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Feeling Vulnerable? It Can Help You Make Deeper Connections

Posted April 2, 2020 • Conflict Mastery,Emotional Intelligence • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.


In this week’s Corner Office column, the New York Times’s David Gelles interviewed CEOs of multinational companies about how they are working during a global crisis. He learned that Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, led an “all-hands” company-wide meeting from his home’s laundry room since that was where Butterfield got the best internet reception.

Whether we’re leading corporate meetings from the laundry room, trying to figure out how to homeschool our kids and get work done at the same time, or lying in bed at night wondering how all this is going to play out for our family, community, and world, there is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has led many of us to feel an increased sense of vulnerability.

When I was a kid, if I was home sick from school, I remember not liking it when I’d overhear my mom on the phone telling one of her friends that I was sick. Why? I didn’t want to feel vulnerable. I wanted to seem like I had it all together. Hearing my mom tell people that I was unable to go to school because of a sore throat or a fever left me feeling vulnerable, and I didn’t like it, so much so that I would ask her not to tell them I was sick.

While the vulnerability many of us are experiencing today may leave us feeling similarly uncomfortable, there may also be some benefits to feeling vulnerable. It has the power to shift our behavior in positive ways that can bring healing to ourselves and to our relationships if we allow it to. Here are some ways I’ve noticed so far:

Increased empathy for others: When you’re more aware of the fragility of life, it’s harder to hold a grudge; it’s easier to offer others the benefit of the doubt, to remember that everyone is doing their best under extremely trying circumstances. The recurring fight about the dirty dishes loses its importance; the grudge over not feeling respected by this person or that one falls away; and we’re left with what it means to simply be human.

Acceptance of our imperfections: In this state of vulnerability, when the news is changing so quickly, it’s hard to keep up any illusion of certainty or perfection. We realize that it’s futile to try to be perfect in such an imperfect world; instead, we are challenged to try our best and to acknowledge it as good enough. We may even find the beauty in imperfection: a song that’s slightly off-key but heartfelt, a run that took longer than usual but included a stop to take a photo of the morning sun shining through the flowers. As the great lyricist, Leonard Cohen, sang, “Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Deeper connections: I’ve had conversations with people recently that have been more authentic, heartfelt, and tender than they otherwise would have been. A phone call with a new colleague goes straight to asking how each other’s families are doing; I learn about his sister, who is seeing COVID-19 patients in the ER, and his worries for her. A conversation with a neighbor (standing across the street) brings tears to both of our eyes as she talks about her children and their future; a client confides that he and his wife are updating their wills and health proxies, just in case.

The Challenge of Remembering 

The challenge is how to let this vulnerability change us not just right now, but in the future too.

I’m reminded of a story I heard a few years ago from Rabbi David Ingber about a colleague of his, also a rabbi, who was once on an airplane where the pilot and all the passengers were preparing for a crash landing. They expected to die. When the pilot successfully landed the plane at the closest airport, the passengers were hugging, laughing, and crying, being together in their moment of deep vulnerability and gratitude.

Since they had landed at a different airport from their intended one, they then had to wait a few hours for another plane to take them to their final destination. Well, during that time, the passengers started getting impatient with one another, complaining about the cramped quarters in the airport, the lack of attention they were getting from the airline staff about when the next plane would be ready, how the food wasn’t up to par. The rabbi looked around and asked, “Aren’t we the people who just a few hours ago were hugging and crying, just thankful to be alive? Look at us now!”

How quickly we can forget to appreciate life. Perhaps this is human nature, and it will be part of our own journeys too. Maybe once we are no longer under immediate threat, our sense of vulnerability will ease, and we will return to fighting over the dirty dishes and holding that grudge against someone who didn’t recognize our achievements.

But what if we took this moment to challenge ourselves to stay empathetic not only during times of great vulnerability but at other times too; to continue to accept our own and others’ imperfections as a part of what it means to be human; and to forge deeper, more tender connections not only today but going forward.

What a world that would be.

How can you challenge your future self to remember your vulnerability and the benefits it might bring, even after this tough time is behind us? 

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