When I was a teenager, the thing I wanted most in the world was to be ‘cool’. Or at least for other people to think I was cool.

‘Cool’ was the defining adjective of the 1980s. And while, when used to refer to a thing (a videogame, a BMX bike, a pair of stonewashed jeans) it could mean anything from ‘average’ to ‘mind-alteringly amazing’, when it was used to refer to a person it meant something very specific.

To be cool was to be untouchable, detached, aloof – to give the impression of being utterly competent and at ease without even trying. So, in the spirit of effortless ease, I strived with every fibre of my being to create the impression of being a cool person.

When it became clear that my classmates – and society as a whole – were not going to sign off on this I began to reconsider my relationship with ‘cool’. I started to question whether it really was something worth striving for, whether the social benefits of being considered cool might come at a cost.

Eventually I came across a poem by the singer David Berman, which encapsulates my ambivalence about the pursuit of coolness. In his piece ‘Self-Portrait at 28’, Berman observes:

If you were cool in high school
you didn’t ask too many questions…
…you didn’t have to ask
and that’s what cool was:
the ability to deduct
to know without asking.
And the pressure to simulate coolness
means not asking when you don’t know,
which is why kids grow ever more stupid.

Now, I’d challenge the idea of kids growing ever more stupid, but no doubt many of us recognise – even as adults – that moment when we don’t know something, want to ask, but don’t for fear of how we might be perceived.

For many of us, to admit that we don’t know something – especially as leaders – feels like making ourselves profoundly vulnerable.

Confusing Vulnerability and Weakness

In her 2010 book ‘Daring Greatly’, Brene Brown – now widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on the subject – defined vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”. She also described it as being “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, and creativity”.

With so much to be gained from allowing ourselves to be vulnerable – to be fully seen as who we are – how has Western (particularly business) culture developed such a troubled relationship with it?

Talk to any group of business leaders about this subject, and it soon becomes clear that, in a work culture that places overwhelming value on clarity, accuracy, and the projection of unshakeable self-confidence, allowing oneself to demonstrate vulnerability can feel like telegraphing weakness. And – as we also discussed last month in our blog about ‘crossing the edge’ – while our intellectual brains may understand that little is truly at stake, our ancient brains can regard showing vulnerability as a matter of life and death…

To Hide or to be Seen?

Early humans were hunter-gatherers who lived in tight-nit tribes, in which everyone was expected to pull their weight. If you were not of clear, measurable value to the tribe you could be thrown out! And being out of the tribe, left to go it alone on the treacherous savannahs of paleolithic Earth, meant certain death.

So, as a species we learned pay close attention to our tribe-mates’ judgments and opinions, to develop a keen awareness of our social status, as well as a mortal fear of doing or saying anything that might damage it. But, as we evolved the strength of human tribes became far more dependent on the quality of social and emotional ties – ties that are strengthened by authentic human-to-human relationships. So today we find ourselves caught between these two competing impulses – to show our true, fallible selves and to project an image of perfection; to be seen and to hide away.

For many of us the default position is to keep our ‘true selves’ closely guarded, only to be revealed when it feels safe to do so. But because the survival instinct and fear of being found out is so strong, for some that ‘safe space’ where we can allow our guard down becomes impossibly small. Picture the leader who will simply never admit to having made a mistake; the romantic partner who has already given you their heart, but would rather die than be the first one to say, “I love you”.

The Overshare

But, we are still humans! As strong as the urge to keep ourselves safely hidden from view is, the yearning to burst forth and be seen is strong too! Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the truth – of a situation, of ourselves – rises up and makes itself known. A force almost seeming to emanate from outside of ourselves (sometimes but not always fuelled by alcohol) compels us to say what is really going on – to say “I love you” or “I don’t know”, or to share something real about ourselves. This is the realm of what is sometimes known as ‘the overshare’.

And sometimes we notice the fear of being seen, the aversion to making ourselves vulnerable, and we speak our truth anyway.

Whether you have accidentally overshared or consciously chosen to get real there is another phenomenon you need to be on the lookout for – what Brene Brown calls ‘the vulnerability hangover’.

This is that gnawing feeling of dread and regret that often follows a big step towards vulnerability. After the adrenalin and cortisol have subsided and the words have been spoken, it’s your mind saying, “What did you just do? What were you thinking?!” 

Managing this moment when it comes – and it will come – can be the difference between being a person and a leader who consistently crosses their personal edges, and one who plays it safe.

Here are three tips to deal with that vulnerability hangover when it shows up:

1.Imagine that you’ve just been to the gym

While the term ‘vulnerability hangover’ is brilliantly evocative of that morning-after-the-night-before feeling that having a real conversation sometimes carries in its wake, it’s also a little unhelpful. In some ways an alcoholic hangover is indeed your body telling you “you probably shouldn’t have done that”. It is the discomfort of a system dealing with the aftermath of some powerful toxins. Similarly, the discomfort of a vulnerability hangover can sometimes be interpreted as a sign that something is wrong, or that we have done something that is regrettable.

How about this? You know that ache you get the morning after a good workout at the gym? That’s a sign that you have been using your muscles, and that they are growing. There’s a difference between the discomfort of having done something truly harmful and the discomfort that accompanies growth. When that vulnerability hangover hits, remember that you’ve been working a muscle that is often underused. Imagine you’ve just had a fantastic workout, and this is your system registering the hard work you’ve done, and that your capacity is growing…

2. Check it out with someone who loves you

Because our animal brains think that survival is at stake when we allow ourselves to get real, our intellectual brains tend not to get much of a look-in when in the throes of a vulnerability hangover. Not only that, with social status a matter of life and death many of us have brains that would rather err on the side of caution – that tend to assume that we are less worthy, less of value, less whatever than perhaps we really are.

When that hangover hits it can be helpful to run through what happened with someone else, ideally someone who loves you and sees your true worth. Often they will be able to not just give you a more realistic outside perspective, they will be able to re-affirm that yes you do deserve to be seen and heard truthfully.

3. Ask: Would you rather be courageous or be cool?

I’d love it if we could collectively re-write the rules of ‘cool’. Coolness as we know it – as we learnt it from TV and in the playground – is ultimately about pretending. Pretending to know when you don’t, pretending not to care when you do, pretending to be confident when you’re not. Pretending because to tell the truth is scary.

Let’s remember this – more often than not, people who project an image of ‘coolness’ are terrified deep down. They create a persona to keep themselves safe, but it prevents them from ever truly being seen.

Vulnerability is courageous. Vulnerability is being willing to say you don’t know, even if others may judge you; it’s being willing to admit that you care, without being a hostage to it; it’s being willing to admit that you are not perfect, and knowing that this is OK.

So tell your friends, tell your teams, and by all means tell your kids – coolness is cowardice; vulnerability is courageous.

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