“Leaning In to Vulnerability” by Jena Eberly

Last week after work I made a routine stop at a bank in my area. I walked in, hoping to speak to someone in person about some updates I needed to make to my account. An older man came out of his office and in a warm southern accent yelled, “Come on in and have a seat!” After about 30 minutes as I prepared to leave the man gave me his card after I explained that I worked at a College down the street. He casually mentioned that he actually held a doctorate degree, to which I asked what field he received it in, wondering to myself why he was working in a bank with a Ph.D. “Theology,” he said. “I used to be a pastor.”

To most people this answer might be a surprise. But to me, his answer nearly knocked me over. The man shared that he pastored for over 30 years and that he and his wife voluntarily left their ministry to move closer to their grandchildren. It was one of the most difficult decisions of their lives to uproot themselves and move to an unfamiliar community. After some time of unemployment, he put in an application to a bank to pay the bills temporarily until he could find something more permanent—most likely a church in the area. For the first six months or so he told me he really struggled with the change. Going from a church environment to a corporate one is very difficult, especially when you have been in a ministry role for nearly your entire working life. One day, however, he told me something clicked and he realized perhaps the bank was where he was supposed to be. Once people realized he was an ordained pastor his entire role began to change. Eventually he began to officiate weddings for clients, praying with families who asked, and becoming more-or-less a bank Chaplin.

This man’s story grabbed my attention because my own dad was a pastor for nearly 20 years before he and my mom moved across the country last year for a new adventure—and to be closer to me. Their lives are in such transition and it has been an emotional experience for my entire family. It has been particularly difficult for me to watch them leave the friends and the life they loved to take such a leap of faith. The vulnerability this man showed me by sharing his story turned out to be exactly what I needed to hear—someone else had been through a nearly identical struggle as my family and had come through it, not just with grace, but with success.

Vulnerability sometimes carries a negative connotation and we tend to treat it like a bad word. If we can admit to it, we are all private people and sharing pieces of our lives with others can be an emotionally monumental act of trust. Brene Brown (2012) in her book Daring Greatly dives deeply into this topic, defending the necessary and positive role vulnerability has in our society. She calls out a critical component to every human being: we are hard-wired for connection. We crave it and need it to have any purpose or meaning in our lives. Absence of such connection, and absence of love and belonging, leads to suffering. Brown describes two groups: those who believe they are worthy of love and belonging, and those who do not. She classifies those who do believe they are worthy as “Wholehearted” and describes throughout her book the discovery that “vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful experiences” (p. 12).

My own relationship with vulnerability has been a turbulent one this year. My personal trigger kicked in when my parents moved across the country. I was so happy they were closer but also grieving what felt like the loss of my past. While my parents packed up our house in Arizona, I packed up my apartment in Chicago, and prepared to start a new job in a new functional area as a freshly minted master’s graduate. My whole world felt turned on its head. If I can pinpoint the deepest part of my struggle it is that what I feared most was losing connection. I was excited to start my professional career but torn at the same time with the grief I saw in my family. This translated into shame—that they were giving up so much of their lives to move and I knew my geographic location was part of the reason why. Compound this with being an only child and you have a deep sense of responsibility mixed with deep shame mixed with what was probably a quarter-life crisis. I began to fear, deeply fear, losing connection to the foundation of who I was. Living in a new geographic location, sometimes multiple times, is a normal part of many people’s lives. Visiting my hometown instead of “going home” was not the hard part. What I truly feared was not belonging…anywhere. And this, I discovered, was more important to me than anything else. I will have dreams about losing people or memories or places I love long before I will ever have a dream about losing a key for work. Fearing these dreams to be reality called into question what I felt I was connected to at all and what would happen if I lost it.

At its very core “wholeheartedness”, as Brown describes, is about “facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough” (Brown, 2012, p. 29). Our ability to believe this in a world where we never have enough of anything doesn’t just take faith. It takes courage. Vulnerability is authenticity in action—showing your whole heart, the foundation of you who are, knowing full well you are taking a risk by doing so. We don’t talk about our own vulnerability and our relationship with it in the same way we talk about our strengths and weakness. Sheryl Sandberg (2013) in her book, Lean In, addresses the importance of vulnerability through the lens of self-advocacy and lays out a very convincing argument for why women need to be brave and take a seat at the table. Sandberg tackles this topic on multiple fronts, but highlights a key player for both men and women: emotion. Both Brown and Sandberg describe the double-bind women face with emotion, especially in the workplace. We are encouraged to be honest, but not upset anyone. If we are too emotional, women can be labeled as hysterical. Too detached, and we become coldhearted (Brown, 2012). Drawing a link between motivation, advocacy, and connection, Sandberg synthesizes what both men and women have internalized:

“Motivation comes from working on things we care about. It also comes from working with people we are about. To really care about others, we have to understand them—what they like and dislike, what they feel as well as think. Emotion drives both men and women and influences every decision we make. Recognizing the role emotions play and being willing to discuss them makes us better managers, partners, and peers” (On kindle: location 1301 of 3870).

