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Features / Miscellaneous

How embracing vulnerability can power innovation, creativity and change

Illustration:

Albert Tercero

From Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings illustrating his internal rage to Adele’s breakup album 21, time and again people connect with work that reveals something about an artist’s soul. But most of us spend our lives trying to avoid being this exposed, thanks to a pervasive belief that vulnerability equals weakness. According to research professor and author Brené Brown, fear of shame inhibits creativity, keeping us hiding in case we are not worthy or good enough. Through four books, including the number one New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, and one of the top five most-watched TED talks on YouTube, the University of Houston professor has helped millions be more open about their vulnerability. To find out more about the role vulnerability plays in the creative process and how we can face our fears of being fully seen, we take a closer look at Brené’s research and speak to a variety of daringly vulnerable artists.

Leonard Cohen wrote Hallelujah when his career was at an all-time low. Tracey Emin’s Turner Prize-nominated My Bed, which displayed an unmade bed surrounded by cigarette butts, empty vodka bottles and dirty laundry, exposed intimate details about her personal life and mental health. Marina Abramović’s art dramatises vulnerability, whether she is inviting the public to use objects against her or staring deep into the eyes of thousands of strangers. ‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change,’ says Brown in one of her now-famous TED talks.

The Texas-born professor has spent 16 years studying courage and shame and also runs a training programme for professional coaches. Among The Daring Way programme alumni is Roxanne Hobbs, whose consultancy helps women to be their true selves at work. We asked her to explain more about the link between vulnerability and creativity. “I always use Brené’s definition, which is that vulnerability equals uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure,” she says. “So I almost can’t explain how the two are not connected because creativity equals all those things.”

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While many commercial projects won’t require the deep emotional exposure illustrated in Hallelujah or Hello, creating something new always carries an element of risk and uncertainty. And the projects that do require a lot of self-exposure are often the best, according to Pentagram partner Marina Willer, who during her career has created identities for brands and institutions including the Tate, the Southbank Centre and Oxfam. “[Feeling vulnerable] makes you face the experience fully and almost embrace it,” she says. “Those moments can bring a lot of creativity and make ideas flourish.”

The situations that make Marina feel exposed have changed as her career has progressed. “When I was really young, I’d have a crisis with creativity,” she says. “It’s really hard when you’re just starting because you have moments where you don’t know what to do.” Nowadays, Marina’s design-related anxieties revolve more around how to maintain her business.

“[Feeling vulnerable] makes you face the experience fully and almost embrace it. Those moments can bring a lot of creativity and make ideas flourish.”

Marina Willer

However, Marina experienced a different kind of fear when she embarked on creating her first feature film Red Trees that was released in 2017. “Even though I had made lots of shorts, making a feature film is a very scary thing,” she says. "You feel, ‘shit, I’m really exposing myself to something that I don’t know if I’m able to do!’” Red Trees tells the story of how Marina’s Jewish father’s family travelled from Prague to Brazil to escape the Nazi occupation. “My mum asked me, ‘why are you doing this to yourself!’” she laughs. But for Marina, the discomfort of the process was exactly the point. “You have to be brave because otherwise you don’t move on and we can get stuck.”

It’s when we’re out of our comfort zones that we tend to create work that others will connect with. “You have to be in tune with your own frailties to write or create work that documents other people’s,” says Somesuch director Aoife McArdle, whose debut feature film Kissing Candice was released late last year. “Vulnerability is like having a secret passageway into people’s inner worlds, into the complex parts of psychology and the truths we all try to hide from one another,” says Aoife. “Those areas often turn out to be the most creatively fertile and compelling.”

Often the things we try hardest to hide are the things that connect us most with others, whether it’s fear, heartache or sadness. When we are prepared to share those things, it can have a meaningful impact on other people. "It’s those moments of recognising someone that has spoken your story or walked in your shoes and feeling like, ’I’m not alone,”’ says actress, playwright and coach for creatives Jude Schweppe. Alongside her work in theatre, Jude has clocked up more than 10 years’ experience and won multiple awards as a creative in advertising.

