Being Vulnerable Seems Better When Someone Else Does It

People may view their own displays of vulnerability in a more negative light.

Posted Sep 19, 2018

chuanpis/Shutterstock
Source: chuanpis/Shutterstock

Expressing previously unspoken feelings for someone, owning up to a mistake, and other acts of self-exposure can bring on uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability. Many people feel vulnerable whenever they think about opening themselves up to potential emotional harm. Your crush might not reciprocate your feelings; your request for help could make you appear weak or lacking in self-sufficiency. This risk of backlash—real or imagined—may lead one to fear such situations or try to avoid them entirely.

But there are upsides to vulnerability, too. Your romantic interest could reciprocate your feelings. Your friend could respond to your plea with a genuine act of kindness. University of Houston social work researcher Brené Brown, whose books and popular TED Talk address the power of vulnerability, postulates that opening oneself up to it is key to building satisfying, meaningful relationships—both with our inner selves and with family and friends.

How do people grapple with these two seemingly conflicting views of vulnerability? Researchers from the University of Mannheim in Germany decided to explore that question in a series of seven studies, published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They found that our point of view matters: When study subjects were asked to assess other people who showed vulnerability, they tended to view those acts more positively and were relatively quick to notice the upsides. When they were asked to imagine themselves displaying vulnerability, they viewed the acts more negatively. The researchers dubbed these self-other differences in vulnerability “the beautiful mess effect” to encapsulate the perspectives of both the actor (who may perceive their vulnerable situation as a “mess”) and the observer (who seems more likely to see the “beautiful” side).

Most of the studies examined hypothetical situations—like fessing up to a major (but untraceable) error at work, or apologizing first to one’s partner after a big fight—but in one, half of the participants were told they would have to improvise a song in front of a panel made up of the other half. The same self-other differences appeared in both the “real” and hypothetical scenarios. The effect also held when participants’ emotional states were manipulated—with a sad movie clip—before vulnerability was assessed, to rule out the intensity of their emotions as a confounding factor in how they interpreted the scenarios.

The researchers interpreted this effect in light of construal level theory, which proposes that the farther away something is, either physically, emotionally, or socially, the more abstractly we perceive it.

“We see others’ experiences more abstractly, and our own more concretely,” says Anna Bruk, a lead author on the paper. “Others are ‘organizing a birthday party’; we are inviting friends, cooking, and baking.” Prior research has shown that when something is seen as more abstract, people are more likely to focus on its positive aspects—an effect that’s likely happening here, Bruk says. “When people evaluate others’ vulnerability, distance might give them a different perspective,” she adds. “By contrast, when it comes to our own vulnerability, the risks move closer, and we have a much better view of everything that might go wrong.”

Brown’s work served as a “catalyst” for the research, Bruk says. In her book Daring Greatly, Brown relies on a series of qualitative interviews to devise her definition and understanding of vulnerability—including the situations in which people tend to feel vulnerable, how they typically respond, and what effects (both positive and negative) come from opening oneself up to feelings of vulnerability.

At the end of Daring Greatly, she calls for quantitative tests of her theories. “That was the starting point for this paper,” Bruk says. “We were interested in testing whether showing vulnerability is, indeed, seen more positively in others than oneself. As social psychologists, however, we also wanted to know why these differences in perception occur.”

This focus on the costs of vulnerability could obscure its benefits. Arthur Aron, a professor at Stony Brook University who has conducted extensive research on how intimacy develops in personal relationships, says that when it comes to displays of vulnerability, “we tend to fear the outcome more than we should. We’re overdoing it.”

Aron, who was not involved in the current study, is perhaps best known for his research on 36 questions that can help two strangers form a closer bond. He says his research has consistently found that “revealing things to someone you’re close to can be a real advantage.”

The Mannheim team’s future research, Bruk says, will likely focus on how far these self-other differences in our perceptions of vulnerability extend. “This is absolutely speculative, but it might be the case that overall, repeated instances of vulnerability could be interpreted more negatively, both by others and oneself,” she says. “Conversely, it’s also possible that with practice, one might get used to asking for help and would see one’s own vulnerability more positively”—causing the self-other differences to decrease or disappear entirely.