All my life, I’ve been taught that you have to “be strong” either for yourself or for the people around you. Showing emotion made people look at you with pity and treat you like you were a child.
“Awww, look at Alishia crying again.”
“You’re always so dramatic.”
“If you want to get ahead, you have to be tough and not let people know they got to you.”
“Why can’t you just let it roll off your back?”
I know I’m not alone in hearing these things. In the 2016 election, we heard time after time about Hilary Rodham Clinton’s temperament and whether or not she was friendly enough to be President. The assumption is, she’s a woman and all soft and squishy, she can’t be strong enough, be “professional” enough to be an effective leader. The assumption is that showing vulnerability at all is a weakness. Well, my friend, if you haven’t heard this before, let me tell you that being able to show vulnerability is not a weakness. It’s a strength.
In general, 2020 was incredibly hard for everyone. I don’t know a single person that would say 2020 was the best year of their lives. As a fundraiser, it was difficult because my work shifted from 90% in-person to 100% virtual. Special project after special project came to try to connect with donors that we normally would be connecting with in-person. It was a lot. And in the last weeks of the year, it became too much and I broke. I went through what could only be described as a six-week long brilliant, gloriously hot, awe-inspiring dumpster fire. It was in this that I learned the strength of showing vulnerability.
Right before Christmas, my supervisor sat me down to talk about all the things that had been going wrong. Not going to lie, I cried….a lot. Ironically, one of the things my supervisor talked to me about was my stress response of getting hard and not showing vulnerability to my team. Here I was, sitting in front of her, bawling my eyes out, snot running down my face, feeling like I was about to get fired, and I’m told that I don’t show vulnerability. After some time, I knew what she meant. Showing vulnerability shows our humanity, the acknowledgement of our flaws and the fact that we aren’t perfect and need others, need community. Isn’t that what teamwork is?? Needing others to use their strengths where you have weakness in order to get a task done to its fullest and best iteration?? By the end of my six-week tailspin, I wasn’t relying on others anymore. I wasn’t asking for help. I was putting my head down and barreling through everything that needed to be done, whether it was my strength or not, telling everyone I was fine. I wasn’t a team member. I was an island of one.
In our society we value independence so much that we forget that to be the best we can, we need others, we depend on others, we are interdependent. We need others to fill in the gaps for us. Showing vulnerability and interdependence in the face of a world that values independence so much is brave and, dare I say, subversive. It’s a rejection of the patriarchal, white supremacy, capitalistic culture that has been so ingrained in us. It is an embrace of the community around us, the idea that we all depend on one another not just to give us what we need, but to give to others what they need. It is forming a circle, back to back, with those around us, linking arms and standing up together. It is taking those pieces of us that are usually under-valued and raising them up to be highly valued.
A couple weeks ago, I led a debrief meeting about a project that I was in charge of in December, in the midst of my meltdown. I was so nervous going into that meeting because I knew that I needed to apologize to the team, which included the president of our organization, show my vulnerability to them, admit my mistakes and weaknesses, and ask for their forgiveness. To the surprise of everyone there, myself included, I started crying...again. And after I got through everything I wanted to say, the most magical thing happened. I was met with grace and mercy. The team came around me and spoke to my vulnerability, sharing their own with me, and acknowledging that we are all in this together. It was incredibly healing and honestly helped me close out 2020. That afternoon, I had another meeting with my supervisor where she told me how incredibly brave it was to show that vulnerability and that I was strong for being secure enough in myself to show that side of me. She told me that it went a long way with the people in that room in repairing the damage that had been dealt. My vulnerability in that meeting turned out to be my greatest strength that day.
Vulnerability is what makes us human. So often we get caught up trying to be perfect that we burn ourselves and others out along the way. I made that mistake last year. I’m determined to make this year different, to accept all my flaws and not be afraid to show them, to depend on others more. I hope that you too, friend, will take up this mantle of vulnerability with me. I would bet that if each of us showed a bit more vulnerability in everyday interactions, we could slowly but surely change our world.
Alishia Wright | @LishNYC