Sandberg explains that in an era where our social media feeds are constantly updated and personal expression surrounds us, the idea that we have separate personalities at work and outside of it are unrealistic. I agree with Sandberg that we benefit from “expressing our truth, talking about personal situations, and acknowledging that professional decisions are emotionally driven” ( location 1310 of 3870). The ability to be transparent has a direct correlation to motivation, understanding, and outcomes. After much reflection, I began to look more deeply at the source of my fear. Allowing myself to be vulnerable and expose the fears that were consuming my thoughts ultimately gave me the freedom to discover the tools to let them go. I am convinced that vulnerability is key to growth, opportunity, and success—both personally and professionally. Belonging isn’t just something we associate with family or friend—it is engrained in our workplace. We use words like “community” in higher education to often measure success. But the truth is, we cannot sit at the table if we don’t feel like we belong there in the first place.

Recently, I had the privilege of serving as the on-site chair for the Women in Student Affairs Conference on June 1st at Lake Forest College. Peggy Burke, Associate Vice President for DePaul University, delivered her keynote on the topic of vulnerability, self-advocacy, and the inherent link between the two. Fitting the conference theme, Empowering Change: Sharing our stories, Finding our voice, women shared their own fears and what they believed was holding them back. By becoming more vulnerable with each other a sense of belonging emerged in the room as women’s heads began to nod, empathizing with stories or comments about various struggles that were being named. The willingness of some to be open and show their true selves, perhaps in a way they never had before, immediately connected every woman in that room. I spoke to only a few, but each of them indicated they felt a renewed sense of courage as a result of the stories shared. Literally, these women leaned in, sat at the table, and by being vulnerable, advocated for all of us to have the courage to do the same.

What struck me about this experience and the banker’s story was that the connections were made simply by being open and sharing stories. The banker was living out his vocational calling—it was just in a very different environment and in a completely unconventional way. But the point is, because he was brave, he identified his feelings of disconnection and ultimately found connection and belonging again. The women at the WISA conference who shared their stories gave others a renewed sense of strength simply by being transparent. These experiences and stories made a distinct difference for me. Their courage gave me hope to draw upon my own. If we can lean in to who we really are, we will know better how to advocate for ourselves. If we can stand up and invite others to connect with us, we will open more seats at the table. And if we can encourage a community of voices to not just be heard, but to belong, the positive impact on others will be inevitable.

Later in the week I told my parents about my experience at the bank and they were just as encouraged as I was by the story. Since that encounter I have been more aware of connections and the sometimes unlikely places they occur. When we allow ourselves to be truly seen, extraordinary moments really do happen in the most ordinary places. You are enough—let others see that too.

“When you stand and share your story in an empowering way, your story will heal you and your story will heal someone else.” –Iyanla Vanzant


Follow Jena Eberly on Twitter: @JenEberly



Brown, Brene. (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Sandberg, Sheryl. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.



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2 responses to ““Leaning In to Vulnerability” by Jena Eberly

  1. Thank you, Jena, for sharing and being vulnerable with us. There is such power in our stories. You have reminded me to take the time to listen to others stories as well as share mine.

  2. G

    As a new grad from Student Affairs, I presumed I’d have a professional and personal community no matter where I went. That simply wasn’t true. And to my shock, not every higher ed environment supports, embraces, and promotes community. Tough lessons never taught in grad school.

    Others (including myself) regularly compartmentalize pieces of life. My discussions have been both for and against. The issue is knowing who you can trust. Simply being vulnerable doesn’t automatically bring trust and community, especially in mixed-generation and mixed-gender populations.

    Now in mid-career I see I’m far more vulnerable with my students than with my bosses. In fact, (not to generalize) my male, Indian bosses basically stipulate no emotion, no vulnerability, and certainly no personal conversations. What an environment, eh? So while I appreciate the intent of this article, I still fear for too many of us, it’s not realistic in our daily lives.

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