If there's one thing I've learned in the last few years, especially working as a mental performance consultant - but really in all areas of my life - it's that without vulnerability, nothing will be accomplished to it's potential. I say this because an important part of learning is reflecting on your experiences and being open to feedback. If you can't reflect or accept feedback - both of which require a certain amount of vulnerability to be done well - then you will never be able to adapt, grow, and reach your potential. Like most things, this is easier said than done of course. Most of us have no trouble reflecting and accepting feedback as beginners but, once we've been doing something for a while, and are feeling pretty good about ourselves, it is difficult to maintain the vulnerability necessary to continue to grow. At the same time, I can't even count the number of times I have seen confidence be the one thing holding a person back from reaching her potential. This presents an interesting conundrum: how does one be both confident and vulnerable at the same time?
Well it may seem like a balancing act but true confidence should allow for - if not enhance - vulnerability. A healthy confidence allows you to be honest with yourself, accept feedback, take responsibility for mistakes and failures, and step outside of your comfort zone; all without becoming defensive, afraid, disheartened, upset, or frustrated.
Maddux and Gosselin (2012) discuss this balance with respect to self-efficacy beliefs, which are one's beliefs about one's control and ability to execute actions within a specific domain. Most of us don't use the term self-efficacy in our everyday vocabulary, but it's often what we are referring to when discussing confidence, and, like confidence, if your self-efficacy is too high or too low it can be problematic. Maddux and Gosselin (2012) stated that high self-efficacy is linked to more challenging goals set, increased perseverance in the face of difficulties, and more effective problem-solving. However, self-efficacy beliefs that get too high can result in the relentless pursuit of unattainable goals, complacency, an increase in dangerous behaviours, and a decrease in help-seeking behaviours (Maddux and Gosselin, 2012). In other words, if your confidence is low you may limit your own potential by setting goals for yourself that aren't challenging, and giving up easily when faced with obstacles. Too much confidence, however, can also limit potential, because it can result in individuals setting goals that are unrealistic and being unable to re-evaluate and adjust those goals appropriately or ask for help when needed.
Despite this delicate balance, confidence is often portrayed to us as something you can never have enough of: as a goal-crushing, power-posing, superhero or business person atop a mountain. Vulnerability is more often portrayed as the opposite: small, delicate, sad, hiding, naked, alone, and afraid. In other words, something to be avoided. Luckily, with the popularization of research by Brene Brown, in particular, this more negative perception of vulnerability is starting to change. Where vulnerable and confident used to be seen more often as opposites they are beginning to be seen more as complementary to one another.
From my experience, I would argue that having either one without the other is limiting. Vulnerability without confidence is weakness and confidence without vulnerability is cockiness or false confidence. Just the right amount of each, however, allows you to seek and accept feedback with grace, give feedback with humility, celebrate successes regardless of outcomes, take responsibility for and learn from failures, and collaborate and share experiences in a genuine way. Imagine the way the world could thrive if everyone could do those things.
In order to get there, we need to help each other. By creating and fostering open, honest, supportive relationships we create safe, non-judgmental spaces within which individuals have the ability to be truly vulnerable and reflective without slipping into defensiveness and rumination. With true reflection and a supportive environment, confidence can also develop and grow in a healthy way. The best part is that confident vulnerability is contagious. The more we experience and are exposed to it, the more we and others around us will develop it and benefit from it.
Do you or does someone you know struggle to maintain that healthy balance of confidence and vulnerability? Are there certain situations that make it more or less difficult for you? What does confident vulnerability mean to you? Think about it, talk about it, help yourself, and help others. Share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences with us in the comments or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maddux, J. E., & Gosselin, J. T. (2012). Self-efficacy. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 198-224). New York, NY: Guilford Press.