Is Writing with Vulnerability a Sign of Low Self-Concept?

sad babyWhen I was a teacher, one of the worst things a kid could have, the thing that would hold her back throughout life and beyond, was low self-concept.

It was whispered about children, as though they would never get any farther than flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s because they had, you know:

a low self-concept

Of course, as teachers, we did everything we could—praise, special recognition, a paper crown on their birthday, stapling their paintings front and center on the bulletin board—in a valiant effort to make them feel better about themselves.

So they would have improved self-esteem.

There was nothing wrong with that, of course. Kids need to grow up feeling good about themselves.

But in the adult world of the creative arts, I find that the best writers, bloggers, and plain old communicators, the ones whose stuff I can’t wait to read, have a certain vulnerability. They let me in close, tell me what they’re really feeling. They examine themselves, bare their hearts and souls.

Admit their humanness.

I love Mitch Joel’s quote in his post, The Power of Vulnerability:

The heart and soul of great art is the ability for the artist to be vulnerable.

If being vulnerable means taking off the armor and allowing yourself to be hurt, it also means being open enough to connect with people on deeper levels—to touch the heart and not just the head.

Did Steinbeck Have a Low Self-Concept?

John Steinbeck wrote these words, after a particularly disappointing day’s work on his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath:

“I don’t know whether I could write a book now. That is the greatest fear of all. Something is poisoned in me. You pages—ten of you—you are the dribble cup—you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted.”

Okay, well, I’d say Steinbeck is baring his soul here (complete with “the cloth to wipe up the vomit.”) As brilliant as he was, he  doubted his writing ability from time to time and wasn’t afraid to admit it.

Another thing he’s doing? He’s showing me his humanness. I have doubts and fears. I’m connecting with him more because he has them, too.

My humor is rather self-deprecating. I never turn on others, so it’s safe because I am making fun of myself. But maybe somewhere in there, my readers can see a little of themselves, too.

Or maybe I just need counseling

I was commenting on another writer’s blog post once. We were talking about the creative process and coming to the desk ready to work.

I said, “Every time I sit down to write a new blog post, I think, ‘Okay. I wrote a good post last week, but maybe that was just a fluke. What if I can’t write another good one because that was the only idea I had?'”

Of course, I was expressing an exaggerated thought, but, still, there was some emotional truth there.

The blogger replied, “Maybe you should look into getting some counseling to feel better about yourself and then you might discover that you are a good writer after all.”

I was floored.

He totally didn’t get what I was saying— that thing that many excellent writers struggle with. We get recognized for something we wrote and we think, “What if they find out I’m really a fake? That I can’t really write a good blog post, or  a real poem, or an amazing piece of fiction?”

In my blog post comment, I had quoted from Bonnie Friedman’s amazing book, Writing Past Dark:

Every day I must prove to myself I am a writer. The knowledge goes away in my sleep.

If we are honest like Friedman, does it really mean that we have self-concept issues? Or does it mean that we sometimes have these feelings and, by expressing them, we hope to connect with our readers in more real ways?

Being a little vulnerable is one of the best ways to connect with your readers

We should not be afraid to inject a little vulnerability into our writing. To admit our fears.

To be human.

What about you?

Do you see vulnerability in someone’s writing as a sign of weakness?

Do you ever write from a place of vulnerability?

Do you think more or less of a blogger who is open and honest about her feelings?

A note to my readers who use mobile devices to access the blog: We just installed the plugin WP Touch Pro here at the Cat’s Eye blog to make the site more mobile-friendly. What this means is that readers on mobile devices (iPhones, iPads, etc.) should find that images load better, text is visible without pinching or zooming and the links and buttons are “thumb-friendly.” If you read the blog on a mobile device, I’d love to hear your feedback. (We’re still tweaking the settings.) And if you’d like to find out more about WP Touch Pro, or purchase it for your site, go here.  (Affiliate link.)

Make sure you don’t miss a post.

60 Comments

  1. Jennette Marie Powell January 24, 2012 at 7:41 am #

    The blog looks great on my Android phone! It’s a good text size too, but I like that I can pinch/zoom if I want. Some mobile themes don’t do that, and I hate them. Good topic, too – gave me an idea for my own blog – thanks!

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 24, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

      Your feedback on reading the blog on a mobile device is much appreciated, Jennette. Thanks.

      Don’t you love the ideas you get for your own posts by reading other blogs? that happens to me a lot. : )

      Reply

  2. Tammy January 24, 2012 at 7:54 am #

    I completely agree with you. Vulnerability makes writing “real”. It takes so much more courage to show our flaws than to present our first date selves!

