This article was originally published on Authority Magazine.

Being vulnerable and authentic are some of today’s popular buzzwords.  It may seem counterintuitive to be vulnerable, as many of us have been taught to project an air of confidence, be a boss, and act like we know everything.  In Brene Brown’s words, “vulnerability takes courage.” So is vulnerability a strength or a weakness? Can someone be authentic without being vulnerable? How can being authentic and vulnerable help someone grow both personally and professionally? In this interview series, we are talking to  business leaders, mental health professionals and business and life coaches who can share stories and examples of “How Authenticity and Vulnerability Pay Off and Help You Win Personally and Professionally.”  As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Annemiek van Helsdingen.

Annemiek is the Founder and CEO of the Academy for Soul-based Coaching. Annemiek and her team train coaches to let go of what they think is best, and instead help clients tap into the wealth of their own deepest knowing and innate capacity for change. This way, clients can make the changes that they want to have happen in ways that are unique-to-them, but also highly effective, embodied, and sustainable.

 

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was an eager oldest daughter, keen to learn and do my part. I was the kid who could do it all in school. The one who out-swam the two year older kids in the pool. And the one who was always reflecting and analysing, feeling outside of things, wondering why. It wasn’t until I found my personal connection with spirituality in my 20s, outside of the church I grew up with, that life started to make sense to me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?  

“Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you.” I have no idea when I first heard this, it has just always been in the background. It clicks on a cellular level. It doesn’t mean to step away from conflict, or to ignore where things aren’t working. It’s an invitation to be my best self and fight for what I believe is right for our collective well-being with respect and great clarity.

Because even though it’s not easy in the grand scheme of things, I whole-heartedly believe that we can create a world together that can serve us all. Working towards that is the most important thing we can do for our children and our children’s children. 

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Onbeing podcast with Krista Tippett has so many gems… The episode with John O’Donohue on the The Inner Landscape of Beauty is maybe the one that I loved best. I love how he brings together the mystical and the very practical of being human in his work. I love listening to people whose wisdom has been forged through the years, and who bring them forward with kindness, and sometimes piercing truths. They always inspire me.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly does being authentic mean?

Authentic to me means showing up as we are. Not pretending to be different. Being willing to share what’s underneath the mask that we were taught to cultivate as we grew up. Being willing to feel what is inside of us, and to be true to that. It means not hiding in plastic replicas of other people’s ideas about how you should be, and not automatically choosing to follow ‘the way things are done’ in a given system.

Authentic living requires huge amounts of courage. And a willingness to keep exploring. Because we are never done evolving and being authentic means that we even dare to let go of our own ideas about who we are, whenever a new evolution or a new part of us is surfacing.

Being human means to be an ever-unfolding mystery, with seasonal cravings for hugs, tacos, sparkly drinks and the like included.

What does being vulnerable mean? Can you explain?

According to the dictionary, being vulnerable means being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.

And we are, by definition, vulnerable as humans. We live in a vessel made of flesh, with some bones inside of us to keep us upright, and muscles to give us strength to move things. We live on a rock hurling through the Universe at incredible speed. A lot needs to happen to sustain our life. Our bodies can easily be damaged. And our emotional self is even more easily hurt.

But – we have created this idea for ourselves where we think we ought to be invincible, unbreakable. And we feel we have failed when we hurt. In a way we are scared to admit how vulnerable we actually are.

Think about it. With all that vulnerability, there have literally been millions of ancestors that collectively made it possible for you and me to sit here.

Each one of us is the product of an unbroken link across vulnerability – and yet we are here. That’s not by accident. There is a purpose in vulnerability.

At the same time, it’s important to see that systemically, some of us are in more vulnerable positions than others. When you are white, male, educated, able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered, and share your countries dominant culture, you have won the jackpot and sit in the safest available places in the arena of life. From an early age, we all develop skills of discernment to help us decide how much of ourselves we show in any given situation. But when you don’t tick all the above boxes, you are not looked after in the same ways by society, and therefore discernment is even more important.

