Many of us have been taught a dysfunctional view of what it means to be strong and courageous. We teach our boys that being strong means never crying and never acknowledging their feelings with the exception of anger, of course. Real men don’t cry or show pain. They are supposed to appear strong, rather than vulnerable This leaves men with no acceptable outlet when they feel pain or grief, except anger.
Women, on the other hand, are allowed to show their feelings, with the exception of anger. So, just as men often appear angry when they are hurt, women often appear hurt when we are angry.
While it is more harshly applied to men, than women, Western culture, with our myth of rugged individualism teaches us that we are supposed to be self-sufficient. Expressing emotions that make us appear to be needy or vulnerable, therefore, are seen as signs of weakness, and are not encouraged.
Real strength and courage, however, is being able to be willing to be vulnerable enough to express all emotions. We are at our strongest when we are able to admit that we feel hurt or scared. To do this, we need to be courageous enough to let our defenses down.
We all feel hurt and scared at one time or another. Pretending that we don’t have these feelings only leads to isolating us from others. When we cover our true feelings with anger or withdrawal in an attempt to repress these “weaker” emotions and hide our vulnerability, we distance ourselves from others, thereby damaging our interpersonal relationships.
I often see this dynamic at play in organizations in which I consult. When I come into an organization I am sometimes presented with two people who are said to have “personality differences,” that leave them unable to get along. When you see the two individuals together, you can feel the tension running between them. Both of them are quite capable of expressing anger to each other. Neither, however, is willing to acknowledge (even sometimes to themselves) that they feel hurt as well.
When we are able to dig down into the original source of the conflict, it almost always goes back to an incident in which one person’s actions led to another person feeling hurt or disrespected. The person whose feelings were hurt then responds in a defensive manner with anger, rather than with being vulnerable and acknowledging their feelings of hurt.
The anger comes across as aggressive, rather than protective. This then sets a cycle of anger and defensiveness in motion that serves to distance the two individuals from each other. Neither individual feels comfortable expressing their hurt. They feel safer expressing their anger. When, however, one of them is willing to be courageous and open enough to let her/his defenses fall and express feeling hurt, the other person opens up in response to the vulnerability. The tension dissolves and connection is possible.
Being courageous enough to be vulnerable enables others to feel safe enough to be vulnerable as well. Real strength and courage are about being willing to be open and vulnerable. We need to be able to express all of our emotions. Openness and vulnerability are important vehicles for effectively managing conflicts and connecting across differences (whether the differences are based on opinions, perspectives, race, religion, whatever).
Sometimes, it takes support to be vulnerable. In my consulting work, I see one of my purposes as creating environments in which individuals can feel safe enough to step into their courage.