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“No one ever gets through this life without heartache, without turmoil, and if you believe and have faith and you can get knocked down and get back up again and you believe in perseverance as a great human quality, you find your way.” The words of Diana Nyad, the first person to successfully swim the channel from Florida to Cuba, ring true.[i]

Yet so many of us try to minimize, avoid completely, and when everything else fails, deny that we have been knocked down. We try to turn away from the struggle to avoid the inevitable: everybody gets knocked down.

Why should we? Because what we are all trying to avoid is that one thing that no one wants to admit.

Vulnerability.

But there is no avoiding it. Setbacks, losses, and adversity simply make us vulnerable—incredibly so.

Tthere are many reasons for this. The nature of the setback is one. If we perceive that our life, or the life of another, could have been lost, we also recognize how close we are, at all times, to losing a life.

If we have experienced stress, trauma, or hardship early on, we may be familiar with the feeling of powerlessness and the vulnerability that goes with it. This will make us more likely to feel that way again. For many people, it is these early wounds that set forth a pattern of vulnerability that is not so easily unraveled.

Multiple stresses or setbacks also compound the feeling of vulnerability. When hardship and distress cannot be compartmentalized in one area of our lives, but instead bleed out across many domains of life, we are more likely to feel vulnerable.

Certainly, the closer to home the setback is, the more it hurts. Failures and losses that are a few degrees separated from us, and are not so closely tied to who we are, are much easier to take. This is why a grandchild misbehaving is not as unsettling as a child misbehaving. This is also why things we are personally responsible for generate much greater feelings of shame and vulnerability when they don’t go our way—because there is no one else to help shoulder the blame.

But setbacks don’t have to be so severe to make us feel vulnerable. Because as Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, describes, what ultimately underpins the feeling of vulnerability is shame.[ii] We feel shame anytime we feel as though we are not accepted. Not accepted because the presentation was laughed at. Not accepted because we are from a different background. Not accepted because we are not as intelligent, pretty, thin, recognized, whatever, but somehow, just not enough.

What we do, Brown explains, is develop shields to avoid the feeling of vulnerability. Because vulnerability is “exposure, uncertainty, and emotional risk,” we learn that it is unsafe and it makes us appear stupid, unsure, and unprepared. Brown cites numerous examples of just how vulnerability is discouraged in business, society, and life.

Yet it might be that vulnerability isn’t just discouraged from many external sources in our daily lives; perhaps we are instinctively wired to avoid it. In several interesting experiments studying the responses of poker players after losses, Tim Harford, author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, describes the erratic moves players make after losing a hand: “Acknowledging the loss and recalculating one’s strategy would be the right thing to do, but that is too painful. Instead, the player makes crazy bets to rectify what he unconsciously believes is a temporary situation.”[iii]

Yet setbacks—and the vulnerability they lead to—are integral components of strength. Setbacks render us vulnerable and then call upon us to rise. It is the struggle, the inherent uncertainty of a complex and novel problem with no easy answers, the failures along the way, the recognition of our weaknesses, and ultimately, our willingness to change course and adapt to the new circumstances that face us that builds strength.

Posttraumatic growth researchers describe this as the identification of strength being correlated, almost paradoxically, with an increased sense of vulnerability; they go on to say that growth is experienced as a combination of the knowledge that bad things can and do happen, and the discovery that “if I handled this, I can handle just about anything.”[iv] Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun use the quote of a bereaved parent to further illustrate the transformative power of traumatic experience on the sense of personal strength: “I can handle things better. Things that used to be big deals aren’t big deals to me anymore. Like big crisis problems, they will either work out or they won’t. Whichever way it goes, you have to deal with it.”[v]

And in recognizing the paradox—that strength is about being vulnerable and powerful—there are tremendous advantages.

Vulnerability Allows Us to Learn

The work of Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has underscored the idea that in order to learn, children have to be able to become vulnerable—and admit failure. Dweck cites six separate studies where children are either praised for intelligence or hard work and then asked to choose between performance and learning goals for future problem-solving tasks.