    My blog posts that have received the most comments (and have been retweeted) have been when I show my vulnerability. Those are always harder for me to write, to make it not sound whiny and keep it genuine, but the pay off is huge.

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 24, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

      Yes, whininess is to be avoided at all costs, although I love a good rant post every now and then. My experience has been the same when I pour my heart out in a post. It just makes people want to join the conversation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Reply

    • Shakirah Dawud January 25, 2012 at 7:18 am #

      That’s my concern, too, Tammy, not sounding whiny about issues that I sometimes really want to whine about, lol.

      Reply

    • Claire January 27, 2012 at 7:01 am #

      Hi Tammy. I can’t seem to subscribe to your blog. It won’t allow me to put my email address in.

      Reply

      • Tammy January 27, 2012 at 8:31 am #

        Claire,

        I am so flattered that you wanted to subscribe!

        Thank you so much for letting me know that my site wasn’t allowing that. I added a new way on my site. Please let me know if that doesn’t work!

        Thanks again.

        Tammy

        Reply

        • Claire January 27, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

          Hi Tammy
          I think I have managed to subscribe now! Will let you know as I investigate further!
          All the best
          Claire

          Reply

  3. Mona AlvaradoFrazier January 24, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    Thought provoking post. When I think of my favorite writers and characters I remember their vulnerability, their humanness, and those things that made them real.

    It’s the same with the blogs that I follow. I tend to chose those that write from their truth, who are honest and go a little deeper than just ‘telling’ me something. It’s something that I admire and work at to become a better writer. When I read other people who ‘expose’ themselves it makes it less scarier for me to do so.

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 24, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

      Ah, yes. Because you can get information and education just about anywhere on the Web, right? But, for me, adding the commentary makes it more interesting, more real. Great point.

      Reply

  4. Annie Crawford January 24, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    Wow! Great post, Judy! I loved the Steinbeck quote. I actually think (not that I’m particularly good at it) that showing your vulnerability as a writer is NECESSARY, not just a good thing- otherwise readers won’t feel a connection to our work. Thanks!

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 24, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Annie,

      Several years ago, when I visited the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, CA, I bought the book, Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath. It was fascinating to read his thoughts on the writing process and the book as he was going through the drafts.

      I’m with you. The more we show our readers who we really are—flaws and all—the more attachment they feel to us and our writing.

      Reply

  5. Jon Stow January 25, 2012 at 2:23 am #

    Judy, I think it is important to write from our own personal point of view. When we do that we show a lot of ourselves and part of that is to exposing our vulnerabilities. If we don’t do that then we are going to sound like we are lecturing our audience. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being lectured to, and I don’t suppose many people do.

    It has to be personal, from the heart, but yes, when I write I always look over my shoulder wondering whether it is good enough. I always feel vulnerable, but that helps I think.

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 7:00 am #

      Jon,

      I think the lecture mode comes on when a blogger says, “This is what you should do,” rather than, “This is one thing I’ve tried. This is how I feel about this topic. What do you think about it?”

      And wondering whether it’s “good enough”? I go through that all the time. Because it could always be better, right? : )

      Reply

  6. Connie Carlson January 25, 2012 at 3:03 am #

    I do not see vulnerability as a sign of weakness, I see it as a sign of self-awareness, and elements of this in the writing is something I actively seek out when reading blogs. We are all imperfect, just like the world around us, and I think anyone who writes without at least some acknowledgement of this is boring at best and narcissistic at worst.

    I agree completely that our vulnerability, and in particular our conscious awareness of it, is what makes us human. I also think that the implied promise of being able to find this in others is why we have flocked so readily to the internet – suddenly there is an exponential increase in the likelihood of finding someone else out there that is struggling like I am, whatever that means, and may have a strategy that I have not yet thought of. Having company in our humanness is powerful stuff, and finding someone willing and able to put that out there in their writing is very engaging writing to me.

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 7:08 am #

      Connie,

      Great points. Hadn’t thought of it in terms of self-awareness but it makes sense. And it’s weird, because the Internet has made us both less and more human at the same time. Less because we have fewer in-person connections but more because we seem to find it easier to share our feelings in a post or forum, with that “anonymity factor” thrown in.

      I love it when someone makes me think in different ways. : )

      Reply

  7. Claire January 25, 2012 at 3:28 am #

    I hadn’t really thought of this before so was delighted that you brought it up. Thinking about it now, I think vulnerability in someone’s writing shows strength rather than weakness. Personally speaking, it is only in recent times that I have been able to write this way. And I would say that at this time, I have a better self concept than I ever had in the past.

