Vulnerability and Self-Acceptance

Just under a decade ago, I began incorporating self-reflection into my career when I fell into what David Brooks in his book, “The Second Mountain,” calls a “valley.” While going through my valley, I read many authors, including Brené Brown.

I valued Brené’s inviting writing and speaking style. I often joked with friends that I felt like Brené was my friend. Her Ted Talks felt more like conversations across a kitchen table. Her writing provided access to previously dormant concepts.

Vulnerability stands out as one of these dormant concepts. For me, vulnerability went from being a weakness to an opportunity for growth. I’ve thought and journaled much about vulnerability. The numerous dog-eared, annotated pages of many books testify to my learning.

Of my many lessons in vulnerability, none is more important than this: Vulnerability requires self-acceptance. I believe vulnerability requires self-acceptance because at its heart, vulnerability asks that we open ourselves to the possibility of being wounded. That is, when we engage with others and participate in a more open exchange, we simultaneously open ourselves to injury. Others could likely share observations about us that we may not want to admit to ourselves.

Often when we receive this feedback, it’s not news to us. However, we may have resisted and defended against this feedback because we likely don’t accept ourselves wholly. Whatever the “it” that we don’t accept about ourselves is, it has power over us. For example, for many of us in the LGBTQ+ community, this power is similar to the fear of being found out before we accept ourselves and come out.

When we receive what can feel like cutting feedback, we can stay engaged with others. We do this by actively committing to the process of ongoing self-acceptance. Here, I offer three practices to advance self-acceptance.

Exercise Kindness: Recall what you like about yourself

I taught public speaking for many years. The most common lesson that I shared was that you cannot build a house without a solid foundation. That is, none of us can improve our speaking skills if we lack an awareness of our strengths or potential. We need to know that we are good at something — developing an outline, making eye contact while talking, storytelling. Just as importantly, we need to remind ourselves of this strength as we navigate the improvement that we want to make.

Kindness supports confidence. We all need confidence to get up and present. Similarly, we need confidence to talk with others and know that we have value by virtue of our being. When we see our inherent value, we also start to see that no conversation can diminish our intrinsic value.

Build Awareness: Explore how you avoid yourself

Self-acceptance also asks us to be honest about what we avoid as we think about who we are. It’s easy to see where we avoid ourselves because there’s often judgment associated with the observation. “I sometimes let my competitiveness get the best of me.” “I wish that I did not procrastinate so much.” “I admit it. I am a perfectionist.”

I recall hearing David Kessler on Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us” podcast series. He said something that is pivotal to this point. He noted that judgment requires punishment. Think about that. When we judge ourselves for whatever trait or flaw, we simultaneously invoke the need for a punishment.

Extend this insight just a bit. Move from an internal dialogue where an unexplored or suppressed thought feels very much like a judgment in an external dialogue. Here, an innocent (or not so innocent) observation that even alludes to our self-judgment engages our defensiveness. We now could very easily feel the need to defend ourselves. We now just as easily lose our ability to engage in any type of productive dialogue.

Another area where we can learn about what we are avoiding in ourselves is to look at the judgments we make about others. The incompetence, neglect, poor judgement, lack of follow-through — you name it — that we see so clearly in others is often the lens through which we are judging ourselves.

Heal Yourself: Essence becomes the gateway to compassion  

We all possess an essence, an indispensable and ineffable quality that shapes our character. We often silence and overlook our essence. We focus instead on how we fit into a career or life, an image that we develop.

Vulnerability exposes us to harm from others and to see the harm that we have done to ourselves. That is, we also start to see the damage of neglecting essence. We see our pain. If we want to learn from this pain, we need to practice self-compassion. We learn to accept all that we are via this practice. From this self-compassion, we can advance to seeing others more fully and practice compassion as part of vulnerability.

Practice makes for imperfection

It would be nice to end this piece neatly and say practice makes perfect. It doesn’t. Practice teaches us how to live with our imperfections. In this practice, vulnerability flourishes when we accept imperfection in ourselves and others.

James J. Tarbox, Ph.D., is the Executive Director for San Diego State University Career Services, working with Colleges, employers and alumni to ensure student development, career readiness and employment. Career Services addresses core student needs including internships, mentoring, access to employers and employment, and civic engagement. James co-administers SDSU’s WorkAbility IV program. He also teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs on campus. James contributes to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (www.naceweb.org), the Mountain Pacific Association of Colleges and Employers (www.mpace.org) and NASPA’s Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice editorial board (www.naspa.org). James is an alumnus of Pennsylvania State University (M.A. and Ph.D.) and Bates College (B.A. with Honors).

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