When I explore with groups the topic of vulnerability, there are always mixed reactions and responses. Perceptions vary from vulnerability being a weakness to vulnerability defining what it is to be human. I rather like the latter. It’s not so much OK to be vulnerable as essential – we wouldn’t be human if we were not. The more potent question is ‘When is it OK to show our vulnerabilities?’
For a long time I was unwilling or unable to consciously share mine. If you will allow me to tell you a little of my story, perhaps you will ponder, as I do so, what’s your story?
I worked hard at school. When I sat the old-style GCSEs (O-Levels) at the age of 16 in the UK I was a straight As student (there were no A*s back then!). Driven and ambitious, I pursued a Maths degree to chase my dream to become an airline pilot. When, on graduation, that bubble burst (I failed the aptitude tests to join British Airways), I dusted myself off and turned my attention to Marketing. I joined Coca-Cola Schweppes in a sales role and worked my way up and across, later joining SmithKline Beecham to work on the Lucozade brand. In 1994, five years into my career, I landed my dream job as Product Manager on Lucozade Sport. It was the same year I got married and moved out of London to leafy Berkshire.
My role models for marriage fitted the Northern stereotype where I grew up: a hard-working Father and a Mother who did everything around the house. It didn’t occur to me to negotiate for a more equitable role at home and this was about two-decades before Sheryl Sandberg was to release her best-selling book, ‘Lean In’.
Long story short, I was signed off with stress, unable to sustain the commute and the demanding working hours whilst trying to build a home and a life in a part of the country with which I was relatively unfamiliar. I took 6 months out and then got myself a more local, less-demanding, job. I never told my new colleagues the circumstances of my job move. I may even have creatively concealed the gap on my CV.
When my first child was born two years later there were scant role models for return-to-work part-time Mums at Maritz. I was determined not to let my new role as a Mum get in the way of my work. I put in extra hours where they were needed and never knowingly dropped a ball. When my second son came along 20 months later I was still extremely focussed on work, giving my boss cause to comment at my annual appraisal: ‘tries to be superwoman’. I strove to never show a chink in my armour – at home or at work – and needless to say it was not in my nature to ask for help.
Now, I recognise my life so far has been extremely privileged. I’ve been fortunate not to have had any tragedies befall me or those close to me. Yet, that tendency to strive for success, always be strong, takes a toll. There are two things I have noticed as a consequence:
So, I wonder what you’re noticing for yourself. Is vulnerability a blessing or a curse?
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Helen Krag is a Senior Consultant at People Development Team.