    At first, I was nervous how people would react but I have had positive responses in which people also share their own vulnerabilty. We all learn something this way, that there are other people out there who feel the same.

    Enjoyed this post!

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 7:10 am #

      Claire,

      So being able to be vulnerable in your writing is tied more then to a good self-concept. And you find that when you share from the heart, it encourages others to do the same? Love that.

      Reply

      • Claire January 27, 2012 at 6:32 am #

        Yes Judy. That’s exactly it. Being vulnerable in your writing, the way I see it, is tied more to a good self concept rather than a bad one! In the past, I would never had had the courage to write about some of the things that I do now. Now, when I open up and share things like how I came to be a first time mother in my forties, the response is much more heartfelt.

        Reply

        • Judy Dunn January 27, 2012 at 7:20 am #

          Ah, now I know you! You are the Claire I’ve talked to on Facebook. (You need to get your self a gravatar!) I wrote a post on online avatars that has the link for visiting the site to get one:

          http://catseyewriter.com/2012/01/11/what-is-your-online-avatar-saying-about-you/

          I really love the topic of your blog. A lot of new, “older” mothers can relate to what you talk about. And I think that writing with vulnerability on that particular subject could be a very powerful thing.

          Reply

          • Claire January 27, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

            Thanks Judy. Yes, indeed, it’s me! Trying to put an avatar up but I think I’m being a bit dim!

            Reply

  8. Jeannie Leflar January 25, 2012 at 7:34 am #

    Love this post! I truly think allowing our vulnerability to show is a form of authenticity. We love knowing that other writers go through the same self-doubt as we do ourselves. I’d like to re-blog your article to share with others.

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 8:37 am #

      Jeannie,

      Yes. I think as writers, we are a pretty sensitive bunch. And that is a plus for our writing. Most of us seem to recognize that—in ourselves AND in other writers.

      And thanks for sharing this post!

      Reply

  9. Shakirah Dawud January 25, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    Ouch, I guess you’ll find someone else to expose your vulnerabilities to next time, eh? I wonder what that blogger’s vulnerabilities are, and if he’s ever shared them. As I tweeted, I think it’s something more–I should have said “greater”–than a “low self-concept.” It’s the very thing that keeps us writing. When we show that vulnerability to others, they get a glimpse of how much we love what we’re doing, and how much we care that it be the best. They see that we don’t care how good they think we are–that we’re human, and we can be better. There’s something to admire in that kind of humility, I think.

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 8:46 am #

      Shakira,

      Thanks for mentioning this post on Twitter. I’m not sure I am following you. I need to go in and do that. : )

      All good points you have here. I think sometimes we feel that admitting our fears makes us look somehow less capable in others’ eyes. I love questioning myself because it always helps me improve in some way, or at least be more aware of areas where I can improve. And, yes, we can always be better.

      Reply

      • Claire January 27, 2012 at 6:35 am #

        Yes, Shakirah and Judy. At first, I thought that showing my vulnerability and being honest about certain things would make me look silly or unstable in the eyes of some others. However, once I stood back and realised that I myself actually connect more with writers who show this side of themselves,that thought became invalid.

        Reply

  10. Kari Scare January 25, 2012 at 8:29 am #

    To be human.

    Vulnerability is a sign of strength. Vulnerability says that I am willing to be human, so that other humans can relate and connect and grow with and through me and my experiences. To me, writing from a place of vulnerability is all part of being authentic. To do otherwise would to deny who I am and what I stand for. Even if I don’t agree with what a blogger says, I can respect him/her for being open and honest about his/her feelings. If I get hung up when I’m writing, I try to tell myself to “be true to who I am” and to “be honest.” That’s the essense of being vulnerable for me.

    Reply

    • Claire January 27, 2012 at 6:39 am #

      Kari, I love how you expressed this. I totally agree that vulnerability is a sign of strength rather than weakness. It allows other people to relate and to know that they are not alone, that others go through what they go through. I have certainly become more connected with people by writing in this way.

      Reply

  11. Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    Kari,

    Yes, honesty and vulnerability go hand in hand, at least in my opinion. And it gets easier, the more time we hit “publish” with our true thoughts. I find that if I am thinking about something too much, there is the danger that I’m not writing from my heart, from that place of vulnerability.

    Reply

    • Kari Scare January 25, 2012 at 8:55 am #

      Yes, it does get easier. Thinking too much… that’s something I am very good at. If I think too much when I’m trying to write, it usually means I’m trying to “sound” like a writer rather than like myself. However, I find that if I mull over an idea (think about it) before I write about it, then the writing tends to be better. So, thinking too much helps and hurts me depending on how and when I apply it.

