Your Flaws Are Probably More Attractive Than You Think They Are

February 13, 2019  • Emily Esfahani Smith

Weave: The Social Fabric Project contributor Emily Esfahani Smith writes a piece on Vulnerability for The Atlantic

Over the past year, visitors to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City have been revealing their deepest fears and wishes. As part of a special exhibit, museum-goers were invited to write down their secrets on small pieces of vellum paper and hang the entries on a wall for everyone to see. On one side, people posted their anxieties; on the other side, their hopes. Thousands of visitors contributed lines like, “I’m anxious because I’m afraid I’ll die alone,” “I’m anxious because I might miss my chance to become a mom,” and “I’m hopeful because life is beautiful and I will feel happy soon.” 

A Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful, which was on view from February 2018 until earlier this week, was a catalog of anonymous confessions, a place where people willingly exposed their weaknesses and flaws: “I’m anxious because I don’t have a home for my boys”; “I’ve relapsed three times since trying to become sober”; “I feel like I disappoint everyone in my life.” These more than 50,000 entries expressed thoughts that many people wouldn’t otherwise share publicly due to fear of rejection and shame.

But psychological research suggests that such fear can be overblown in people’s minds. Often, there’s a mismatch between how people perceive their vulnerabilities and how others interpret them. We tend to think showing vulnerability makes us seem weak, inadequate, and flawed—a mess. But when others see our vulnerability, they might perceive something quite different, something alluring. A recent set of studies calls this phenomenon “the beautiful mess effect.” It suggests that everyone should be less afraid of opening up—at least in certain cases.

The researchers—Anna Bruk, Sabine G. Scholl, and Herbert Bless of the University of Mannheim in Germany—found evidence for the beautiful mess effect across six studies involving hundreds of participants. Inspired by the work of Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work who popularized the importance of vulnerability in her books and ted Talks, Bruk and her colleagues define vulnerability as the willingness to expose yourself emotionally to another person despite being afraid and despite the risks. In their studies, the team asked participants to imagine themselves in a variety of vulnerable situations—such as confessing romantic feelings to your best friend, being the first to apologize to your romantic partner after a big fight, and admitting that you made a serious mistake to your team at work. When people imagined themselves in those situations, they tended to believe that showing vulnerability would make them appear weak and inadequate. But when people imagined someone else in those situations, they were more likely to describe showing vulnerability as “desirable” and “good.”

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