Posted by: arilipton | February 14, 2018

Emotional Vulnerability

Last night, I was having a rather deep conversation with one of my male friends. In general, my friend is intensely secretive, and although is someone who I have always noticed seemed to be experiencing deep emotions behind the scenes, was never one to express any kind of emotional depth when something in his life went wrong beyond assuring those around him that he was “fine,” and maintaining a stoic, unchanging expression, or perhaps a superficial smile that would only run skin-deep, even when it was blatantly obvious he was not okay. During the conversation, for the first time, he shared with me a story of how growing up he used to be extremely sensitive, and frequently expressed his feelings, and because he chose to do so was ferociously bullied by his classmates, constantly being belittled for expressing healthy, human emotions. These experiences taught him from a young age that possessing feelings makes you weak, and the only way to be seen as strong is to appear very cold, regardless of the true feelings that lie beneath. This has led to a variety of unhealthy behaviors and issues due to emotional repression in his current life. To quote Dr. Gary Glass of Duke University in his discussion of the toxic effects of possessing a fear of emotional vulnerability “problems with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse often have their origin in unexpressed emotions.”

The experiences of my friend is one I’ve heard many times before, and caused me to contemplate my own external factors that have influenced the manner in which I express my emotions. Although I believe it’s very evident that society particularly imposes the concept that expressing emotion is a “feminine” attribute, and very obviously enforces this ideal strictly upon boys becoming men, I would like to argue that as a society in general we’ve become very removed and uncomfortable with accepting emotions and feelings, by any gender, and that this is intimately involved with leadership. In my experience, whenever I have expressed or conveyed an emotion, it has always been looked upon as displaying a weakness, and something that should be considered shameful, particularly if I ever wanted to pursue any type of leadership role. Because of this, as a woman in particular, I felt forced to overcompensate for how “strong” I appeared to be as to never be considered “weak” or prone to emotion. However, looking at the research of Dr. Brene Brown, who has studied this topic extensively, emotional vulnerability is one of the most important aspects of a workplace environment that can exist. She asserts that without it, there is no innovation, teamwork, trust, initiative, or risk taking, which are all things that are important in a work setting.

Because as a society it’s considered weak to express emotion, we naturally force any and all people that desire leadership positions to fit a cold, stoic, and emotionless mold of what we deem to be appropriate leadership behavior, all except for a few special cases that we term “transformational leaders” and shove into a narrow class in order to make ourselves feel more comfortable that emotionally intelligent, and even emotionally flawed, individuals could inspire and enact effective leadership. Because of this, and despite the fact that what makes us human is our emotional expression, our leaders are expected to make cold, calculated decisions and repress empathy and sympathy, and we as a society tell ourselves that the absence of emotion is necessary to make “sound decisions.” Whereas I’m not trying to make the case that leaders should show a mess of emotions or be unpredictable, as too much of anything is never good, I do think we should stop enforcing the construct that emotions are flawed and incorrect, and emotional intelligence and vulnerability has no place in leadership roles. I find it strange that emotions are the number one most influential tool in moving and inspiring followers to action, and the most effective way in lighting an internal spark and fire within us, something we all feel when we hear a moving speech, and why we feel so passionate when we hear a story of someone overcoming insurmountable tragedy and becoming successful. We tell ourselves this naturally occurring reaction is shameful, when in reality, it is not only what inspires us to admire great leaders, but is very literally what makes us human, and what makes us beautiful.




I’ve attached a short,  5 minute video of Dr. Brene Brown discussing emotional vulnerability and leadership in the work place, also incorporating gender roles:

Brene Brown–Vulnerability and Leadership


  1. I hear the saying time and time again, “a leader must be able to stay calm in a crisis.” Most people view emotions as a way that distracts a leader from such a crisis and I think that’s why leadership models are often focused around the masculine stereotypes. For a lack of a better way to explain it, feminine qualities (i.e. emotions) seem like a distraction to some leadership models. It is a true shame that we gender this leadership models and keep masculinity and femininity in a box because it makes this more complicated. I myself have experienced many similar experience as your male friend. During recess times back in elementary school, I preferred using chalk and drawing on the side walk with all of the girls (this was seen as a feminine thing to do), and I was teased for this. The interesting thing about this was I was teased my both genders of my peers. I don’t think being bullied sticks to one gender, it’s because each gender has their own idea about how a boy or girl is supposed to act. Leadership Studies is a pursuit to understand what exactly makes a leader a leader and what traits, styles, stereotypes do they follow?

  2. As someone who is relatively open with her emotions, I find that sharing how you are feeling can actually be helpful in many leadership situations. There is definitely a time and place for everything, but I believe that expressing and being able to comprehend emotion allows a leader to better connect with and understand his/her followers. Emotion is what bonds humans together and why we come together for a cause in the first place. Without it, we wouldn’t have passion for our work, support from our followers, or connections with other individuals. For this reason, I find it to be rather upsetting that displaying emotion is often frowned upon. While it is important to be organized, collected, and rational – it is also important to know how to properly and effectively use the natural showing of our emotions to our advantage. We can use emotion to boost moral, increase collaboration, support one another in times of tragedy, and form a sense of camaraderie. Regardless of gender, emotion can be used as a powerful tool in successful Leadership if used correctly and appropriately. Instead of shaming people for showing their emotion, let’s teach them how to effectively manage their emotion and display it in a way that is candid, yet useful and productive!

  3. I always thought men were the emotionally suppressed gender, but I guess it could be a wider cultural establishment. Definitely emotions are considered to be a part of the private or domestic sphere, which is probably why they’re so associated with women.

