Vulnerability: The Heart of Connection

This is a story about the power of connection. A few months ago, I trained a group of male engineers on an Emotional Intelligence course. If ever there were a challenge in persuasion for a woman who loves talking about feelings, it would be male engineers. It takes courage and creativity to convince a group of logical men that not only do they have emotions but being aware of their emotions is a valuable skill. I often start Emotional Intelligence courses with a book entitled In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek and Christine Roussey, but for this group of numerically-minded males, I decided to forgo the emotional deep dive and start in a more familiar place with a graph called the emotion circumplex.

(adapted from Russell, 1980; Plutchik, 1997)

During the training, we used the emotions circumplex to expand our vocabulary by adding words to the roughly outlined quadrants above. The angry quadrant now included enraged, livid, annoyed, worried, and concerned. We discussed the concept of emotions as data that we can use to help with our daily decision making. The more words we have to describe our emotions, the more accurate the data (Goleman, 1996).

Although most people prefer to stay on the positive side of the emotion circumplex (Russel, 1980); we discussed how both positive and negative emotions have a role to play in our lives. Researchers at the Emotional Intelligence department at Yale University explain the impact of emotions on both sides of the circumplex on our thinking. Positive emotions expand our thinking, help us generate and consider new ideas and possibilities, while negative emotions narrow our focus and make us more detail-oriented. Positive emotions are good for creativity. Negative emotions help us evaluate and select.

We also discussed the benefits and costs of each quadrant. The anger quadrant, for example, motivates us to action and is useful for defending ourselves and others. However, anger is a signal to others to back off which can be useful at times but may also have social consequences. Additionally, emotions have a physiological toll. Anger increases stress on our cardiovascular system and decreases immune function (Salovey, 2000). By contrast, the low energy/ high positivity quadrant is full of words such as relaxed, loving, grateful. These are the states that many of us aspire to achieve as they are peaceful; however, we aren’t motivated much towards action when we feel content. A prolonged state in this quadrant can lead to stagnation.

During our discussion of emotions, I could see two men sitting next to each other with their arms folded. They were leaning away from everyone and their body language clearly sent clear ‘do not approach’ signals. During the break time, they individually came to tell me that they had sons with autism. They had a million questions. How do I help my son recognize and manage emotion in himself? How do I help him recognize emotion in others so that he can make and keep friends?  As they were talking, I watched them sink into the low energy/ high negativity quadrant of emotions. Their exhaustion from carrying this worry every day and the isolation they felt from being alone in this challenge was palpable. These loving fathers were full of anxiety about raising their sons in a way that gave them the best chance of success in life.

It occurred to me that these two men had approached me separately, so they didn’t know that there was someone else like them in the room! They only knew each other as process engineers at a manufacturing plant so I introduced them to each other as fathers of sons with autism. Moments after the introduction, they were deep in conversation and I watched as their furrowed brows relaxed and they shared moments of laughter. These two men had started the day as strangers, sat next to each other for hours stewing in the same worry completely unaware of each other. As they left the class that day, they walked side by side, one with a warm hand clasped on the shoulder of the other.

The next morning, they came into class together with the brightness that comes with the high positivity/ high energy quadrant – they were proud, optimistic and inspired. They told me that they had gone to dinner together after class and then met up again for breakfast. Today their questions had been replaced with information about their sons. “Both of our boys have a real talent in mathematics! Maybe they will be engineers like us! We both laughed telling stories of emotional meltdowns with the worst timing. It’s hard to explain why your 15-year-old son is having a fit on an airplane, but my new friend gets it!” They had found comfort in their shared struggles. Being able to share and release their worries and stress had allowed them to see the beauty in their sons as well.

This story is a living example of the statement by loneliness and connection experts, Cacioppo and Patrick (2008), that other people are a balm to the stressors and pain of life. This story is the reason that the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman (2012), ranks relationships as the most important influence on our wellbeing. However, when I reflect on this story of connection, I think about all of the missed opportunities we’ve had in our lives because we were not vulnerable enough with each other to share our truths.

Though both sexes can struggle to embrace vulnerability, men are known to have a more difficult time opening up. There are myths around masculinity that present barriers to connection. Masculine identity is often associated with strength, competence, and autonomy. Help-seeking or displays of emotion are considered feminine behaviors (Bruder- Mattson & Havonitz, 1990). However, male or female, we are all biologically wired for and need connection (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008).

Firmly rooted in a place of competence and autonomy, these loving fathers wanted answers and sought knowledge. However, often we find our answers to life in shared experiences and human connection. As vulnerability and shame expert, Brene Brown, writes in her book Daring Greatly “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity” (2015). When we are strong enough to sit with difficult emotions and uncertainty, we invite others on our journey with us. Only through the power of vulnerability and taking off our masks, can we find a genuine connection.

Brackett, M. A., Mayer, J. D., & Warner, R. M. (2004). Emotional intelligence and its relation to everyday behaviour. Personality and Individual Differences, 36(6), 1387-1402.
Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. WW Norton & Company.
Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence. Why it can matter more than IQ. Learning, 24(6), 49-50.
Plutchik, R. E., & Conte, H. R. (1997). Circumplex models of personality and emotions. American Psychological Association.
Russell, J. A. (1980). A circumplex model of affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 39(6), 1161.
Salovey, P., Rothman, A. J., Detweiler, J. B., & Steward, W. T. (2000). Emotional states and physical health. American Psychologist, 55(1), 110.
Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.

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