Walking with authenticity and vulnerability is a dance that has many possible expressions. For me personally, I was the hard-working ‘good girl’ for many years in my career, as a (bisexual) woman with a university education in a relatively tolerant country (The Netherlands), until chronic health issues made that impossible. They forced me to live more authentically, even though my knees were shaking with every step. It’s the only reason Soul-based Coaching exists now, and so many people find their own authority and innate capacity for healing through this coaching process. Without daring to show more of myself, I wouldn’t have been able to share my inspiration with thousands of people around the world and see how this work helps them create more and more of the life they dream of.

What are the positive aspects of being authentic and vulnerable? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

Authenticity and vulnerability foster compassion and connection. But more than that, they also invite the people around us to take off their masks. And that creates big opportunities.

I’ll give you an example.

One of our mottos in the Soul-based Coaching community is “Show up as you are”. Which means sometimes messy, sometimes shiny, and often both at the same time.

And there are several reasons for this motto.

The most important one is that the masks that we tend to wear, for example to project confidence, are not the same as actual confidence. As an organization and community, we are more interested in developing actual confidence, without the masks getting in the way. Because the masks hinder learning and connection. And as a learning institution, creating an effective climate for learning is our top priority. If we don’t live that as the teaching staff, how can we expect to create that experience for our students?

As humans, we all have moments of insecurity and doubt – if we don’t there is likely something missing in our (self) awareness. It helps to see others struggle just like we do. There is tremendous relief and humanity in the room when we allow this to happen and see that sharing our vulnerability is not the same as being vulnerable. In fact, it’s often the opposite.

Our team keeps telling me that they have never been part of a team that felt so good, where they felt so welcome as themselves, supported and able to offer their best work. On multiple occasions, I’ve heard people say, “I’m still pinching myself, that work can be like this!”. All while they continue to do outstanding work.

Sharing where we feel vulnerable only makes us vulnerable when the expectation of perfection is in the room. When we create a blame and shame culture.

As leaders, we can actively help shape organizations that thrive because authenticity and vulnerability are welcomed. Where curiosity and respect reign. Where differences are explored and celebrated. So that it is safe enough to open up more and share more of what’s on the inside – which, as a sidenote, is an incredible catalyst for social and economic innovation.

But this means that as a leader, you have to go first and set the tone every time you respond to someone. And yes, this takes skill and commitment, because inviting vulnerability and authenticity is not the same as giving anyone a free pass for enacting drama.

The premise is that everyone in the room deserves to be there and has the capacity to do their work. They also have good and bad days, and they all have moments where they feel triggered in some way. Learning to navigate that part in an effective way as individuals and teams is part of the skillset that is very worthwhile to develop.

Are there negative aspects to authenticity and vulnerability?  Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

Authenticity and vulnerability can be a recipe for disaster when there are no boundaries in place.

When leaders do not have insight into group dynamics, or the skills to support people in taking personal responsibility for their part in messy dynamics.

And when there is no commitment in the team to maintain connection with others

An invitation for authenticity in your team is not about a ‘look at me me-me’ trip. It’s not a ‘woe me’ free pass. Or a ‘well, this is what I think, so that’s it’. Adults can be expected to behave responsibly and manage themselves. If they can’t yet, and lack the skills, then you need to show the way:

  • Introduce practices that support openness.
  • Be very clear on your attitude towards gossip.
  • Respect is non-negotiable.
  • Choose how you show up with consideration.
  • Be willing to mess up and be open about that.
  • Call people in.
  • Don’t make them wrong for messing up.
  • And keep taking steps towards what you would like to have happen.

This is culture design and culture creation in action. It happens step-by-step.

Here is an example of a practice that we do to invite authenticity and vulnerability in an effective way in our organization:

In the Academy for Soul-based Coaching, we have a global team, and when unsuspecting bystanders hear about our ‘Show up as you are’ rule, they sometimes fear that this means our team is one big drama, but in reality, the opposite is true.

All our trainers and support staff are fabulous human beings (why else would they be there?!). And part of being human is that we do all have good and bad days. So, we start our meetings with the question “What’s on top for you right now?” – to be answered in one or two sentences. The answers can range from: ‘happy to be here’, to ‘ran out of coffee this morning’, to ‘to be honest, struggling a bit this week‘. It is a way of welcoming us into the space as humans before we start to work on the tasks at hand.