    When I was reading your post, though, the thing that comes to mind is team building activities. When doing them with peers, I’ve often felt a negative pushback from most of them. They put on this attitude of annoyance or indifference, and sometimes never manage to put real effort into the task. This is because team building activities are often centralized on building a team through challenges that expose vulnerability. Trust falls and being led while blindfolded are a perfect example. Some team building work is conversation based, and asks people to reveal more personal parts of themselves. Even the playing of funny, foolish games requires you to look goofy with strangers.

    I’ve always been irritated with people who closed themselves off from team building activities because they aren’t willing to put in effort. This lack of effort could be detrimental to the forming of bonds as a team, because if a few people aren’t being vulnerable when the rest are, we get a bit nervous. I think team building activities should be employed more in companies. The trust and emotional bonds it creates are invaluable.

  4. I think the issue when discussing emotions and feelings in any case is that people automatically associate the concept of feelings with the act of crying which has been considered as a sign of being too sensitive and not being able to handle the task at hand. I think people forget that there are naturally many types of emotions and feelings that every individual can have which can be expressed in many different ways. Even the act of crying for some people is just a way of coping with stress, and is their way of releasing that negative energy in order to get to a place where they can begin to be more effective at whatever it is that they are trying to accomplish. Without releasing that energy through emotions can be more harmful as it may prevent individuals from being able to focus and to perform to the best of their abilities.
    As far as leadership I do agree that a leader must be emotionally stable enough in order to handle all of the unexpected twists and turns that come with leadership. However, I think that it is more realistic to expect that individuals be able to control their emotions and to perform despite their emotions, rather than to not have them at all.

  5. In modern day society, there’s a lot of issues around emotion. In general, women are seen as more emotional beings, so it is more accepted when women cry or be emotional. In fact, a lot of times, it is expected, and then there are problems of stereotyping and resisting when women don’t fit this role. Even with this acceptance, however, women are still considered incompetent or “overly-emotional” if they do. So since women are expected to be emotional, but they are weak for it, does that mean society just wants women to be weak?
    This standard is even worse for men. They are expected to be strong, and strong people do not get emotional. Strong people have everything together, and they do not need help. Strong people don’t cry. This thinking is causing a society where half of the population is completely cut off from their emotions, and when they experience emotions, they don’t know what to do. It’s causing a fragile culture, and people need to be more accepting of emotional vulnerability. A leader needs to be able to show emotion because emotions are what motivate a leader to care about their followers. Emotions are how the leaders cares about the wants and needs of the followers over power, fame, or wealth. The followers are needed to be able to trust their leader and confide in them.
    Since guys are expected to not have any emotions, having emotions can lead to their benefit. At the link below, it details a situation where John Boehner started crying during a speech. He wasn’t seen as week or inferior, but he was seen as compassionate and able to gain more popularity from it. On the other hand, it talks of how women can’t cry in politics because of how weak and incompetent that will make them seen. It just “proves” women aren’t stable enough to be in politics. In short, emotional vulnerability is needed to break this double bind and allow for greater communications and understanding among society.

  6. I think we live in a society where people are encouraged to be very fearful of the emotions we feel. Emotions come in a range, and some emotions we feel are positive and some are negative. Some can be exciting, some can be peaceful, and some can be painful. It is especially the painful emotions that we become afraid of experiencing, because we do see feeling and expressing pain, insecurity, or indecision as a sign of weakness in ourselves, and we don’t let ourselves feel it. We try to numb them.
    However, when we numb our own emotions, we cannot selectively numb. When we numb sadness, we also numb joy and we silence our “heart’s” ability to give insight into our thoughts. In that, we also miss intuition, a highly sensitive trait that allows us to reason with our hearts. We do not realize that there are often reasons for the emotions we feel and that what we feel emotionally is reflective of a reality we are experiencing and we should examine it. It is one more sense that we can use to our advantage as leaders, and our emotionalism is trivialized when in fact it can be one of the most helpful forms of intelligence.

  7. I think it is an interesting point that you acknowledge that both men and women are now not allowed to be emotional. I had never put that into perspective until this class. I always knew culture said that men were not allowed to express emotion and women were; however, when it comes to leadership women cannot express it either because it is also looked down upon as weak. In recognizing this, one is recognizing that society is attempting to morph everyone into robots who walk around without passion.

    Contrary to the mentality of the average community, I believe the outward expression of emotion is a sign of inner strength. When I was a kid and would have a nightmare, my mom always told me that when you open up and talk about the details you won’t have the dream again because you are externally recognizing it was not real and once spoken, you feel relief in knowing you do not have to continue to worry about it and can move forward. I believe this equates to the scenario of revealing emotions. Once you verbally and physically address the nightmares rather than harboring them, you now have the ability to move forward for the better and grow in motivation and persistence as a leader to be successful.

    In regards to the video, I thought it was incredibly interesting that the women business owners were more resistant for weakness. In analysis this is because they had worked too hard at building a platform that separated women and emotion to be accepted by the male peers as a leader and for a woman to come preach on vulnerability completely counteracts their progress.

  8. I think obtaining emotional intelligence is an important skill for anyone, but especially for a leader. According to the oxford dictionary, the definition of emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. I agree with you Ari. I do not think expressing emotions makes someone weak, however, like you said, society often times seems to think so. I believe that understanding emotions is an important skill for leaders because it helps them understand why they believe what they do and why they want what they want. It allows them to realize that they may only be favoring a certain activities because they know that those will lead to an outcome that will make them happy, rather than one that is best for everyone. Therefore, by controlling these emotions, people are more likely to be better leaders because they will be more efficient since they understand all the different options and outcomes and can differentiate between the options that would cause them to experience positive emotions and the ones that are better for the organization as a whole. Emotional intelligence can help leaders foster relationships with their followers as well. In most situations, it is good to have a mix of a task-oriented and a relationship-oriented leadership style, so being able to create and maintain relationships with followers is vital to leadership success.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: