How to fake vulnerability

It's a confusing world, but there are some things we know for sure. We know for sure that it's good to be vulnerable, don't we? That humans - particularly men - need to learn to open up more, because that's the way to better connection and higher self-worth. That much we know. Right?

The idea that vulnerability makes us stronger is one of the uncritically-accepted truths of our confession culture. It really took off in 2010, when social work researcher Brene Brown delivered her TED talk, 'the power of vulnerability'. It's the fourth most watched TED talk ever, with 34 million views at the moment. Her book, 'Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead' has sold over a million copies. She is one of Oprah's favourite speakers.

For Brown, being vulnerable means having the courage to accept ourselves despite our imperfections, and the courage to be seen as we really are. That's the way to deep connection and belonging: 'We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known…true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.'

But more than that, vulnerability becomes in her telling the master trait, the supreme virtue, the key to the good life: 'Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.'

Why did Brown's simple message take off? Partly, perhaps, because it repackaged a simple Christian idea into a social science talk. Christianity is all about vulnerability - Jesus on the cross, the strength to be wounded. In my two-year foray into Christian-land, I was immersed in a culture that valued 'being seen', 'being heard', being authentic, doing life together.

I went to HTB, an Anglican mega-church where the preachers always shared some personal anecdote of themselves messing up, where there was almost a competition to see who could share the most lurid story of being messed up then saved. Nicky Gumbel, the vicar, told us: 'We impress people with our strengths, but we connect through our vulnerabilities'. On the Alpha course, in our small groups, we connected by sharing, as in an AA group.

The culture of AA - the sharing circle - spread out of American churches to become an important part of the 1960s counter-culture (Esalen encounter sessions, feminist circles, men circles and so on), and by the 1990s had become part of mainstream culture - think of Jerry Maguire bursting into his wife's women's circle and delivering his monologue about the cynicism of the world and the truth of his feelings. So authentic! So vulnerable! So 90s!

So vulnerability is definitely good, right?

It's true that Western culture puts a high premium on self-performance and winning the approval of the public. Sometimes, that means we put on masks, hide our imperfections out of shame, and end up feeling cut off from ourselves and from others. And we can totally shit on ourselves if we feel we haven't lived up to our self-ideal. I have certainly done this in my own life, and it fucked me up. 

It's also true that Stoicism can over-emphasize the importance of being an invulnerable fortress. Stoicism can be misinterpreted, especially by men, as the idea that it's weak to show pain. We can fake Stoicism - in Buddhist circles this is called 'spiritual by-passing', where you put on a mask of wise detachment and don't admit your messy, painful and needy feelings. I have also done this in my life.

In that sense, it's been useful for me to learn to accept myself and open up to others over the last ten years. In fact, it's been essential. But when you walk a path you also notice its limits. There are two main criticisms I have with our cult of vulnerability.

Firstly, we can fake vulnerability. We're told, over and over, how important vulnerability is to connection, we're told 'research shows that onlookers subconsciously register lack of authenticity'. So we have learned to embrace vulnerability as a communication strategy, as a performance, a way to win in the free market of attention. If you look at tips for giving TED talks, they all say: be vulnerable, be authentic, get personal. That's the way to get the big views.

The performance of vulnerability becomes a way to manipulate others. Think of the Wedding Crashers, and Owen Wilson's wonderful pick-up line: 'They say we only use 10% of our brains. I think we only use 10% of our hearts.' It's become a management tool, recommended by Forbes and Harvard Business Review, as a way to raise staff engagement, even while lowering costs.

That's my first issue with the cult of vulnerability - it becomes performative, a device, a mask, a way to manipulate others, like John Belushi making vulnerable eyes at Carrie Fisher shortly before ditching her in The Blues Brothers.

Secondly, 'vulnerability' has become a catch-all term that means everything from honesty to humility to self-compassion to mindfulness to risk-tolerance to complete over-sharing.

We read in the Harvard Business Review: 'Opportunities for vulnerability present themselves to us at work every day. Examples [Brown] gives of vulnerability include calling an employee or colleague whose child is not well, reaching out to someone who has just had a loss in their family, asking someone for help, taking responsibility for something that went wrong at work, or sitting by the bedside of a colleague or employee with a terminal illness.'

Which of these examples show genuine vulnerability, in the dictionary sense of 'being open to attack, defenceless, easy to wound'? Calling a colleague whose child is not well? That's just being kind. Taking responsibility for something that went wrong? That's being honest and having integrity.

Vulnerability in the sense of being easy to wound is not necessarily a virtue. Being easily wounded can mean you are over-sensitive, that you lack perspective, autonomy or the means to handle your emotions, that you're drowning - or wallowing - in the endless drama of your self. That's not the same as connection, or self-compassion, or presence, or self-transcendence. And it's certainly not the same as having a high tolerance for discomfort, uncertainty and risk. 

Do we want our children to be vulnerable? No. We want them to be able to take care of themselves in a rough world. We also want them to be honest if they're in real pain, not to feel the need to hide it or bury it. But that's honesty, not vulnerability. We don't want them to be ashamed of pain and suffering, but we don't want them to fetishize it either, as a means to get others' attention and sympathy.

This is a problem with our free market therapeutic society, in which social scientists have become the preachers. Rather than bothering to learn an entire moral system in which various virtues are balanced against each other, we are presented with simple TED stories of one master characteristic that is the key to the good life - in the last 30 years we've been sold self-esteem, mindfulness, grit, self-control, vulnerability...

We're assured by our scientist-preachers that 'the research shows' that people with this quality have the best life - the best career, the most money, the best connections, the most creativity, the highest happiness and self-worth. Our pop science moral system is built on weak data which we never bother to examine because it feels true.

But has anyone looked at Brown's data? Has anyone tried to replicate it? Is it definitely true that the people with the highest self-worth are the most vulnerable? What does this even mean and how would you measure it?

Again, there is something worth learning in Brown's message, which Carl Jung said many decades earlier. Wearing a false persona of perfection can cut you off from yourself and others and cause you a lot of suffering and loneliness. It's useful to learn to accept ourselves while also trying to improve ourselves.

But the cult of vulnerability has ballooned into a messy, catch-all term for which the evidence is unexamined, and it's become instrumentalized and commodified into a communication and management strategy to win others' attention.