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How to Heal a "Vulnerability Hangover"

Women-in-Leadership Series

Do you ever have that one memory that makes you cringe every time you think of it? Somehow, the event haunts you. We all have those moments, don't we? For me, it was a January day in 2005 when I was seven months pregnant with my second child. My boss and mentor challenged me to be more vulnerable at an upcoming leadership conference. (And, to set some context, we’d invite 400+ leaders to Baltimore, but there was rarely a line in the women bathrooms. I was the only VP.)

For those who know me well, perfection is not my aim. I don't pretend to be flawless, nor do I expect others to be. The pursuit of perfection is, in fact, overrated. Instead, I remain curious, always striving to be better, and willingly embrace vulnerability by acknowledging my weaknesses. However, when someone instructs me to “be vulnerable” I often find myself resistant and confused on how to do it without losing my confidence.

In 2005, my boss, an exceptional leader in a $2.5 billion company, possessed the perfect blend of confidence and vulnerability. When he challenged me to "be more vulnerable”, I couldn't help but laugh as I saw my large belly between us. I was 7 months pregnant. With a roll of my eyes, I thought: “More vulnerable? Ha. I am a walking symbol of vulnerability." However, I understood his request. It is something great leaders do and sharing your story was deeply ingrained in our culture.

And so, despite my initial resistance, I gathered the “Women in Leadership” into a small conference room with my boss in the room. I stumbled through my talking points about my insecurities and the struggles of being a working mom. It was not pretty. A poignant memory remains: when I scanned the room, some women, with tears in their eyes, deeply related to my story and challenges. Others, with eyes wide open, questioned, "Are you kidding me? Why are we discussing this?”

18 years later, my unborn son is heading to college and this memory continues to haunt me. Did those 45 minutes encourage some to quit and others to think less of me? Oh, I hope not.

Brené Brown calls this the “Vulnerability Hangover.”

Truth be told, I’ve had this hangover for way too long. Although I may have successfully displayed vulnerability and shared my story, it felt as though I was just relating to all the complaints. I was validating that mothers who are executives are confined to a box labeled, "I don't know how she manages it all.” And, when people look at this box it’s a mix of wonder and pity.

When my clients experience this “hangover,” I love going to this question:

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Marcy, it is essential to remember that only you define who you are, determine your path, and measure your pride. Embrace vulnerability not to validate the challenges, but to empower yourself and inspire others. Your journey as a working mother and executive is unique, and you should take pride in your achievements and the strength you possess.

And for those who may have that lingering "vulnerability hangover," here's my advice to all of us:

Start a new story that is also true about that memory. Let go of any self-doubt, embrace the lessons learned, and move forward with confidence, knowing that your vulnerability is a testament to your authenticity and courage.

Unify your team around the collective vision of success and team member priorities.

Uncover opportunities to work better together and navigate change with Teams by Revel


Revel Coach Co-Founder Marcy Stoudt is passionate about developing leaders, bringing teams together, and creating a work environment where people thrive. For the past 25 years, she has worked with hundreds of women and executives and has coached, taught, and inspired results through confidence and balance.

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