We all know that experiencing vulnerability in another person often makes them more likeable – more attractive even. To illustrate this, in the video I show a cartoon from John Cleese and Robin Skynner’s book ‘Families and How to Survive Them’ which shows two people gazing romantically at each other, both having the same thought: “What a divinely damaged person.”
So we know it’s ok to show our vulnerability, and yet we often hold back from showing our weaker, apparently flawed or damaged self. A recent study, conducted by psychologists from the University of Mannheim, now confirms this is a common phenomenon. The strange mismatch in the way we take a more negative view of our own vulnerability than we do of other people’s is called by the researchers ‘the beautiful mess effect’. The British Psychological Society reporting on this study, notes the benefits of expressing vulnerability: self-disclosure can build trust, seeking help can boost learning, admitting mistakes can foster forgiveness, and confessing one’s romantic feelings can lead to new relationships. And the Mannheim researchers conclude: “Even when examples of showing vulnerability might sometimes feel more like weakness from the inside, our findings indicate that, to others, these acts might look more like courage from the outside. Given the discussed positive consequences of showing vulnerability for relationship quality, health, or job performance, it might, indeed, be beneficial to try to overcome one’s fears and to choose to see the beauty in the mess of vulnerable situations.”
However much we might believe this, however much we might know it’s ok to be ‘divinely damaged’ or a ‘beautiful mess’, we also know that if someone appears too needy or broken this is usually not attractive at all. How do we find the right measure here? This understanding is now perhaps so much a part of our culture that social media has fostered a new term to describe a lack of measure: ‘over-sharing’. We don’t want to be ‘strategically vulnerable’, showing our weaknesses or woundedness when we think this will make a good impression. But we don’t want to do the reverse either – pretending to be strong or invulnerable when we’re not feeling that way. I think the only way to approach this is to ‘thine own self be true’ – to be as authentic and sincere as possible, in the most natural and effortless way. Sometimes you might not be as open as you could have been, sometimes you might show more vulnerability than was perhaps wise, but you were being true to yourself.
There’s a way in which a spiritual perspective can also help. If my core identification is with my Soul, my Spiritual Self, then I will not be fully identified with my wounded self (which can so easily become my ‘victim’). I can still accept this wounded or needy part of my self, and not be in denial of it, or attempt to hide it, but my primary identification will be with a radiant, loving self. There’s a great quote from Paracelsus that speaks to this: ‘In every person there is a heaven, whole and unbroken.’ So if I am in touch with this aspect of my being, I will be able to set the various aspects of myself in perspective, and I will be able to show both my wholeness and my brokenness, my vulnerability and my invulnerability as a spark of the Divine.