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Moving Beyond Vulnerability Shields

November 26, 2013

by: Loren GaryLoren Gary

In my ongoing exploration of University of Houston research professor Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, last week’s post examined three common vulnerability shields: foreboding joy, perfectionism, and numbing. All three represent attempts to protect ourselves from the feelings of being hurt, diminished, and disappointed that often accompany making ourselves vulnerable, Brown explains. Fortunately, there is an antidote for each.

1. To counteract foreboding joy, practice gratitude. In her study of vulnerability, “every participant who spoke about the ability to stay open to joy talked about the importance of practicing gratitude,” Brown writes. “Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy. We’re afraid that the feeling of joy won’t last , or that there won’t be enough, or that the transition to disappointment (or whatever is in store for us next) will be too difficult.” But by practicing gratitude, we come to realize that there is enough and that we are enough. Tangible practices—for example, keeping a gratitude journal or a nighttime ritual of remembering the things that occurred in the day just ended that we’re grateful for—go a long way toward helping us find joy in what we already have and in everyday occurrences.

2. To counteract perfectionism, learn to appreciate the beauty of your flaws. “To claim the truths about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, and the very imperfect nature of our lives, we have to be willing to give ourselves a break and appreciate the beauty of our cracks or imperfections,” Brown writes. Such an appreciation is essentially a form of self-compassion. Citing research conducted by Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin, Brown notes that self-compassion has three elements:

*self-kindness—the ability to be “warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism”

*common humanity—the recognition that “suffering and feelings of inadequacy are part of the shared human experience.”

*mindfulness—the ability to take “a balanced approach to negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.”

3. To counteract numbing, learn how to “lean into the discomfort of hard emotions.” This work begins with learning how to actually feel the feelings of anxiety and disconnection. The next step is to become more mindful of how much is enough—for example, reducing anxiety by paying greater attention to how much you can and cannot do and then setting appropriate boundaries. The trick, in other words, is not to try to manage or soothe the difficult feelings but to develop awareness of the behaviors that lead to them, and then to change the behaviors. “Before I undertook this research,’ Brown writes, “my question was ‘What’s the quickest way to make these feelings go away?’ Today my question is ‘What are those feelings and where did they come from?’




3 Common Vulnerability Shields

November 5, 2013

by: Loren Gary

Loren Gary

As paradoxical as it sounds, we develop courage by being willing to make ourselves vulnerable—and to acknowledge our feelings of vulnerability, observes University of Houston research professor Brené Brown, whose book Daring Greatly I’ve been writing about this fall. And yet at the same time we’re continually trying to shield ourselves from the feelings of being hurt, diminished, and disappointed that often accompany making ourselves vulnerable.

Three forms of shielding are especially common, says Brown:

1. Foreboding joy. When Brown interviewed people about the experiences that made them feel the most vulnerable, she expected to get answers that had to do with fear and shame. Instead, most of the answers had to do with joy. For example: “Standing over my children when they’re sleeping.” “Loving my job.” “Falling in love.” “Knowing how good I’ve got it.”

What is this all about? “In a culture of deep scarcity—of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough—joy can feel like a setup,” Brown explains. Foreboding joy runs the gamut from what Brown calls “rehearsing tragedy” to what she calls “perpetual disappointment.” It’s a method for minimizing vulnerability, for beating it to the punch. “We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt,” Brown continues. “We don’t’ want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment. . . When we spend our lives (knowingly or unknowingly) pushing away vulnerability, we can’t hold space open for the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of joy.”

2. Perfectionism. Let’s begin by correcting a few misconceptions here. Perfectionism is not about the quest for excellence or for healthy self-improvement, which are self-focused. Perfectionism, by contrast, is other-focused; it’s about earning the approval of others. But it’s a defensive move, Brown points out: we become a perfectionist stance as a way we to “minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame” associated with not meeting others’ expectations. “The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.”

Are the messages and expectations that elicit your shame response realistic or attainable? Do they reflect the kind of person you actually want to be, or the kind of behavior others actually want from you? Reality-testing these messages and expectations helps you develop critical awareness, which creates the possibility of being able to consciously choose a different way of behaving.

