The Beautiful Mess Effect

There are times in our lives when things just feel… messy.

Perhaps we are dealing with conflict, hardships, relationship difficulty, addictions, financial hardships or misfortunes, or we’re just not coping as well as we’d like to be.

When we feel like we – or our lives – are messy, most of us instinctively try to hide that mess and vulnerability from others. We worry that our ‘messiness’ will be seen as weak, needy, unworthy, and flawed and we will lose love, connection, and approval in our lives.

But research shows allowing other people to see our struggles, flaws, and faults makes us more appreciated and admired by others. They see it as an act of courage.

The problem is this: we tend to see our weaknesses more negatively than the way we see those of others. Researchers have called this the ‘beautiful mess’ effect.

Hit play on the podcast, or keep reading, to find out more about the beautiful mess effect, and how embracing it can lead to a deeper connection with the people around us and greater mental strength within us.

Why vulnerability feels scary, but is actually strength

On a conceptual level, I think we all know that everyone struggles sometimes. Everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. Everyone goes through tricky, messy times. And yet, so many of us still hold ourselves back from sharing our true experiences with others, worried we’ll come across as weak, needy, or flawed.

But there is a cost to hiding and holding back.

When we hide what we are going through, we often suffer through it alone instead of seeking support. We don’t admit to our mistakes or apologise for them so that we can save face. We find it hard to speak our true feelings and needs which in turn can mean we don’t set boundaries with others or have the important difficult conversations we may need to have.

Showing our messiness is really vulnerable and vulnerability touches so many aspects of our lives. The ability to admit your mistakes and learn from them, apologising and making amends; the ability to confess your authentic feelings and express your needs in healthy ways. The ability to change unhelpful habits, have difficult conversations, and seek help in hard times— all of these kinds of things require intentionally expressing vulnerability. It’s true that they expose us to fear of rejection, which is our underlying fear, but what we often don’t see clearly is that the benefits of being brave and vulnerable far outweigh the costs of hiding, pretending, and holding back.

The ‘beautiful mess’ effect

The ‘beautiful mess’ effect was coined by a group of psychologists in an article for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It’s important to understand this phenomenon because what it teaches us is that we’re often not seeing things clearly.

Professor Dr Anna Bruk and her team researched hundreds of participants in many different studies. They found that contrary to what we perceive, having the courage to show one’s vulnerability often reaps good rewards.

Researchers ran participants through scenarios where they were asked to display intentional vulnerability or rate someone else’s intentional vulnerability. Each time, the participants rated their own vulnerability more negatively than when judging other peoples’.

The vulnerability included things like confessing unspoken feelings or admitting a mistake or flaw, singing a song in front of a group of judges, and so on.

Time after time, researchers saw that “we love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we are afraid to let them see it in us.”

What’s more, they found that if people can overcome this fear and be more open and authentic with their messiness, there are big benefits.

Research Professor and author Brené Brown summarises the beautiful mess effect in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, where she notes “vulnerability is courage in you and weakness in me.”

“The difficult thing is that vulnerability,” she says, “is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.”

The benefits of embracing vulnerability

If we can open up to allowing people to see our messiness (in a safe environment with people we feel safe with) it has many benefits.

  • Increases our confidence and self-esteem
  • Boosts our self-awareness and emotional intelligence
  • Improves the closeness and trust within our relationships – as vulnerability is the gateway to true connection
  • Improves our mental health
  • Increases our capacity for personal growth
  • Improves our ability to maintain good self-care

In short, it seems to be worth overcoming our fears to find the courage to expose our weaknesses. Only in this way could we discover greater strength, love, and meaning in our lives.

The secret to embracing your imperfections

Several studies have shown that the best tool to balance the beautiful mess is learning the skill of self-compassion. Studies show that highly self-compassionate people are much more able to embrace and express their vulnerability in healthy and helpful ways.

According to researcher Kristen Neff, self-compassion consists of three components:

  1. Self-kindness. A caring and understanding response towards one’s own suffering and flaws; speaking to yourself like you would a friend
  2. Common humanity. Recognising pain, flaws, and failures as an unavoidable part of life that happens to us all. 
  3. Mindfulness. A clear awareness of the present moment, neither ignoring or exaggerating the difficult circumstances in your life

Your mental strength practice – build your self-compassion

So for most of us, we are not naturally self-compassionate. It’s a skill we need to practice. The voice in our heads is, for most of us, not very self-compassionate. So if you don’t consider yourself naturally self-compassionate, don’t worry! Most of us aren’t. It’s a skill that we need to cultivate.

Here are 2 ways you can start to cultivate self-compassion and embrace your vulnerability and authenticity.

1. Try to replace self-criticism with compassionate self-talk. When the voice in your head pipes up and gets really mean and critical, try shifting your inner voice and tone to one of self-compassion. Try speaking words of comfort. Imagine a close friend was going through this situation, how would you talk to them? Try to switch your inner voice to that of a supportive coach instead of an inner critic. When you do this, really watch your tone. Make sure it’s warm, comforting, and kind.

2. Remind yourself of your common humanity. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone is messy sometimes. We all have flaws and no one has it all together. Remind yourself of this and try to accept yourself just as you are while also doing everything you can to look after yourself and make your situation better.

So let’s recap that –

  1. Replacing self-criticism with self-compassion. Try to switch your self-talk from critical to kind and compassionate.
  2. Remind yourself of your common humanity.

The next time you’re feeling a bit messy, try actively practicing the skills of self-compassion and authenticity to bolster your mental strength and bring more connection, support, and confidence into your life.

It’s true that there’s risk in vulnerability. We may get turned down, rejected, or cause others some inconvenience. But it’s also true that hiding our true selves, our needs, and our feelings usually causes even more problems in our lives and relationships than authenticity, bravery, and showing our beautiful mess does.

How can I deepen my mental strength practice?

  1. Why not try my free 5-day mental strength challenge? You can start it right away, and it’s designed to give you quick wins in your mental strength, well-being, happiness, and resilience.
  2. Get ongoing support for transforming your state of mind, in the Mental Strength School. For just a dollar a day, join Melli and other like-minded community members who are committed to mental strength practice. With access to powerful, evidence-based tools and techniques that will give you the unshakable inner strength you need to step into the best version of yourself.

Thank You For Listening

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