Others are likely to see it as courageous.
- People tend to view showing vulnerability as a strength in others, but see it as a weakness in themselves.
- Researchers call this discrepancy the beautiful-mess effect.
- We see the positive aspects of others’ displays of vulnerability, but we focus on the negative aspects of our own.
Apologizing for a costly mistake
Being the first to say “I love you”
Disclosing your struggle with mental illness
All of these situations require showing vulnerability, which can be defined as an authentic and intentional willingness to be open to uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure in social situations in spite of fears.
Showing vulnerability is necessary for creating authentic relationships, but many people are reluctant to allow themselves to be seen.
In her interviews with thousands of people, researcher Brené Brown observed that people tend to view showing vulnerability as a strength in others but see it as a weakness in themselves. As she wrote in Daring Greatly, “We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we are afraid to let them see it in us.”
Anna Bruk and her colleagues at the University of Mannheim in Germany recently gathered evidence to support Brown’s qualitative findings. They created several scenarios involving vulnerability—confessing romantic feelings to a friend, asking for help, for example—and asked participants to imagine either themselves or another person in the scenario. Participants who imagined themselves in the scenario tended to agree with statements such as: “By showing my vulnerability, I am showing weakness.” Participants who imagined another person in the scenario tended to think that the person was displaying strength and courage.
In another study, Bruk and her team used a cover story to create genuine feelings of vulnerability. They told participants that they would be randomly assigned to perform one of two tasks. The first task would involve improvising a song in front of a jury (a task requiring a great display of vulnerability). The other task would involve being a jury member charged with evaluating the creativity and stage presence of the singers. (After hearing the cover story, participants were given the opportunity to leave the study, but most elected to continue.)
After learning their assignment, participants shared how they felt about the display of vulnerability required from the singers. Participants who expected to take the stage were more likely to view it as “weakness” and “inadequacy” than the other participants, who thought the singers were showing strength and courage.
These results demonstrate that we appreciate the display of vulnerability by others, not so much the display of our own. Bruk labeled this discrepancy the beautiful mess effect. When we see others display vulnerability, we see them in a positive, beautiful light. However, we perceive our own displays as a mess.
Why do we value showing vulnerability in others, but not in ourselves?
Bruk’s research suggests that the beautiful-mess effect can be explained by construal level theory, which means our perception of a situation depends on our psychological distance from it. From a distance, we perceive things in abstract terms and focus on the positive aspects of the situation. Up close, our perception narrows and we magnify the downsides.
When looking at vulnerability from a distance—that is, when seeing someone else’s display of vulnerability—we focus on the positive outcomes of being vulnerable, like building rapport with others. When we think about our own vulnerability, we’re close enough to see all of the potential negative outcomes—looking weak, incompetent, or foolish.
Bruk’s research on the beautiful-mess effect suggests that showing vulnerability may be less risky than we think it is. What we see as a “mess” might be perceived by others to be strong, courageous, and even beautiful.
Before you confess your deepest, darkest secrets to others, Bruk’s research involved a single display of vulnerability. Showing vulnerability repeatedly to the same people may not be perceived in a favorable light. Research on self-disclosures, which often require showing vulnerability, suggests that people who frequently disclose negative information are perceived less favorably by friends and receive less support from their romantic partners.
Nonetheless, the research on vulnerability suggests that we might benefit from opening ourselves up to uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, at least a little. As Brené Brown argues: “Vulnerability is life’s great dare. It’s life asking, ‘Are you all in? Can you value your own vulnerability as much as you value it in others?’”
How about it? Will you take the dare?
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