A Coaching Power Tool By Michelle Piasecki, Life Coach, UNITED STATES
Vulnerability vs. Perfectionism in Coaching
Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome. – Brené Brown
Vulnerability and perfectionism are equally powerful words and similarly impactful regarding the various roles we fill. Imagine applying one or the other to your relationships. Vulnerability around those you love can build trust as you share your fears and flaws. However, you want to maintain a perfect image in that relationship. In that case, the trust can erode, and the relationship could suffer because you hide your true self to portray the ideal image you want others to see.
Throughout life, society has taught us that vulnerability is weakness, much like the injured animal suddenly vulnerable to attack. Whether it’s sports or academics, many people will tell you that failures will lead to our demise rather than our success. Straight As is revered, and playing on the winning team is heralded with awards and media attention. No wonder perfectionism is often the goal we strive for as we reach our goals, but seeing perfectionism as the answer leads to pressure, insecurity, and feelings of inability to measure. It’s a constant struggle that has only grown with the popularity of social media. Visions of perfection flood our Facebook and Instagram feeds. The antidote is reflection, and as Brene Brown states, it isn’t always about winning or losing. It is more about simply showing up and taking risks.
What Is the Difference Between Vulnerability vs. Perfectionism?
After a search for photos matching vulnerability, images of weakness, despair, and hurt pop up. A small child’s face filled with fear. An older woman looks out the window while seated in a wheelchair. Most of these photos featured women, rarely a man. The Cambridge Dictionary defines vulnerability as this: “the quality of being vulnerable (able to be easily hurt, influenced, or attacked), or something vulnerable.” Now consider the antonyms listed in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: impenetrability and invincibility.
The combined image this conjures up isn’t positive because our culture defines vulnerability much like the dictionary. Avoiding exposure helps erect the armor and shield that can protect us. Yet, when you stop to think, what truly happens when you find yourself purposely connecting with vulnerability? Think of vulnerability in the scope of leadership. Are leaders who choose perfectionism over vulnerability invincible? Are they any less likely to fail?
In today’s ever-changing world, vulnerability has become a part of life. Technology, jobs, the economy, and so much more are constantly in flux. We are often vulnerable in some aspect of our lives, whether it’s a relationship, job, or caregiving demands. For these reasons, the definition of vulnerability and the use of the word seems more empowering and involve more choice.
Now, consider another definition in www.dictionary.com: “willingness to show emotion or to allow one’s weaknesses to be seen or known; willingness to risk being hurt.” The word willingness denotes a conscious choice, and doesn’t power come with choice? What happens when we choose vulnerability and accept our weaknesses to learn from them instead of following a never-achievable model of perfection? Perfection isn’t armor that we put on to go into battle. Instead, it is a lie that we tell ourselves to create a protective façade that is just that — fake.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you give up. It simply means you reach an understanding. We learn from our weaknesses. The key here is growth.
The constant focus on perfectionism can have a downside. The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as “the y to the demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.” This definition also lists the problems associated with perfectionism: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.
Consider those images of perfection perpetuated in social media and the feelings created by photos of high school football players making the winning touchdown, the gymnastics star wearing a medal after a competition, and the straight-A student making the principal’s list. The well-earned promotion accolade or announcement. We see the result, but we often don’t see the sweat equity, the pain, the injuries or hurts, or the failures that went into making those accomplishments possible.
Using the Vulnerability vs. Perfectionism Power Tool
Pairing perfectionism with vulnerability can help clients see the fear and the opportunity. When we want to portray this perfect image, what are we hiding? Ideal images are just a snapshot of what someone wants to show, and it is essential to look at how we use or possibly abuse those snapshots to understand how we each use perfectionism to our advantage or detriment.
What is our window of opportunity to maximize connection? Is it through vulnerability or perfection? If we only look for the perfect areas of our lives or hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations, we can only experience failure instead of success.
We risk alienating ourselves, our clients, our friends, and our new relationships if we continue that façade. We need space for those imperfections.
Apply this concept to our roles as parents, workers, partners, employers, and leaders. No matter the title, we need to embrace showing our vulnerability. As parents, our children are all different. We cannot hold them or ourselves to the same standards. Every child is different. Every child’s learning is different. As employees, we cannot be good at everything, but we can learn new skills. As leaders, we can only know some things, and only some problems are solved effortlessly. We must show ourselves, and others grace as we grapple, grow, and grasp all the learning curves we must face.
In coaching, we must reflect these options to our clients so they can reflect on their own choices. Are they choosing vulnerability or perfection, and what difference could one make over the others? What are the impacts of perfectionism on action, self-image, and motivation? When clients can answer these questions for themselves, they can better understand a situation and will, in the end, make a better choice in that situation.