It doesn’t really matter what’s on top because all of it is welcome. Acknowledging who we are in that moment means that we can all relax in our bodies, and into becoming fully present. Whatever is shared doesn’t need to be solved, it just needs to be witnessed and welcomed. And then we take our attention into work. People don’t have to necessarily feel good or inspired to the max every day to make excellent contributions. Knowing what’s up for people also helps everyone read the room, makes it easier to have compassion and fosters connection over time.

As the CEO, I am fully in on this practice. Presencing what is alive for me as I start the team meetings is a way of sharing my humanity. (Note that there is a big difference between sharing: ‘I’m noticing I’m a bit sad because of xyz’ and bursting into tears!) Our meetings are no therapy group, not in the slightest. Everybody is capable of looking after themselves and knows how to ask for support if needed.

This is just a little example – how we start our meetings – but it sets the tone in how authenticity and vulnerability are welcomed in our organization, and how it helps us thrive.

And as I shared, we keep hearing from the team what a stark contrast their previous work experiences were. How nourishing and connected this team is (even though most people have not met one another in the flesh), and how much freedom they experience to be who they are – again, while doing excellent work. I’d argue that we all do better work than we could in any other setting, and together make this team truly have the one plus one is three dynamic.

From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common barriers that hold someone back from being authentic and vulnerable?

Fear.

Fear of being seen for who we truly are.

Of psychologically speaking being ‘found out’.

Fear of being ostracized.

Fear of ridicule.

Fear of backlash.

Fear of falling short.

All of these can only be met by creating an environment where we show, again and again, that authenticity and vulnerability are valued, while we collectively grow and cultivate the skills to do this in a way that supports connection and the joint ability to act towards what we want to have happen as a group or organization.

Here is the central question of our discussion. What are five ways that being authentic and vulnerable pay off, and help you win, both personally and professionally?

Watch Annemiek’s video here.

The first way is to be honest with yourself – this alone can ward off so many problems down the line. What is it you feel, what is it you crave, and why? Are your choices still aligned with who you are? Is it time for a change? Build in regular moments of self-reflection to stay out of the hamster wheel of habit and routine.

Learn to express your experience in a way that helps others understand it, and that invites them to do the same. You don’t need to start a therapy group (although these can be great to attend). Learn the skill to have multiple perspectives be true at the same time. This is where life becomes interesting and rich in possibilities, and where new options are born all the time.

Learn to ask for what you need in a way that works in the context that you are in. Sometimes it seems there is a fine line between demanding and asking, but they are two different things. And it takes skill to stay with what you need until it is heard, so that it can be the starting point of a conversation. In the conversation, your needs can be taken into account and placed in the context, in relationship and reciprocity. And that is where they need to be – unless it’s non-negotiable. If your need is non-negotiable, and cannot be provided for, then take yourself elsewhere.

Create spaces where authenticity and vulnerability in connection is normal. In your family. With your friends. With your colleagues, your team. Show the way. Live and learn. Be open about it. Celebrate what becomes possible.

And finally, my last tip is to be super curious. Trust your niggles, when you pick up on an inner signal that you or someone around you is hiding behind a mask. Not because they are not allowed to have them. Everyone can choose how they show up. But kindness and curiosity, respect, and openness from you, can go a long way into inviting people to show more of themselves. And that is the gateway into connection, new possibilities, solutions and even innovation.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would teach everyone, young and old, how to truly listen to one another, and become curious about each other’s differences and similarities. So that everyone can find ways of living and working together from a place of respect. These are teachable skills, not just shiny values. They are part of the Soul-based Coaching toolkit, and they are impressively effective.

David Grove developed his Clean Language and metaphor work in the 1980s and his work has sparked innovations across many fields, from therapy to coaching, to management, to education, arts and sports. I think every kid should be taught in school, and every adult should be invited to join so that we can play catch up. If you want to start today, come take a training with us, or look up a Clean Language course near you or online, bring your curiosity and a friend. 

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I’d love to have lunch with Adrienne Maree Brown. Her meme curation is the biggest reason I’ve come to enjoy Instagram, but aside from that, she is a way-paver into different ways of being together, living together. I love how she brings her fresh and sharp mind together with her warm heart and joyful soul – and not to forget her soulful voice. She is full of integrity, and so very clear. I’d love to connect over what we are both working on in collectively co-creating our better future.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can subscribe on Academyforsoulbasedcoaching.com/newsletter.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!