Recently, I co-facilitated an undergraduate workshop about intentionally building connections with supportive faculty, staff, and peer mentors. In alignment with principles from relational mentoring, we collectively acknowledged that embracing some personal vulnerability was crucial for building meaningful interpersonal connections (Johnson et al. 2013, 2014; Ragins and Kram 2007). But, showing healthy vulnerability can be difficult for students and mentors alike.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, vulnerability researcher Brené Brown outlined ten guideposts for wholehearted living, which require grappling with vulnerability both within ourselves and in relationships (Brown 2022). These guideposts can provide a useful framework to build stronger mentoring relationships in higher education. Below, I discuss Brown’s (2022) guideposts and personal examples in relation to the “Ten Salient Practices Framework,” which describes central behaviors in high-quality undergraduate research (UR) mentoring (Shanahan et al. 2015). This framework emerged from an extensive literature review on mentoring UR from a multi-institutional research seminar hosted by the Center for Engaged Learning on Excellence in Mentoring in UR.

Guidepost #1: Letting go of what people think and cultivating authenticity. In a world that demands so much, pausing to reflect on whether our goals are really our own can be incredibly helpful. Values affirmations are activities that support reflections on whether our personal values align with our mentoring relationships or academic experiences (see an example at this link). Values affirmations have helped some of my former students realize their involvement in various opportunities aligned more with other people’s expectations of them rather than their own goals. Once they identify this, students can realign their goals more authentically and increase their ownership over their choices, aligning with the salient practices framework described above (Shanahan et al. 2015). 

Guidepost #2: Letting go of perfection and cultivating self-compassion. Sharing findings with wider audiences is an important but challenging part of the research process. Some of my former mentees were self-described perfectionists and struggled to feel satisfied with their writing. Self-destructive procrastination patterns can lead to delays and significant stress, which is all too familiar for many academics. The salient practices emphasize balancing rigorous expectations with appropriate emotional support (Shanahan et al. 2015). In alignment with this practice and to promote students’ self-compassion, my lab holds informal “writing meetings” where we work together on our individual writing projects for a few hours in the same space but are free to interrupt each other when help or reassurance is needed. These writing meetings normalize our common writing struggles, interrupt self-destructive thought patterns, and increase mentee access to immediate support during the writing process. These opportunities help mentees embrace their imperfections while still trying their best, allowing them to take ownership of their path and find solutions to move forward when the work can feel overwhelmingly challenging.

Guidepost #3: Letting go of numbing and powerlessness and cultivating a resilient spirit. Students may also need emotional support in areas not directly related to their research projects. I remember a past lab meeting that was quickly derailed because everyone was struggling with significant personal or professional challenges. To the extent that everyone felt comfortable, and through some hesitation and tears, some lab members shared the challenges they were facing. We collectively decided to postpone the work for the following week, and instead, we used the time to problem-solve for those that asked for help, provided social support, and improved our connections to one another. This helped promote students’ resilience in the face of challenges and improved the sense of community among our team, which is another salient practice of high-quality UR mentoring (Shanahan et al. 2015).

Guidepost #4: Letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark and cultivating gratitude and joy. Community-building opportunities can also be built into expressions of gratitude. Throughout the term, I try to take time to thank mentees for their creative contributions, persistence, and small wins along the way. At the end of each term, we hold celebrations (with potlucks, lunch, and/or desserts!) to acknowledge our accomplishments and what we felt grateful for that semester while working with each other. In alignment with the salient practices framework, this helps students collectively pause to reflect on their personal growth and the growth of their peers in intentional ways (Shanahan et al. 2015). This reflection can minimize competitive feelings grounded in scarcity mindsets and even provides opportunities for mentees to share their joyful and positive impressions of each other’s growth (e.g., “I know you worked incredibly hard through challenges with your research project this term and I felt awestruck by how you presented your poster so flawlessly!”).

Guidepost #5: Letting go of need for certainty and cultivating intuition and trusting faith. I explain to my students that research is inherently an uncertain process—we do research because we do not know the answer, and we have to be prepared to re-do tasks in different ways. But high-quality UR mentoring emphasizes teaching students important technical skills and knowledge relevant to the discipline (Shanahan et al. 2015), and while we may not know the end result of our research projects, we have developed knowledge and experience that can help us be more informed in our approach. This reframing can support students in grappling with uncertainty, especially as they progress toward applying for graduate school or going into the job market. Engaging in the research process can build students’ confidence and help them learn to trust the ways they are ready for the next steps in their academic journey (e.g., Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour 2007; Thiry et al. 2012).

Guidepost #6: Letting go of comparison and cultivating creativity. Many mentees may feel they are not “creative,” but the fact is, most adults make decisions each day that collectively and incrementally shape our lives in meaningful ways (e.g., decisions around relationships, learning, personal growth, etc.). If our decisions are intentional, then our creativity is exhibited throughout our lives. Through one-on-one mentoring or community-building conversations, there is great benefit in helping mentees see their unique backgrounds, cultures of origin, and past experiences as sources of strength and pride (e.g., Thurman and Miranda 2023). With this personal knowledge and insight, students could be more equipped to clarify their intentions during the pursuit of their education and think about their life as a creative process (e.g., Magolda 1999). Indeed, lifelong learning emphasizes ongoing and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge.