While recently struggling with a draft of a play, Jude realised that she was not allowing herself to be vulnerable and was trying to write while wearing a kind of ‘armour’. It was hopeless. “There was something missing, it didn’t click or hit the spot that I wanted it to,” she says. “You need to tell your emotional truth. The armour keeps us tiptoeing around the dream.” 

So if allowing yourself to be vulnerable could be the way to create your best and most impactful work, why do we all shy away from it? According to Brené Brown, it all comes down to fear of shame. And for her, this is the experience of believing that we are flawed and unworthy of connection. For example, the feeling of guilt, which is often productive, is the belief “I have done something wrong”, whereas shame is the idea that “there is something wrong with me. I am wrong”. Part of the frontal cortex of the brain actually shuts down when a person is feeling shame as the mind enters “fight or flight” mode.

“So if allowing yourself to be vulnerable could be the way to create your best and most impactful work, why do we all shy away from it?”

Our brains are all wired with a negativity bias, which means we are more sensitive to information that is unpleasant to us. Psychologists believe our minds evolved this way to make us hyper-sensitive to potentially harmful situations. And while having your ideas or work rejected isn’t exactly life-threatening, it can be devastating because it feels like a rejection of yourself, which triggers the shame-feeling that you are inherently unappealing and rejectable. Brain scans show that experiencing rejection activates the same regions of the brain that are at work when we experience physical pain. As Jude puts it, “It’s fear of somebody saying, ‘Actually, I’m not that interested in your soul.’”

While there is no doubt that everyone, male or female, can experience shame, the fact that vulnerability is seen as a weakness can make it particularly difficult for men to tap into their emotional worlds. “There’s a massive culture of shame within masculinity,’ says Elliot Barnes Warrell, whose spoken word film Bloke Fears illustrates the male struggle to open up. The verse describes men’s beer bellies as repressed emotions, which have built up in their gut over years of neglect. “We equate being emotionally strong with being emotionally dead, which is completely backwards,” says Elliot.

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And so it makes sense for vulnerability to be distressing and it’s understandable why you might not want to put too much of yourself into your work. This is why the first thing Roxanne gets her clients to do is to reframe vulnerability as bravery. “As long as we’re thinking it is a weakness, it’s going to be something that we avoid,” she says.

Roxanne believes we need to get more familiar with our negative feelings as they are happening. “We’ve forgotten what emotions feel like,” says Roxanne. From drinking to sex and over thinking to overworking, there are many ways people avoid facing up to their emotions and allowing themselves to feel. “They’re called feelings because we experience them in our body first and then our minds are supposed to tell us what they are,” Roxanne explains. “But most of us get it wrong.”

Instead of trying to understand the differences between our darker emotions, Roxanne explains most of us lump feelings of emotional discomfort together. Whether we are experiencing fear, shame or vulnerability, we often just say that we “feel shit”. Being this general makes it harder to cope with the difficult emotions. If we can distinguish between them, and realise that we feel vulnerable – rather than ashamed, for example –we can tell ourselves that it’s because we are being courageous.

So what does vulnerability feel like? “It’s like too much caffeine, it’s nakedness, a tingling on my skin or butterflies in my stomach,” says Roxanne. But people describe the sensations in a variety of ways. One of Roxanne’s clients from Finland told her that vulnerability feels exactly like coming out of the sauna and jumping into the freezing sea.

Shame, on the other hand, can make people feel physically sick, have tunnel vision or burst into tears. Thankfully, Brené Brown has come up with a “shame resilience process”. This involves learning to identify how the emotion feels in your body and what your personal triggers are. These might be getting a bad review, spending too much money or messing up a presentation. Triggers are personal, so a catastrophic situation for one person might be negligible for another. The next step in Brené’s process is to talk to someone who will understand. “When you share your story, your shame just dissipates, it thrives on secrecy,” says Roxanne.

Vulnerability is essential for connection and creativity. If we embrace it, the benefits will extend way beyond our careers. “At this moment in our history we need creativity and innovation more than ever,” says Roxanne, alluding to the world’s environmental crisis, depleting natural resources and political uncertainty – vulnerability that exists beyond the individual. “So we need to have a conversation about vulnerability.”

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