Guest Blog by Mike O'Hara - Vulnerability as a superpower
Vulnerability as a superpower
Like everyone, the state of my mental health is dependent on a variety of factors. Traditionally, I have thought a lot about establishing a routine, sleeping well and minimising stress as the foundations on which I personally need to build my wellbeing. Increasingly though, I have noticed that the structural integrity of my resilience can be directly attributed, at least in part, to my relationship with vulnerability. And it’s a love/hate relationship, believe me.
My background, like a lot of blokes, does not lend itself to a natural affinity with vulnerability. Aside from the well-worn tropes around the ‘stiff upper lip’, a constant need to ‘man up’ and the fact that ‘big boys don’t cry’, I decided to pursue a career in one of the most vulnerability-averse professions that you can imagine. My thirteen-year career in the Armed Forces was a fantastic time that afforded me amazing opportunities and as an institution, the British military has made huge strides when it comes to mental health. As with any highly competitive, male-dominated environment though, showing any kind of fallibility would often feel like showing a weakness.
When I wasn’t at work, as a man of a certain age and persuasion I could be found in a pub or a football club. I was among great friends, but again these are not the kinds of places we generally think of as conducive to letting your guard down or talking about those dreaded ‘feelings’. I would have been terrified of what someone might think, say or how it would colour my reputation.
Eventually, under the influence of an untenable level of mental pressure and several pints, things did come to a head. I revealed my depression and anxiety to a group of friends and felt the cold wash over me; that full-body sensation you get in preparation for the inevitable judgement and humiliation. I had stopped hiding my emotions and abandoned the well-practiced approach of banishing sincerity at all costs. For a change I refrained from deflecting through humour and instead, at the point of crisis, finally showed my vulnerability.
I will forever have the utmost gratitude for the reception I received. I realise that I am exceptionally lucky to have been met with nothing but love and empathy in that moment. I wasn’t laughed at or humiliated – I was reassured and listened to. I fully appreciate that many of us who might encounter mental health challenges and find the courage to open up will not be met with this saccharine Hollywood moment. Prejudice, stigma and exclusion still very much exist when it comes to disclosing mental health challenges and accessing necessary support.
However, acknowledging my privilege does not change my unwavering view on the healing potential of vulnerability. I have increasingly come to appreciate the vulnerability that we all have access to in our own way. Often misconstrued as a failing or weakness, vulnerability is simply being willing to show others that, like them, we are human. In showing our fallibility, we empower those around us to feel safe to share their own challenges, should they want or need to. Whether it is being willing to admit that we make mistakes, experience bad days, sometimes feel stressed or need to take some time out, showing our humanity builds a connection with others that is hard to replicate in any other way.
In a workplace setting, the best teams are willing to embrace their vulnerabilities and operate on the understanding that, you know what, it’s ok to be human!
For the leaders or managers reading this, how willing are you to show vulnerability? It doesn’t mean you have to share your deepest, darkest secrets with your team, but role modelling the fact that we all have ups and downs might just help motivate that struggling colleague to reach out for some support.
I’m not the finished article when it comes to vulnerability. Not even close. I still self-deprecate in favour of sincerity and suppress my worries for fear of what others might think. I’m slowly getting better at exposing my emotions though and will continue to work at it. Most importantly, I know now that when I do muster the courage to speak up and take that leap, I’ve got that superpower to help me fly.
Written by Mike O'Hara (He/Him)
Director of Training at Start Within, Keynote Speaker, Mental Health Award Winner, RAF Veteran, Training Specialist