3. Numbing. Research conducted by the Stone Center at Wellesley suggests that most people tend to respond in one of three ways when they feel ashamed: they “move away by withdrawing, silencing themselves, and keeping the source of the shame secret; they move toward by seeking to appease and please; or they move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame,” writes Brown. “All these moves are strategies for disconnecting from the pain of shame.” But you can’t get out of shame’s grip by moving away, toward, or against it. Brown asserts that you have to move through it: “the way to fight shame and to honor who we are is by sharing our experience with someone who has earned the right to hear it—someone who loves us, not despite our vulnerabilities, but because of them.”

4. The ability to ask for what you need. When you’re in shame’s grip, telling someone you trust how you feel enables you to get what you need most in that moment: empathy. “Rather than judgment (which exacerbates shame),” writes Brown, “empathy conveys a simple acknowledgment, ‘You’re not alone.’”

Leadership Starts with Self-Care

October 22, 2013

by: Loren Gary

Loren Gary

Ensure your own safety before attempting to assist others: this golden rule of first aid applies equally well to the challenges of leadership. As INSEAD adjunct professor Steve Knight observes in this article, if you don’t take the time to stop, breathe, observe the scene and surrounding situation—especially when it’s an emergency, but not only then—you may get involved before it’s safe to do so, and end up becoming hurt yourself. And you can’t do any leading at all if you’ve become a casualty.

Looking after your own self-care is by no means the same thing as being selfish. In fact, it’s by ensuring that you are grounded, supported, and tending to your own needs for relationship, rest, and renewal that you position yourself to help, manage, and lead others.

“How often do you allow yourself the time to focus on what your general needs and requirements are?” asks Knight, “i.e., to be heard, to be valued, to be respected, to be significant, to be loved, etc. How often do you let those around you know what your needs and requirements are?” These are two of the diagnostic questions Knight offers to help you assess how well you’re doing on the self-care front are well worth your attention.

Your answers may have everything to do with your organization’s ability succeed.

What Firefighters Can Teach You About Rapid Response

October 15, 2013

by: Loren Gary

Loren Gary

Given the increasingly chaotic and volatile nature of today’s business environment, it probably does not come as a surprise that a fire chief’s methods for prioritizing time-sensitive work would be very relevant. In this featured article, Alison Konrad and Allan Braatz describe the Basic Incident Management System (BIMS) that contemporary firefighters use to coordinate a rapid response to an emergency. BIMS’s five key principles—simplicity, flexibility, communication, meritocracy, and accountability—create space not just for improvisation, but also for the management of team members’ mental models of the emergency at hand and the coordination of their joint activities.

Konrad and Braatz identify nine levers for making group work proceed as swiftly, effectively, and seamlessly as possible. One of them—modularity and scalability—enables “leaders to add resources to teams facing growing challenges while demands are high, and scale down resource investments as the problem comes under control,” they write.

“If firefighters ruled a business organization, then all members would become experts in teaming,” the authors continue.


The Four Elements of Shame Resilience

October 2, 2013

by: Loren Gary

Loren Gary

It’s impossible to be completely resistant to shame because shame is too much of a constant in life to be completely eliminated, notes University of Houston research professor Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly. “As long as we care about connection,” writes Brown, “the fear of disconnection will always be a powerful force in our lives, and the pain caused by shame will always be real.” But it is possible to become resilient in the face of shame, she continues. To do that, you need to be able to move through the experience of shame without sacrificing your values—and to find empathy on the other side of the shame experience.

Brown’s research shows that shame resilience is a function of four characteristics:

1. The ability to recognize what triggers your shame. This starts with being aware of the physical signs of shame when it has a grip on you, and it includes learning to name the specific messages and expectations that trigger your feelings of shame.

 2. The ability to challenge the messages and expectations that drive your shame. Are the messages and expectations that elicit your shame response realistic or attainable? Do they reflect the kind of person you actually want to be, or the kind of behavior others actually want from you? Reality-testing these messages and expectations helps you develop critical awareness, which creates the possibility of being able to consciously choose a different way of behaving.

