpose and meaning the games would have to stop, the mask had to come off and the online persona had to be replaced by the real me.

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself – Soren Kierkegaard

The decision to move towards becoming more vulnerable with my family and close friends has changed my life. In learning to let go of the control and persona and acknowledge that I am enough has made me realise that success has nothing to do with money or career, and everything to do with risk and emergence. It is in this state that I am learning that courage, intimacy, creativity, innovation and true happiness exist beyond the self-protective facades we create.

The bottom line is that shame and fear lead to risk aversion and risk aversion is the killer of innovation. Hence, shame, fear and risk aversion over time will erode any trace of hope and courage you may have once possessed, and they will work tirelessly and faithfully to consume your energy and deny you from achieving your dreams and goals.

The secret killer of innovation is shame. Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation. – Peter Sheahan (CEO ChangeLabs)

These three caustic bedfellows often show up in our lives as avoidance, perfection or the easy path, their mission to keep you from ever realising a life of purpose, connection, vulnerability and abundance. If this sounds extreme then I dare you to reflect upon the things in your life that distract you from genuine attempts to improve and grow. Be they failed New Year resolutions, abandoned courses of study, or volunteer burnout – the point I’m making is that you rarely recognise how far down the rabbit hole you are until it’s almost too late.

What factors or circumstances fuel your avoidance? Do you perceive vulnerability as weakness? Consider the obstacles that stand between your current reality and a life worth living. If you identify with what I’m saying, you’re probably asking ‘what can I do to win at this game?’ There will be setbacks and failures along the way, but your decision to show up and be seen in these moments of uncertainty and discouragement will ultimately become the catalyst for your growth and success.

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