      Reply

  12. susie klein January 25, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    I love vulnerability in a blogger, that is what draws me to them. The majority of the good comments I get on my blog are from my most honest and vulnerable posts. I am a faith-blogger, so it appears that in the christian blogger world, being totally open about doubts, fears etc is pretty unusual. Sad.

    Reply

    • Kari Scare January 25, 2012 at 9:01 am #

      I like your term “faith blogger.” Very cool. I totally agree with you, by the way.

      Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

      Susie,

      I know what you mean. But what better way for a Christian blogger (or any faith-based blogger) to be. Open, vulnerable, honest. You are a great role model. : )

      Reply

  13. Beth Buelow, ACC, The Introvert Entrepreneur January 25, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Judy, great post. As others have shared, I think vulnerability is absolutely essential for good writing. That said, there is a balancing act if you’re writing a blog that serves a business purpose. For instance, as a coach, I want to appear competent in everything I put out. If I write in my blog that I’m fearful or scared of something I coach others to do, is that a turn off? Not at all… **IF** I share my fears and vulnerability in the service of the reader, with insights as to how I moved through the situation. In those cases, I hope a reader/potential client reads my words and says “You get it! You’ve been through this, so you understand me!”

    Honest blogging provides an excellent platform for people to begin to know, like and trust you – and I’m much more likely to trust someone who shows his/her humanity and powerful vulnerability than someone who believes “never let them see you sweat.”

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

      Beth,

      How nice to get a broader perspective on this. And, yes, absolutely. I wasn’t thinking in terms of making readers feel that you don’t know your stuff, especially if you want them to hire you to help them. But if you can present it in terms of “this is what happened to me and here is what I learned,” that’s a very powerful bonding experience.

      Writers as a group tend to be a tad more introspective than most folks so perhaps we share (or possibly commiserate) with each other more. In your last paragraph, seems like you touched on that in a blog post once. : )

      Reply

  14. Beth Buelow, ACC, The Introvert Entrepreneur January 25, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    OH! And IMHO, showing vulnerability is a sign of HIGH self-esteem and confidence in one’s self. You know you’re opening yourself up to judgment, yet you know you can handle it. You’re secure in your experience and feelings. You’re grounded in your truth and are willing to share it with the world for mutual benefit. That makes thoughtful (not whiny) vulnerability an extremely powerful thing!!

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

      Beth,

      Thanks for sharing that link on Facebook, too. I agree. Only when we are comfortable enough in our own skin can we share some of our fears and insecurities with the goal of helping others who might feel the same. That IS truly a good sense of self-esteem. Good point.

      Reply

  15. Patricia - Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker January 25, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    Being vulnerable is being honest and shows strength. Choosing to take a chance on being vulnerable takes courage.

    Reply

  16. Judy Dunn January 25, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Patricia,

    Thanks for the comment. It IS a sign of strength (and courage). I think you’re right about that. : )

    Reply

  17. Andria January 25, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    I agree with Beth B. To me, vulnerable writing is actually a sign of high esteem and self-awareness. It’s an ability to process our own fears, and use them to fuel our writing. That’s something I find very difficult to do at times, but it’s made for some wonderful writing sessions. It’s nice when we can learn just as much about ourselves through our writing as we can about our characters and their story.

    We just have to be careful not to let how our exposed self will be received in our writing stop us from sharing it.

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 26, 2012 at 8:21 am #

      Yes. For sure. Fears can be used in powerful ways in our writing. The unusual thing about a blog (as compared to writing, say, a book) is that we get immediate feedback from our readers. A wonderful thing, yet, at the same time, scary. Thanks for weighing in here.

      Reply

  18. Laurie January 25, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    My favorite writers are the ones that show me who they really are, baring their souls, and in the process make a connection with me, the reader.

    Every time I write, regardless of the subject matter, I feel I’m showing a little more “me”. Hopefully that’s a good thing!

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 26, 2012 at 8:00 am #

      Laurie,

      Good point. Some people argue that it depends on the subject matter. But a business blog can still inject personality and give us a sense that real people are behind it. I think that, as Beth said, it’s a balance. Thanks for contributing here.

      Reply

  19. florence fois January 26, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    Aw for the love of Mergatroid, Judy. Don’t go walking inside people’s heads, you might cause them to think. Being naked on the page, especially when time and gravity has rearranged those perky parts, is no easy task.

