The Beautiful Mess Effect

6 Minute Read
6 Minute Read

In a time before social media and even the internet, if you lived in the UK back in the 90’s you will know the name Paul Gascoigne.

This dude was everywhere. As a footballer who should have been found in the back pages of newspapers, he dominated the front pages, as he did magazines, TV news, chat shows, mugs, pencil cases and pretty much everything else you can think of. He was made an honorary member of Oxford University’s junior common room, had a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork made in his image. Gazzamania certainly hit Britain hard.

Now, to give a bit of context here, I am one of those rare breeds of Englishmen who has zero interest in football. Couldn’t really name many teams and even less, players (and who also doesn’t drink tea but that’s beside the point) but seem to know lots about ‘Gazza’ simply from being exposed to all the hype at the time – there was little escape.

As talented as Gascoigne was on the pitch he also had this eccentricity off the pitch that the media, and population, loved. Like a super goal-scoring-class-clown. Though what made him famous, well more like catapulted to national stardom, was the event which took place during the World Cup in Italy way back in 1990 – Gazza cried.[1]World Cup 25 Stunning Moments Gazza Cries 1990


The reason that Gazza teared up was because he received a yellow card for a foul on another player. As this was his second yellow card of the tournament it meant that he had to sit the next match out. Considering that this second card came in the semi-final (yes England actually got that far, which is kind of a big deal considering England hasn’t won the world cup since good ol’ 66!).

Should England had of won, Gascoigne would had to of watched the world cup final from the sidelines; the realisation that hit him as soon as the ref shoved that little yellow dream-shatterer in his face.

This is interesting how a random, yet talented football player achieved such stardom over something so, well, normal.

If you didn’t live in the UK back then or lived under a rock and somehow managed to escape Gazzamania, it must be said just how much this guy was overexposed; almost a prerequisite for what was to come around ten years later – David Beckham!

Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me” Brené Brown


Surprisingly it was the tabloid media that went nuts for Gazza the most. The same media who traditionally keeps the old fashioned viewpoint of what defines masculinity alive; you know, that strong ‘macho’ type, yet it was them who reacted even pedestal-like to Gascoigne’s very public vulnerability – then Gascoigne’s talent and eccentricities took it from there.

Vulnerability can have an almost mesmerising effect. Vulnerability does not mean being weak.

To the contrary, vulnerability implies the courage to be yourself. It humanises us, makes us authentic and portrays trustworthiness due to the emotional ‘exposure’, even from people who we don’t know and this makes us more comfortable. It is naturally endearing.

Contra to this is someone who feigns vulnerability. On a subconscious level, we are particularly sensitive to signs of trustworthiness, and also to its polar opposite – untrustworthiness.

This is an inbuilt natural ability that most of has have refined. As a consequence, if a smile is fake, we are more likely to feel uncomfortable than comfortable.[2]Investigated whether corresponding facial reactions can be elicited when people are unconsciously exposed to happy and angry facial expressions. Just look at the negative reactions some (particular) social media ‘celebrities’ receive after they have feigned some vulnerability crisis on Instagram or in Twitterville. We can see through that shit like glass.

But vulnerability has a strange paradox. As much as we love seeing raw expression and openness in others, this self-exposure is exactly the same thing that we try to avoid showing others about us. Often, at any cost.

Vulnerability has been shown to be seen much more positively in others than in ourselves and researchers from the University of Mannheim in Germany call this the “The Beautiful Mess Effect”.[3]Bruk, A., Scholl, S. G., & Bless, H. (2018). Beautiful mess effect: Self–other differences in evaluation of showing vulnerability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(2), 192-205.


For one, where we recognize vulnerability as strength and courage in others, when we feel vulnerable ourselves it brings with it a sense of not being good enough. Because we feel not good enough, the last thing we want to do is share this with the world.

We can feel embarrassed, not-worthy, sad, regretful and the last thing we want to do when we feel negative emotions is to open up to the world and say “check out my sadness”.

We put on masks, fake our smiles, deflect and basically lie, telling the world that all is well and carry on with our day. Continuing on like this over a long period of time is hard to keep up.

People will do almost anything, no matter how absurd to not face their negative emotions head-on.

Most addictions, from hard drugs to simply watching tv night after night are ways to numbing the pain we are too afraid to release, because releasing means we must accept, and accepting makes us vulnerable.

Our unwillingness to share ourselves, or be vulnerable is often caused by the sense of shame. Shame underpins most negative emotions and if we are not being truly authentic, even with ourselves, then we exhibit behaviors which has no depth. A painted smile, a false laugh or just following the heard in the hope to be accepted.

From personal experience, it wasn’t until I took a long hard look at my own behaviors that I began to see how ingrained this stuff can be.

I always knew that in certain situations I felt uneasy and so acted in ways that I thought others would expect me to act. That’s not authenticity but the complete opposite.

The trouble is, acting in this way just felt normal, even if others thought I was a bit odd, aloof or a bit of a dick.

With the help of others, support groups and particularly other men, I learned that vulnerability, although daunting, can also bring with it a sense of relief as, in my case, that constant attempt to be ‘accepted’ by others, fell away as much as I started to truly accept myself.

… and as for England … they lost that match and didn’t play in the final anyway!

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