The Beautiful Mess Effect
In the age of social media, it’s easy to fake that life is going perfectly.
From posting all the envious holiday snaps on Facebook through to curating the ideal Instagram page, the influencers of today can depict what the perfect life looks like. The humble brag that was once reserved for only those they were close to, is now out there on display to all.
But amongst all the blessed perfection on social media, you occasionally get a ‘real’ person baring all. Instead of just displaying the ‘best of me’, and hiding the worst, which most of us tend to do, they show us a more accurate portrayal of themselves and their life. And we love it.
Even in real life, there are people we know who are a little more courageous in sharing their story than others. They make us laugh, cry and sometimes cringe, as they reflect back to us some of the more shameful qualities that we have that we don’t allow others to see. We don’t show those parts of us, but their vulnerability in doing so is endearing.
We cheer at the end of a movie when the protagonist confesses his love, we commend our kids for owning up to their mistakes, we urge our family members to seek help for their troubles and we tell our friends to have the courage to speak their mind at work. We love vulnerability.
Yet we still have trouble doing it ourselves.
I have written about the uncomfortableness about getting personal before. In fact, of all my writings, the one that was the most personal resonated the most with others. Because people like people being personal, but only as long as they’re not the one doing it.
This mismatch in the way we perceive vulnerability now has a name. The ‘Beautiful Mess’ effect refers to the way we take on a more negative view of our own vulnerability than we do others. We see vulnerability as courage in others, but a weakness in ourselves.
Recent research has suggested this to be true. The University of Mannheim tested participant’s perception of vulnerability in others, compared to their own vulnerability. In a wide variety of experiments, participants perceived their own vulnerability more negatively than other peoples.
The researchers speculated that perhaps this difference in perspectives could be explained by how we construe our own vulnerability in very concrete levels. Sharing our own ‘real’ is well, very real. Complete with all the things we can imagine that can go wrong in our lives, when we do get ‘real’. We think of the imaginary rejections, the pain, the judgement and the world ending when we share some of our ‘stuff’.
Vulnerability in others is viewed as more abstract, which without all the details of someone’s life, is seen as positive and risk friendly. That’s why we urge others to be vulnerable, but hesitate to do it ourselves.
This is the vulnerability paradox, as researcher, Dr Brene Brown describes: “it’s the first thing I look for in you, and the last thing I want you to see in me.”
But how can we do this uncomfortable vulnerability stuff in our own lives?
Perhaps it might start slowly with owning up to a mistake, reaching out for help, apologising for a wrong, or speaking up for our rights. It might be telling someone that a relationship is not working anymore, or it might be confessing our feelings for someone.
Any expression of vulnerability means an opening up of ourselves, even when there is a risk that it might not go as well as we want.
But in many cases, contrary to our fears, having that courage to open up and be vulnerable is often rewarded, many times immediately, sometimes in due course and often with only hindsight.
Being totally yourself, complete with all bests and all your worsts is going to give you the confidence to move in the right direction, even when it feels a little cringy at the time.
We like it when others do it, and what we see in others is often what we see in ourselves.
We don’t want to be a beautiful mess, but we all are.