3. The ability to seek connection. Research conducted by the Stone Center at Wellesley suggests that most people tend to respond in one of three ways when they feel ashamed: they “move away by withdrawing, silencing themselves, and keeping the source of the shame secret; they move toward by seeking to appease and please; or they move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame,” writes Brown. “All these moves are strategies for disconnecting from the pain of shame.” But you can’t get out of shame’s grip by moving away, toward, or against it. You have to move through it: “the way to fight shame and to honor who we are,” Brown continues, “is by sharing our experience with someone who has earned the right to hear it—someone who loves us, not despite our vulnerabilities, but because of them.”

4. The ability to ask for what you need. When you’re in shame’s grip, telling someone you trust how you feel enables you to get what you need most in that moment: empathy. “Rather than judgment (which exacerbates shame),” writes Brown, “empathy conveys a simple acknowledgment, ‘You’re not alone.’”

10 Ways that Creative People are Different

September 24, 2013

by: Loren Gary

Loren Gary

Just as there are generally no good “simple” answers to complex problems, it turns out that the most creative people—the people who come up with solutions to those complex problems—are also the most psychologically complex. In this featured knowledge asset, serial entrepreneur Faisal Hoque discusses how complexity of mind—the ability to hold contradictory points of view or ways of being at the same time—is a hallmark of creativity. Drawing on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People, Hoque lists ten dimensions in which creative people are able to combine within themselves attributes that would appear to be diametrically opposed. For example, the ability to be both humble and proud at the same time, or the ability to be both rebellious and conservative at the same time.

Knowing that creative people have this paradoxical ability to exhibit such seemingly opposite traits is a vital first step toward how to manage them effectively—that is, to foster an organizational culture that brings out the best in them. Join us online today to learn more.

What Does Success Mean for You?

September 19, 2013

by: Loren Gary

Loren Gary

Lost your way and can’t find your motivation anymore, much less motivate others? Maybe it’s time to find ways to reconnect with your purpose. This featured knowledge asset examines five powerful insights offered by Wharton Business School Professor Richard Shell in his recent book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success.

“One of the great ironies in the study of success,” Shell writes, “is that many people believe the secrets to achieving it lie ‘out there’ somewhere–in a far-off, hard-to-find place. The truth is much simpler: The answer lies within yourself.” For most of us, that answer involves balancing the desire for an inner sense of fulfillment with the outward-focused desire for achievement, social recognition, and respect. But if a survey conducted this past summer by Parade  magazine and Yahoo! Finance is to be believed—nearly 60% of the respondents said they fully regretted their career choices—far too many of us fail to achieve much of a balance at all. Instead, we go with the flow—that is, choose work that is closely aligned with family, social, or cultural expectations before  we’ve asked ourselves what success looks like for us.


Understanding Shame

September 16, 2013

By: Loren Gary

Loren Gary

If we cannot “come to terms with our shame, our struggles,” writes University of Houston research professor Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly, “we start believing that there’s something wrong with us—that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough—and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs.” That’s what the scarcity mindset that I wrote about in my two previous posts does to us: it gets us not only to believe we’re not enough, but also to act on that belief, and to allow it to shape our interpretation of what happens to us. When we’re operating out of a scarcity mindset, it’s next to impossible to be fully engaged with others—that is, to make ourselves vulnerable to them.

So how do we prevent shame from restricting our ability to interact with the world in a more wholehearted way? Let’s start with a practical working definition. Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” we’ll never be shame resistant. Because we never completely lose the fear of being disconnected, the pain caused by shame will always be surfacing in our lives from time to time. It’s unrealistic, therefore, to think we can be shame resistant. In fact, that very hope is a reflection of the desire not to be vulnerable.

It is possible, however, to develop shame resilience, says Brown—more on that in my next post. For now, I want to help you develop a clear understanding of how shame operates, and also to distinguish it from several closely related feelings: guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment:

• The difference between shame and guilt can be summarized as the difference between believing “I am bad” and believing “I did something bad.” Guilt has a positive impact on us, prodding us to make meaningful change. Shame’s influence, however, is destructive—Brown’s research shows that shame “corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better.” When we feel ashamed, Brown continues, “we are most likely to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone, rationalizing our lapse, offering a disingenuous apology, or hiding out.” By contrast, when “we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn’t align with our values, guilt—not shame—is most often the driving force.”