    But if we are not honest and raw, even in jest, the reader is cheated and when they feel cheated they abandon us. Maybe that’s why the best comics are those who cry behind their smiley faces, why comics often make great dramatic actors, they know the art of disguise, but they also know how to become naked and give something to their audience.

    Am I insecure? I even worry when I leave comments on a blog of an unseen face. I worry over an email. Maybe I should not have said that? I’d better not say too much. The risk of being real, however terrifying … is a risk we must all take. Even in what people think is “simple reading,” you know those genre books everyone thinks they can write during NaNo and slap a cover on and get all puffy over being published. Even in the so called easy stuff, if we don’t put those vulnerabilities out there we are doomed … not to insecurity but to insincerity. Thanks, I think I’ll go call a shrink now 🙂

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 26, 2012 at 8:15 am #

      Haha. I am cursed with an undergraduate degree in psychology.Seems to help me in writing, though.

      I know what you mean about the acting part. My daughter, who is (rather belatedly) finishing a degree in theatre arts, was in skits on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno several years ago. But I think her real strengths lie in drama. Somehow comics, beneath the surface, understand a lot about pain and sadness and vulnerability. She is in rehearsals right now for a play by an Irish playwright that deals with the impact of a murder on a family. She commented how hard it was to get “naked on the stage” but how when she does it in a rehearsal her and her director know it.

      And, yes, being real IS a risk. You summed it up perfectly.

      Reply

  20. Heather Marsten January 26, 2012 at 5:48 am #

    We are all vulnerable, even the strongest of us. Knowing our vulnerabilities and overcoming them are what strengthens us. I’ve been reading Donald Maas – the Fire in Fiction, and he talks about cardboard characters – with no dimension. Our blogs come out sounding like cardboard if we do not share from our hearts, and our hearts are vulnerable. Whinny is not good either, although a few of my posts in another blog wee whinny and drew people. But that is rare, and not something I’d want to be consistent in a blog. The whinny one was written years ago and was my testimony. My newest blog takes the hurt and turns it to something positive. People respond. If you go to the link in my current post, look on the left column, you will find My Testimony – that is the whinny post.
    Have a blessed day. Heather

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 26, 2012 at 8:28 am #

      What a fine line we walk when we write. I don’t normally whine in a post. That kind of post will probably attract a certain set of readers. I HAVE been known to rant from time to time, though. Sometimes something will get under my skin and I just have to let it all out (like my post on apostrophe abuse). Thanks for pointing us to your “whining” post. : )

      Reply

  21. Di Mace January 26, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    Hi Judy,
    Courage is big one for me this year (it’s my word resolution:) ), so this post was very timely for me! We all aim to get closer to our readers, but showing that bare skin, dewey-eyed self is not so easy sometimes. I’m working on it….

    Reply

    • Judy Dunn January 27, 2012 at 7:26 am #

      What a fantastic word resolution! I need to make one. : )

      Bare skin and dewey-eyed? Great way to describe it.

      Reply

  22. Jack January 27, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    My best writing usually comes from a place of discomfort and or pain. That sharing makes it easier for people to connect and see that we are all just people.

    Reply

  23. Judy Dunn January 27, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

    Why does that place of discomfort and pain produce such good writing and elicit such amazing responses from our friends and readers (as opposed to a “happy post”)? I think it’s because humans connect with (and remember) pain at a much deeper level than joy. And it’s something that bonds us as people on a journey on this planet. Great point, Jack.

    Reply

  24. Claire Hegarty B May 25, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    Personally, I think writers showing their vulnerability is a sign of strength rather than weakness. I have a higher self concept now than I ever had when I was younger and I write this way. I find that people definitely connect more with me and what’s more, they also share their own vulnerability.. Left a comment over at your blog. Loved the post as I hadn’t really considered this before.

    Reply

  25. CatsEyeWriter May 25, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    Claire, at first I had a quite a time connecting your blog comment to the person I chat with here on Facebook. Thanks for stopping by and joining the conversation. It’s such an important topic and so many people had good insights to share!

    Reply

  26. Sha'Myra October 15, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    My professo, Dr. Irvin Peckham, asked us to do some research on vulnerability in writing. As I began surfing the web, I stumbled upon your blog and found great insight. My favorite line is when you stated that being vulnerable allows us to show our humanness 🙂 I shared your blog with this class and I also attached the main blog for our class (which contains our individual links). Our main purpose for these blogs are to write and enjoy reading what others write. Thank you!

    Reply

    • Judy Lee Dunn October 22, 2013 at 10:25 am #

      Sha’Myra,

      Glad you found the blog and that this post was helpful to you. Best of luck with your writing!

      Reply

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