Vulnerability Allows Us to Be Imperfect

The work of Dweck and her associates has demonstrated that children who hold performance goals—and have to be perfect to attain them—“are likely to sacrifice potentially valuable learning opportunities if these opportunities hold the risk of making errors and do not ensure immediate good performance.”[vi] These children tend to avoid “being challenged” in favor of “seeming smart.”[vii]

But having to be perfect doesn’t just affect the choices we make when it comes to learning opportunities; it also predicts how we will respond to failures and setbacks. As Dweck explains, “an emphasis on performance goals has been linked to vulnerability to a maladaptive helpless response to achievement setbacks, which is characterized by negative affect, negative self-cognitions, and performance impairment in the face of failure.”[viii]

Vulnerability Allows Us to Take Risks

When summarizing the behavior of chess players after losses, the two prominent behavioral psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky explain that “making peace with losses,” which requires vulnerability, seems to stave off the tendency to take wild gambles after losing. Kahneman and Tversky’s observations are seconded by Tim Harford, who notes that “chasing our losses” in an attempt to avoid accepting them and thereby taking erratic risks to recover from them is common among players of the popular game show Deal or No Deal.

In the show, contestants begin with an unknown prize in a box and are given the opportunity to trade their box for a different one—also with an unknown prize amount. They are periodically offered the ability to “deal” and accept a monetary offer instead of accepting their own box. What the show uncovers is how people handle risks—particularly after making unlucky choices.

Richard Thaler, the noted behavioral economist who studied contestants, found that after making unlucky choices, participants were much more likely to refuse the monetary offer—the safer and better bet—and continue playing while taking greater risks. This effect is especially striking given that the monetary offers made to the contestants who made unlucky choices were much more generous than those made to the contestants who had made lucky choices.[ix]

Vulnerability Has an Evolutionary Advantage

Aside from the advantages vulnerability may have for learning, there is evidence that it also has significant adaptive advantages. Witnessing a person in a vulnerable state enacts what is known as a negative-state relief model of response—where our motives for helping them stem from the personal distress we feel when exposed to their plight.[x] The empathy that comes from identifying with another person and feeling and understanding what that person is experiencing leads to the innate tendency to help him or her.[xi], [xii]

And this decision to help, according to the empathy-altruism hypothesis by Daniel Batson, depends primarily on whether we feel empathy for the person. Batson goes on to argue that pure altruism is motivated by the empathy that we feel for the person in need; that is, when we are able to experience events and emotions the way that that person experiences them.[xiii]

Vulnerability may influence more than just the decision to help. Primates will come to the aid of another with increased frequency when witnessing that one in a vulnerable state. Further, the work of Robert Sapolsky suggests an evolutionary purpose for vulnerability – it precipitates social support.

Vulnerability Helps Us Cope

The effects of social support go beyond the physiological markers of stress Sapolsky noticed in his baboons. Studying survivors of major life traumas, Tedeschi and Calhoun found that the ability to disclose to supportive others was a key component in coping. Other researchers identify positive adaptation after traumatic events as dependent on disclosure—to supportive others—and suggest that “failure to confide in others about traumatic events is associated with increased incidence of stress-related disease.”[xiv]  Disclosure—especially of emotionally charged material—puts us in a vulnerable state. Yet in order to reap the rewards of social support, we must be willing to be vulnerable.

Almost in direct relationship, the more completely we are challenged, the greater the opportunity we have for growth. But growth also depends on our ability to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, to be willing to fail, to be uncertain and take risks, and to adapt our approach—for this is how we get stronger. In no case can this be more important than when facing setbacks.

 

References

[i] Diana Nyad, “Never, Ever Give Up” (lecture, TED Women, 2013).

[ii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham Books, 2012).

[iii] Tim Harford, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

[iv] Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, “Post-traumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence,” Psychological Inquiry 15, no. 1 (2004).

[v] Ibid.

[vi] E. S. Elliott and C. S. Dweck, “Goals: An Approach to Motivation and Achievement,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (1988), 5–12.

[vii] C. M. Mueller and C. S. Dweck, “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75 (1998), 33–52.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] J. Fultz, M. Schaller, and R. B. Cialdini, “Empathy, Sadness and Distress: Three Related but Distinct Vicarious Affective Responses to Another’s Suffering,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 14 (1988), 312–15.

[xi] J. Fultz et al., “Social Evaluation and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50 (1986).

[xii] T. Gilovich, D. Keltner, and R. E. Nisbett, Social Psychology (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).

[xiii] C. D. Batson and L. L. Shaw, “Evidence for Altruism: Toward a Pluralism of Prosocial Motives,” Psychological Inquiry 2 (1991), 107–22.

[xiv] J. W. Pennebaker, “Confession, Inhibition, and Disease,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 22 (1989), 211–44.

 

Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, just visit www.leverageadversity.net

Photo by Eddi van W.