• Humiliation is often confused with shame, but there is a vital distinction between the two, and it has to do with the self-talk that each emotion triggers in our minds. According to psychologist Donald Klein, whereas people tend to believe they deserve their shame, they don’t believe they deserve their humiliation.

• Brown sees embarrassment as the least serious of these four emotions because it’s typically “fleeting and it can eventually be funny.” We don’t usually feel alone when we’ve done something embarrassing. “We know other folks have done the same thing and, like a blush, it will pass rather than define us,” writes Brown.

This conceptual precision will be useful when we turn to the question of what we do about shame.


How to Become More Open to Change

September 12, 2013

By: Loren Gary

Loren Gary“The more things change, it seems, the more the objections to change remain the same,” writes Fast Company  cofounder Bill Taylor in this featured knowledge asset. He proposes five mindset-shifting principles that can help us become more receptive to change. One of them is the idea that change is not simply about making a break with the past—we must not disavow the past even as we’re making a break with it. In the most successful changes, “the best of the old informs the search for the new,” writes Taylor.

A related principle holds that change “is just as much about consistency, as it is about disruption.” Here Taylor quotes the management author Jim Collins: “The signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change. The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.” If you want to make significant change that sticks, Taylor adds, “Your priorities and practices have to stay consistent in good times and bad times.”

The Four Myths of Vulnerability

September 6, 2013

By: Loren Gary

Loren Gary

In your company or organization, is “fear of ridicule and belittling used to manage people and/or keep people in line?” asks University of Houston research professor Brené Brown takes up in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Is there “constant overt or covert comparing and ranking? Are people held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions?” And are colleagues “afraid to take risks or try new things? Is it easier to stay quiet than to share stories, experiences, and ideas?”

If you answered yes to most of these questions, then it’s likely that a culture of scarcity has your organization in its grip. The “never enough” mindset that is this culture’s hallmark makes you vulnerable to the following myths about vulnerability:

1. To be vulnerable is to be weak. Such a view makes sense—but only if “we’ve confused feeling withfailing and emotions with liabilities,” writes Brown. Vulnerability not necessarily good or bad, but it is “the core of all emotions and feelings”—the darks ones such as grief, sadness, and disappointment, but also the emotions and experiences we crave, such as joy, belonging, hope, authenticity, and creativity.Vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” Brown continues. And as such, it is the gateway to daring greatly. “If we want to reclaim the essential part emotional part of our lives and reignite our passion and purpose,” we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it.”

2. Vulnerability is something I can eliminate from my life. This is a vain hope because even if you avoid relationships as choose disengagement as a means of self-protection, you cannot completely avoid the vulnerability that comes with simply being alive. As Brown notes, “regardless of our willingness to do vulnerability, it does us. When we pretend that we can avoid vulnerability we engage in behaviors that are often inconsistent with who we want to be.”

3. Vulnerability means “letting it all hang out.” Vulnerability is in fact very different from the indiscriminate sharing of our feelings and experiences with people who have not earned the right to hear them. There are boundaries the appropriate sharing of our vulnerability—so much so that, as Brown points out, “boundaryless disclosure is one way we protect ourselves from real vulnerability.” Determining when to trust someone enough to be willing to be vulnerable with them is a complicated matter—there are no foolproof guidelines that guarantee success 100% of the time. Brown describes trust as a “slow-building, layered process that happens over time. It is also reciprocal: each party’s willingness to trust, or to trust more, grows as he or she sees evidence that the other party is bringing effort, attention, and full engagement to the relationship.

4. I can go it alone. It is one thing to have a sense of self-efficacy—to be confident in our ability to care for ourselves. But the vulnerability journey is one that requires the support of others. “Most of us are good at giving help,” Brown writes, “but when it comes to vulnerability, we need to ask for help too.” The fear of vulnerability often prevents us from asking for the help we need, but there’s a more insidious way in which it operates. As Brown writes in an earlier book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”

A 2011 Harvard Business Review article supports this insight. When authors Peter Fuda and Richard Badham studied how effective leaders spark change, they saw that when leaders demonstrated vulnerability by asking subordinates for support, the subordinates interpreted that vulnerability as courage and were inspired to behave similarly.