Guidepost #7: Letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth and cultivating rest and play. This is important for Elon, whose culture of busyness could be mitigated by a recently implemented Act-Belong-Commit framework (e.g., Donovan et al. 2006), in which students are encouraged to find supports and dedicate themselves to a cause. Similarly, I encourage mentees to pursue opportunities with intention, opting to engage in fewer opportunities more deeply, compared to pursuing more opportunities in superficial ways.

Guidepost #8: Letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle and cultivating calm and stillness. Academia can be riddled with anxiety-provoking personal struggles such as perfectionism, burnout, imposter syndrome, and repeated rejection (Jaremka et al. 2020). To combat this, I strive to eliminate after-hours work emails, and ask students about when they have taken moments for relaxation and rest. I use myself as a model by sharing my own restorative experiences (e.g., recent hiking trips), which hopefully minimizes students’ anxiety around my expectations of them and makes me seem more approachable. These are important features of providing students with appropriate emotional support during mentoring (Shanahan et al. 2015).

Guidepost #9: Letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to” and cultivating meaningful work. Finding meaning in research work means helping students see their own agency (e.g., Thurman 2024), helping them view challenges as opportunities for learning, and helping students see connections between their learning and the outcomes of their research work (e.g., awarded internal grant applications, research presentations such as SURF, etc.). Cultivating meaningful work also helps increase students’ ownership of their research projects over time, which is a salient practice of high-quality mentoring (Shanahan et al. 2015).

Guidepost #10: Letting go of cool and “always in control” and cultivating laughter, song, and dance. Admittedly, I cannot say much about song or dance, but my mentees and I have our fair share of laughter. High-quality UR mentoring acknowledges that relationships are improved when discussions do not always focus solely on research (Shanahan et al. 2015; e.g., discussions of new Marvel movies, emerging hobbies, etc.), and we have also changed up formats of connection by holding informal lunches or walking meetings where we reconnect over a few miles around our beautiful campus. We also recently participated in a book discussion hosted by our undergraduate research program on The Power of Fun (Price 2024). These discussions raised awareness that experiencing moments of fun is not an indulgence, but a necessity for flourishing.


Brown, Brené. 2022. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, Minn: Hazelden Publishing.

Donovan, Robert J., Ray James, Geoffrey Jalleh, and Colby Sidebottom. 2006. “Implementing Mental Health Promotion: The Act–Belong–Commit Mentally Healthy WA Campaign in Western Australia.” The International Journal of Mental Health Promotion 8 (February): 33-42.

Hunter, Anne‐Barrie, Sandra L. Laursen, and Elaine Seymour. 2007. “Becoming a Scientist: The Role of Undergraduate Research in Students’ Cognitive, Personal, and Professional Development.” Science Education 91 (1): 36-74.

Jaremka, Lisa M., Joshua M. Ackerman, Bertram Gawronski, Nicholas O. Rule, Kate Sweeny, Linda R. Tropp, Molly A. Metz, Ludwin Molina, William S. Ryan, and S. Brooke Vick. 2020. “Common Academic Experiences No One Talks About: Repeated Rejection, Impostor Syndrome, and Burnout.” Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science 15 (3): 519-43.

Johnson, W. Brad, Jeffrey E. Barnett, Nancy S. Elman, Linda Forrest, and Nadine J. Kaslow. 2013. “The Competence Constellation Model: A Communitarian Approach to Support Professional Competence.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 44 (5): 343-54.

Johnson, W. Brad, Cessily J. Skinner, and Nadine J. Kaslow. 2014. “Relational Mentoring in Clinical Supervision: The Transformational Supervisor.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 70 (11): 1073-81.

Magolda, Marcia B. Baxter. 1999. Creating Contexts for Learning and Self-Authorship: Constructive-Developmental Pedagogy. Vanderbilt University Press.

Price, Catherine. 2024. The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again. Dial Press Trade Paperback.

Ragins, Belle Rose and Kathy E. Kram. 2007. The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice. Sage Publications.

Shanahan, Jenny Olin, Elizabeth Ackley-Holbrook, Eric Hall, Kearsley Stewart, and Helen Walkington. 2015. “Ten Salient Practices of Undergraduate Research Mentors: A Review of the Literature.” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 23 (5): 359-76.

Thiry, Heather, Timothy J. Weston, Sandra L. Laursen, and Anne-Barrie Hunter. 2012. “The Benefits of Multi-Year Research Experiences: Differences in Novice and Experienced Students’ Reported Gains from Undergraduate Research.” CBE—Life Sciences Education 11(3): 260-72.

Thurman, Sabrina. 2024. “Strategies to Improve Mentees’ Ability to Build Their Own Mentoring Constellations.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. January 2, 2024.

Thurman, Sabrina L., and Oscar R. Miranda Tapia. 2023. “Considerations for Designing and Implementing a First-Generation College Student Peer Mentoring Program.” Journal of First-Generation Student Success 3(2): 143-53.

Sabrina Thurman is Associate Professor of Psychology at Elon University. As a first-generation college student from a low-income background, she is highly invested in working to increase access to higher education opportunities for historically underserved or excluded persons. She is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that build belonging, while maintaining a strong sense of personal identity, and that improve experiences for all people of varied intersecting identities. She serves as a seminar leader of the 2023-2025 Center for Engaged Learning seminar on Mentoring Meaningful Learning Experiences.

How to Cite This Post

Thurman, Sabrina. 2024. “Cultivating Vulnerability in Mentoring Relationships.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. April 30, 2024.