“Being vulnerable is weak and shameful” is probably the most common and damaging false narrative men are indoctrinated with via intergenerational attitudes and many muscle-bound influencers. Even in the modern world, men are still taught and expected to glorify and revere the men who exemplify an outward aura of invulnerability: the macho tough guy with all the toys and who women adore. And yet this is a total fantasy, a departure from reality. Denying one’s vulnerability, regardless of sexuality or gender, is like an engineer ignoring gravity. In attempting to be invulnerable, you’re dismissing a core reality: “Everyone is vulnerable.” EVERYONE!
The delusion of invulnerability destroyed my wellbeing and nearly ended my life. And I am not alone in having travelled this road. Every week in Australia, roughly 45 men take their own lives, and 50% of us will suffer from a mental health crisis at some point in our working lives. Ironically, pretending you’re not vulnerable will inevitably make you more vulnerable, setting yourself up to fail. The walls you build and the masks you wear will limit your awareness of basic universal human vulnerabilities, leaving you with a distorted view of reality and even more vulnerable. Vulnerability doesn’t go away if you pretend it doesn’t exist.
What if I’m the top dog?
It does not matter if you are a highly skilled martial artist, a Navy Seal, a five-star general, the President of a Republic, or a renowned cage fighter; you are still vulnerable. There are medical journals full of medical conditions to which you, like all humans, are vulnerable. Then there’s mother nature, road accidents and mental health, all of which can turn your world upside down without warning. This conception of the invulnerable superhero is not only wrong, it’s also extremely dangerous. The more an individual buys into such a delusion, the more harmful it becomes.
The situation becomes even more dire when world leaders try on the cloak of invulnerability. Take Vladimir Putin, for example. On the surface, he promotes a belief that he is a super tough, hard man, making him the right person to lead Russia. Apparently infallible and broaching no criticism, he has created an echo chamber of cronies promoting a self-serving narrative that ignores the unsustainability of his actions and the likely consequences for his regime, Russia and the entire world.
On 24 February 2022, Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine, violating the world order by breaching Ukraine's sovereignty. One could argue Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a result of the actions of a deluded man. A man who has made himself so invulnerable in his position that he need not listen to, let alone consider, alternative perspectives. Putin cannot win this war, nor can he back down. He is caught in his own trap of invulnerability. However intractable this situation appears, it is not impossible to resolve, as demonstrated by Nelson Mandela and F. W. De Klerk when they brought about the end of apartheid in South Africa. Dialogue is needed to find a peaceful solution, and that will require a healthy dose of vulnerability.
Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk: a true example of the power of vulnerability
Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, former leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party (NP), respectively, were once fierce opponents in South Africa's struggle over apartheid. Despite their vastly different worldviews and the deep animosity between their parties, Mandela and de Klerk managed to overcome their differences and work together for the greater good.
Mandela initially sought talks with de Klerk's predecessor, P.W. Botha, in 1987. Instead, he engaged in secret negotiations with government representatives led by Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee. Trust was scarce during these talks, and Mandela rejected conditions for the release of political prisoners and the legalisation of the ANC. When de Klerk assumed power in 1989, he recognised that apartheid was unsustainable and sought a peaceful resolution. He authorised secret talks between South African National Intelligence and exiled ANC leaders, ultimately leading to his decision to legalise the ANC and free Mandela.
Despite opposition to his plans, de Klerk visited Mandela in prison, where they "felt each other out" and began building trust. This trust allowed them to overcome their differences and work together to end apartheid, despite the potential for backlash and criticism. Mandela's praise of de Klerk on his 70th birthday highlights both leaders' courage in their collaboration.
“You have shown courage that few have done in similar circumstances” – Nelson Mandela
Their willingness to set aside their differences and work together led to the peaceful dismantling of apartheid and the establishment of a democratic South Africa.
What role did vulnerability play in all of this? History indicates Mandela and de Klerk found the courage to make themselves vulnerable by allowing themselves to become targets for criticism and attack. Mandela made himself vulnerable to criticism and attack by engaging in a dialogue with the Government in direct opposition to factions of the ANC and other more radical groups. And De Klerk opened himself up to criticism and attack by first meeting with Mandela in December 1989 and then giving a surprise speech in February 1990, which led to the legalisation of the ANC and the release of Mandela and other political prisoners without first securing any binding obligations to cease violent sabotage aimed at the minority white government and people. Both men put their lives at extreme risk to achieve this monumental outcome.
Invulnerability – where does it get you?
The pursuit of invulnerability manifests as an unhealthy relationship with vulnerability and will prevent you from being everything you were born to be. It will stop you from taking action or speaking out. At best, the world will be minus your contribution; and at worst, it could potentially result in disaster if you choose not to speak up when needed. Alternatively, your arrogance may stop you from hearing warnings of impending danger.
Not being able to speak your truth will rob you of opportunity, as will not being able to hear the truth. You may choose not to speak up when you have a great idea, only to see it stolen by someone you shared it with. You might stay in a dead-end job because it’s safe. You may go missing in action (MIA) when situations occur where you might expose yourself to ridicule and end up with egg on your face. Or you could short-change yourself in a multitude of other ways. When the boss asks for new ideas, nobody suggests you have to lead the charge on your own. Just don’t go MIA.
When you are more concerned with looking good than doing what you know is right by yourself and others, you become one of the many ‘yes men’ of the world: the ‘tick and flick brigade’ who indulge in acts of wilful blindness, allowing disasters to occur time and time again. It’s like burying your authentic self beneath a cloak woven together by imitating and/or trying to impress others who you consider to be better or more accomplished than yourself. Here’s the problem with that: pretending you're invulnerable and adopting someone else's persona requires a huge amount of energy to avoid the lie becoming obvious. What’s more, it’s both unsustainable and downright embarrassing. Ultimately, authenticity and vulnerability are intrinsically linked. Pretending to BE invulnerable will rob you of your health, wealth and prosperity.