Part 1 of 3: Understand the importance of vulnerability in professional practice

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Building on the topic of supervision and receiving feedback covered in the previous module, let us now move onto the topic of  learning. As a student, learning is key to your development. It is possibly also the reason why you decided to study in the first place! Learning can however also be very challenging. New concepts, new content, new information and even new people – it is therefore no doubt that the words ‘a steep learning curve’ are often associated with learning!


The research conducted to develop this resource indicated that one key aspect of learning was vulnerability (Mr Steggall also mentioned vulnerability in the previous learning topic when talking about supervision). That is, supervisors found that students who were willing to remain open-minded, were willing to ask questions and listen to the answers, who were willing to be challenged (even if they had been working in the field for a long time) and were willing to be honest about what concepts/tasks they were struggling with had a more positive placement experience.  This is not surprising.


Dr. Brené Brown, a leading academic who is not only very well known for her research on vulnerability but is also the author of Daring Greatly  (#1 New York Times Bestseller). In this work, she notes that vulnerability opens us up to pain and tragedy, but also to love, joy, and connection. It is therefore closely linked to learning. In fact, Dr Brown says that learning itself is inherently vulnerable as it pushes us to leave our comfort zones, and learn in a more personal, intentional way. She argues that a good way to learn is to embrace failures as opportunities for learning and growth. It is however important to note that being vulnerable is not the same as ‘spilling your guts’ or ‘working your issues out’. A placement agency or even a workplace is most often not the place for that. Instead, it is an opportunity to share your emotions and experiences, to communicate your ideas, your views and  to build meaningful connections. As Brown says, “vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability”.


Within the helping professions, vulnerability has been linked to higher levels of active listening, empathy and non-judgment. For example, research by Blakemore and Aglilias (2019) sought to understand student engagement with concepts of vulnerability, their own self-awareness and professional development.  They found that many students identified strongly with themes that focussed on having an “armour” (or the behaviours and tactics people use to protect themselves). In particular, students recognised that they protected themselves from particular experiences (p. 27). Factors that contributed to “armouring” ranged from personal fears to external factors, with the former being more prevalent. Examples included fear of judgement, lack of confidence, fear of not being good enough, and fear of not fitting in.


“I recognise how I have protected myself for many years by putting on my “armour” and moving through life. …trying to be strong, and not allowing any signs of weakness or vulnerability. Fear has been a defining factor in my struggles for self-acceptance. I fear failure, I fear insecurity, and I fear rejection” (Blakemore & Agllias, 2018 p. 27).


An example of an external factor included being hurt in previous relationships or environments.


“I have been ridiculed for my height, weight, and not wearing makeup.…Opinions of others have made self-awareness for me most challenging” (Blakemore & Agllias, 2018, p. 28).


Whatever the reason, it is important to note that most people experience vulnerability and have barriers to sharing their vulnerabilities.


“This week’s topic of vulnerability and self-awareness was a really challenging one for me, as I identify my unwillingness to be vulnerable as one of my biggest flaws.… It took a lot of effort for me to dig a little deeper and identify the reasons why I don’t like being vulnerable.” (Blakemore & Agllias, 2018, p. 26).


Given that from a professional practice perspective, avoiding vulnerability and therefore reducing self-awareness can mitigate the ability to connect and learn (Blakemore & Agllias, 2018), being aware and addressing it can be a valuable exercise.


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Activity 2.1.1 – Video with Q&A 

The next part of this resource focusses on a video-based reflection learning activity where Dr Brown talks about the power of vulnerability.


*Discomfort/Trigger warning: The following video contains content about feelings of shame, vulnerability, and sense of self-worth. Some parts of the content may be upsetting or disturbing. Please feel free to the stop the video or to take a break. You can also reach out to your Course Examiner for a discussion.


Consider the following questions while you watch the video:


  • As per the speaker, what do people who have a sense of self-worth have in common?
  • What surprising thing did the speaker find out about vulnerability? How was this different with the ‘shame’ lens of vulnerability?
  • Now take a few minutes to re-define vulnerability. What might make you feel vulnerable in your placement experience? How will you raise this with your supervisor?


Note: You will have the opportunity to answer the above questions within the activity and download them for later use. USQ Students are encouraged to download their responses and include them in the Placement Portfolio.



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Developing Human Services Practitioners: Scaffolding Student Learning in Professional Placements Copyright © 2022 by The University of Southern Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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