Being vulnerable has been seen by society as a holy grail —due to the work of pioneer Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, vulnerability has been associated with various benefits. These include building intimacy in relationships, increasing self-worth, increasing creativity and innovation, provoking compassion, and being less lonely.
But vulnerability’s definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “capable of being physically and emotionally wounded.” Being wounded, many times exposes us to healing and intimacy. Other times, however, vulnerability’s risks lead us to get burned about our secrets and suffer drastic repercussions.
Sometimes, being vulnerable goes terribly wrong.
In psychology, the “pratfall effect” refers to the tendency for interpersonal appeal to increase or decrease after someone makes a mistake. Still, it often depends on someone’s perception of competence before the mistake. According to Emily Esfahani Smith at The Atlantic, it means vulnerability can backfire, especially in situations when:
“It comes across less as beauty and more as straight-up mess.”
Smith cites a 1966 experiment by psychologist Elliot Aronson where Aronson had his colleagues have students listen to recordings of candidates being interviewed for a quiz bowl. They had “smart” candidates answer most of the questions correctly, with other candidates answering only 30 percent of questions correctly.
Then, Aronson had the candidates spill coffee on themselves and essentially embarrass themselves. Participants found the smart candidates to be even more likable after they embarrassed themselves. After the mediocre candidates embarrassed themselves, they liked them less. A person’s likability after a mistake was directly tied to prior notions of that person’s competence.
Aronson’s experiment is a prototypical example of the pratfall effect. People who appear competent are humanized by showing vulnerability. People who don’t seem competent are seen as more distasteful when they show vulnerability. In the workplace, Smith argues that being authentic backfires on your credibility when you haven’t first established your competence.
Lisa Rosh, a management professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, said that a woman introduced herself without citing her credentials and education at one company. She simply told the group she was awake the entire night before caring for her sick baby, and it later took her months to prove herself to the team.
“Being overly familiar at work, Rosh says, can overwhelm others and make the vulnerable person appear needy and unstable.” — Smith
The solution instead isn’t to be not vulnerable — Smith concludes that it’s best to show vulnerability and receive its benefits when you’re familiar with a person and group and when “a relationship has some history.” But when is the other person trustworthy? That’s the golden question. The truth is, you never really know, according to Smith.
“There’s nothing really ever safe about being vulnerable — and that’s precisely what allows for a special connection in the first place,” she says.
After all, a lot of people feel constantly overwhelmed and that they’re barely getting by. Thus, being vulnerable is often a way of showing our humanity and branking down barriers in intimacy.
The various times I’ve been vulnerable, the pros have almost always outweighed the cons. Being vulnerable has changed my life. And yet there are times it has backfired, where confidential information I’ve told people suddenly got told to a million other people, when what I told made someone not want to be friends with me anymore, where I got in trouble for something that was supposed to be secret.
Maybe I was vulnerable to the wrong people. Maybe I shouldn’t have been vulnerable at work. Maybe I should have waited longer to get to know people before I was vulnerable.
I don’t think many people would argue that you shouldn’t be spilling all your secrets to every stranger you pass by — and yet I felt like I was careful. It was tough to express my vulnerabilities any time I did. But no matter why being vulnerable goes wrong, it stings. In the words of blogger Griffin McKenzie:
“You bare a piece of your soul to someone, and they don’t protect it. In that case, vulnerability begets feelings like doubt, betrayal, and withdrawal.”
And those feelings are valid — they make you not want to share your vulnerabilities with other people again. It makes you feel isolated and more distrustful. You don’t feel in control because the one act of surrender you took to change things went wrong. However, Griffin has one conclusion for when vulnerability goes terribly wrong:
But, more than anything, every account of failed vulnerability in my life has reinforced one truth: keep sharing.
That’s right — it’s important to keep sharing. It’s probably easier said than done, but just because one act of shared vulnerability didn’t go well doesn’t mean the rest won’t, either. I believe I am a better, healthier, and more whole person because of being vulnerable — and the pros outweigh the cons. That belief will never change.
Yes, when being vulnerable backfires terribly, you might have to be more judicious on who you share with and who you can trust. But being distrustful can’t last forever — and again, the pros of vulnerabilities usually outweigh the cons in the long run.
Originally published on October 8, 2020 on Invisible Illness.