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Authenticity, Part II: On Strength and Vulnerability

Authenticity, Part II: On Strength and Vulnerability

The Thing you Hate Most About Yourself is the Thing You are Most Likely to be Cast As…Pt. II.

“Confidence, and success, comes from playing to your distinctive strengths and values.  That notion has become a popular leadership development tool.  Ryan Niemiec runs the education program and the Values in Action Institute (VIA), the leading organization in the United States for the study of character strengths.  “It’s transformative for people to actually focus on what their strengths are,” he says.  “Most of us have kind of a strength blindness.”- The Confidence Code

In the last blog entry we talked about how often the thing you hate most about yourself/ try the hardest to hide might be a source of your greatest strengths.  We at Vital Voice Training are huge advocates of helping you find strengths that you may not have realize you have.  And while there are a ton of the strength finding resources available,  it’s very important to remember that sometimes we really only understand our true strengths under fire, when we stop fighting, or when we stop looking so hard.  Sometimes that feels frustratingly out of our control–BUT the very act of “hitting the wall” can be a crash course in finding what you’re really made of.   So before we mention our favorite strength finding resources, It would be disingenuous of me not to share that those are really only part of the process.

In this blog, I want to talk about a very particular strength that is often overlooked:

the strength of vulnerability

Vulnerability is not what we generally think of when we think of “strengths”- but it is a key component to discovering our AUTHENTICITY.  Many times the temptation is to live only in our strengths, but without vulnerability, they become brittle.  Vulnerability is the strength that lends humanity and connection to our words.  (Brene Brown has written and spoken brilliantly on vulnerability in her TED talk and in her books.  We highly recommend Daring Greatly.).

Here’s my story about how I found my vulnerability:

In 2006, I decided to get my Master’s degree in Acting. I went to the United Regional Theater Auditions in San Francisco and got a callback from a school I had never heard of: Northern Illinois University.  In my call back, I did my two audition pieces in a small hotel room for Alex Gelman (the Theater Department Chair)  and Kathryn Gately, who at the time was Head of the MFA program. The notes they gave me were so spot on that I immediately bought a plane ticket to visit the campus 60 miles west of Chicago.  I worked with some of the faculty and watched some of the students, and the work I saw stunned me.  There were no cookie cutter actors, no perfect bodies.  What I saw was raw, exciting talent that looked different on each and every actor.  They were GOOD–the kind of good that gave me tingles, and goosebumps and reminded me WHY I wanted to act.

So the day after my 30th birthday, I picked up my life and headed to rural Illinois, got my own apartment, and started school determined to be the best version of who (at 30) I thought I was.  Calm, cool, competent, collected.  Worldly.   

Except that’s not really me at all.  Or at least, not all of me.

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(We love A Softer World. They put things ever so succinctly.)

“Cool, calm, competent” were life skills I had developed throughout my 20’s while living, working, and dating in San Francisco.   People complimented me on my composure and good posture, on my ability to remain calm under pressure.  Yet, no matter how many “life skills” I developed, underneath there was still anxiety, insecurity, awkwardness, and a learning disability.  Showing only my “strengths” while working to hide my vulnerabilities had left me feeling polarized inside:  who I was vs. how I had learned/wanted to present myself, and with a powerful case of Impostor Syndrome.   My solution:  Try harder to hide.

My mentor and teacher Kathryn saw right through my efforts. (Hint:  looking back, it wasn’t subtle–hiding how you really feel leads to actual physical symptoms such as body and jaw tension.)   I fell on my face over and over again in class.  Kathryn was patient with me and tried in so many ways to show me that I was “avoiding” and “willful”, but I didn’t (couldn’t) understand what she meant.

It turns out, one of the life skills I had learned was to actively avoid discomfort.  It also turns out, acting school is about leaning in to discomfort.

One February morning, after over a month of little to no sleep, recovering from an on-campus shooting, with temperatures in the negative thirties, I found myself on stage–fighting myself. Again.

I felt awkward and didn’t want anyone to know. I was furious at myself and fighting with all the strength I had left.  And suddenly….I just felt the fight leave my body.   There were tears, but not explosive ones, no rage.  In fact, the final reveal of what I was afraid would be my “big ball of crazy” was very… non-dramatic.  I just gave in to the moment.  And let myself be vulnerable.

And suddenly my body relaxed, my voice dropped in,  and my teacher started nodding furiously. (This, incidentally, was from her about the highest form of praise one could get.)

Here’s what I learned: I felt stronger in that moment than I think I ever had before.  All the fears I had of people actually seeing what was going on underneath didn’t disappear so much as they changed.  This was me.  I was in the moment, and acknowledging the moment, rather than trying to control the moment.

I don’t recommend the exhaustion path to stop fighting yourself, but for some of us it really is the only way to get there.

Actors have a strange job.  We are trained to get underneath another’s skin and find the why behind the choices they make (which often live in a pretty dark place)—THEN you need to find where something similar lives in YOU, craft, rehearse, and reveal it to an audience.   As art.  Vulnerability fits right in here.

But let’s say you are not an actor.  Say, you work in a high stakes environment where you imagine showing vulnerability is like putting a target on your back.  You spend tremendous effort putting on your war face to get to work.  Vulnerability is not for you.  If this sounds like you, I have a parallel story.

Recently I worked with a client on “over-smiling”–she had received feedback that smiling too much was undermining her authority.  The more we talked, the more it became apparent she was using smiling to control moments in which she felt uncomfortable and vulnerable–most often when she felt the other person either had a problem or wasn’t listening.  She was afraid of directly addressing the discomfort in the moment–a fear many of us can relate to.  Instead of directly addressing the discomfort, she avoided it and tried to control it by smiling.  (For others, this impulse shows itself in shutting down or tuning out, among other things).  What if instead of fighting the moment, she actually paused to take the other person in?  What if she directly addressed the problem, and using her own highly developed personal strength of perception, asked questions like “Are you still following me?” or, “I’m noticing some (whatever it is). Is there something I can clarify for you or something you would like to address?”  Now, instead of hiding from the problem she could use her extensive skill set in her world to start finding a solution.  This, to me, is true strength.

None of this means that you are obligated to, say, give a monologue of every little thing that’s happening inside of you.  But if something’s really uncomfortable, you don’t have to be the hero and power through.  You can address it in whatever way you need to.

Like my client, acknowledging my vulnerability allowed me to be much more connected to the moment, and to connect with people more deeply and honestly.   As a bonus, all my inherent problem solving skills, those life skills I mentioned before, actually became stronger.

I want to follow up this story with one last very important point:

Letting people see my vulnerability is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  

And:

I don’t use it everyday or with everybody.  

You can’t.  Some environments demand the performative version of yourself,  Additionally, in order to be truly vulnerable, you HAVE to be able to protect yourself when you need to.   The essential difference is: You know it’s a choice.  

And the choice to be vulnerable is powerful.

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