Vulnerability: The kryptonite of superheroes. How to turn it to your advantage?

Vulnerability: The kryptonite of superheroes. How to turn it to your advantage?

Do you believe you would be perceived as weak if you asked for help and invited others to contribute to you rather than doing it all yourself? Do you believe showing vulnerability will make you look weak? In this article, leadership coach John Williams unpacks the reality behind maintaining a superhero facade. He reveals why you are limiting your potential, hiding the real you and doing life the hard way if you’re not willing to be vulnerable.


Oct 11, 2022

5 mins read

Are you a superhero: the kind of individual that doesn’t need help and goes the extra mile rather than asking someone else to take on a task? Do you have a ‘toughen up and get on with it’ attitude to life? Is your mantra, ‘If it is to be, it’s up to me’? You’re a winner in life. You have it all: the car, the house, the holidays, the ‘to-die-for’ job all of your friends want to have. Your kids go to great schools, and their future is safe because it’s in your hands. After all, it’s your job to provide for and protect them. You’re smarter, tougher and work harder than everyone you lead, right?  These are comments and perspectives commonly shared by people who do not understand the power of receiving contributions from others. Instead, they regularly disempower those around them and inadvertently limit their own potential.

We all know there’s no such thing as a superhero in the real world. And yet far too often, men – and a growing number of women – feel obliged to act as if they are superheroes because to be anything less would risk being perceived as weak and vulnerable to potential failure. So, on they go, displaying Male Gender Roles (MGR) of toughness and status by showing off their anti-femininity trinkets and shiny things like the flash car, house, bench press numbers, marathon time, expensive clothes or the new Harley Davidson. They have very clear ideas on what’s powerful and what’s not. What’s not is treated like nuclear waste, to be avoided at all times lest one be perceived as too feminine or vulnerable. And yet they know full well that this display of MGR trinkets does not come close to displaying who they really are: their Unique Being or authentic selves. How do I know this?  I used to walk in those shoes. And I can assure you, there is a better way.

Feather, feather, hammer, truck

In the coaching business, we often talk of ‘feather, feather, hammer, truck’ as a metaphor used to convey how the universe communicates the need for change to an individual who resists change and lives in denial. As the metaphor suggests, the universe delivers a couple of subtle hints followed by a solid reminder before finally sending in the truck for those still missing the point! In recent times, I have found myself incapacitated by a knee that needs replacing. Despite the pain and limitations, my incapacitated knee has been a terrific blessing to me because it has given me no option but to ask for help. I have been forced into redefining my self-image and climbing down from my remaining superhero ignorance to greet the mortals for whom I’ve told myself, for most of my life, I was responsible to the point where I would sacrifice myself to make sure they had what they needed and ensure I was never perceived as being needy.  

Needing to ask for help made me realise what a lie I was telling myself. The real reason I did not seek assistance or admit my needs was that it made me feel powerful and, therefore, safe. The real reason I wanted to shoulder the burdens of others was that it gave me power over them. It was a toxic mix of fear and ego, and I would argue it is highly likely anyone who acts in this manner is being driven by these same factors. People who are living like this cannot allow themselves to be open to surprises; to be surprised is to be vulnerable! They often become controlling and even coercive. In extreme cases, research shows that men who subscribe to this macho way of being are far more likely to approve of or perpetuate Intimate Partner Violence.

I must be a postgraduate egomaniac, having already paid an enormous price by driving myself to burnout. I lost my job, millions in income, my marriage and, for a while, my children. Yet being disabled by a bad knee has brought a whole new level of understanding to my perception of how damaging and pervasive these MGRs are to individual men, their families, communities and the world. 

There is a better way! 

Learn to willingly accept help and contributions from others. In fact, learn to actively seek such contributions. Think of a water reservoir. If you are only ever drawing water from the reservoir, it will eventually run dry, no matter how vast it is. Whereas if a steady stream of water flows into your reservoir, the water you draw will be replaced, and you can go on drawing water at the rate of inflow ad infinitum. Better still, if the inflow exceeds the drawdown and the infrastructure is sound, the water will spill over naturally and effortlessly. My point is YOU are the reservoir! Your skills, abilities and energies are the water. There is a limit to how much you can give of yourself without seeking the assistance of others (inflow). Without accepting the contribution of others, you are doing life the hard way.

Willingness to be vulnerable

The key factor at play here is the willingness to be vulnerable. You must be willing to be vulnerable to be capable of seeking contribution. As I have written on many occasions, it is not so much that an individual has the choice of being vulnerable or not; you are human and, therefore, vulnerable. It is whether or not you are prepared to admit your inherent vulnerability to yourself and learn the skills associated with being vulnerable in a healthy and productive manner. 

The cost of denying vulnerability mounts exponentially while it remains invisible to you. Yes, wilful blindness plays a massive part in creating these costs. But even more significant is how you may be perceived by the people you meet and the role that perception plays in denying you access to opportunity. How others perceive you is core to how they will react and relate to you. And they usually won’t tell you how they’re reacting because their reaction is typically driven by feeling, not thought. 


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