During a particularly difficult month, I had dinner with a dear friend who was going through a heart-wrenching breakup. He told me the details about the dissolution of his relationship, and I was honored to support him. Then he asked me how I’d been doing. After hearing about his pain and fears about the future, I questioned how much I wanted to share. While I had been struggling, a part of me believed that my issues were petty in comparison. But I pushed through my discomfort, apprehension, and self-criticism and let my friend in. I told him about how a recent interpersonal challenge had set off my symptoms of anxiety and how that had also caused feelings of depression. I told him how it impacted my sleep and appetite and how I felt unmoored. It was scary to be vulnerable, but it was worth it. My friend listened and expressed empathy. He validated my feelings. And I left our conversation feeling heard, connected, and cared for. In the weeks that followed, I would check in on my friend, and he would check in on me. I feel so grateful for his support, and it wouldn’t have been available to me if I hadn’t risked being vulnerable.
Many people hear the word vulnerability and immediately become uncomfortable. Vulnerability, specifically emotional vulnerability, can mean exposing ourselves and allowing for potential emotional pain. In our contemporary culture, vulnerability can also mean revealing our weaknesses and relinquishing control. It makes sense that we feel uncomfortable or afraid if we acknowledge that allowing ourselves to be open and exposed means risking being taken advantage of or hurt. We may even think we will be judged or viewed differently for sharing our deepest fears and insecurities. Or, in what’s similarly distressing, we may worry that others will invalidate our feelings and brush them aside.
While these are not guaranteed outcomes by any means, it would be a lie to imply that there isn’t an actual risk when we are vulnerable. Even when we feel slightly rejected, it hurts, and our brain processes the pain similarly to how it processes physical pain. The cost of vulnerability is the potential ache and discomfort, so of course, it’s something we would want to avoid. But this does not consider the benefits of vulnerability and when they may outweigh the costs.
When viewed through a more optimistic lens, having a healthy relationship with vulnerability can be a significant and essential component of building a healthy, kind, and compassionate relationship with ourselves. The type of radical honesty and self-acceptance required to allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable requires a great deal of bravery. Choosing to live as your authentic self can ultimately work to build self-esteem, strength, and resilience. And the benefits of vulnerability don’t just stop there; when we allow ourselves to be open and honest in our relationships, we find ourselves better able to build deeper connections, communicate more effectively, and engage with more empathy and understanding.
Vulnerability in Romantic Relationships
Vulnerability is vital to building a solid and lasting connection in romantic relationships, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Putting ourselves out there romantically and effectively asking someone to accept you as a person they could potentially create a future with requires a great deal of vulnerability in and of itself. When you meet anyone new, it’s natural to put your best foot forward. But at some point, if you want a genuine connection, you have to share the different parts of yourself with your partner(s) to create true intimacy.
Some go into relationships believing their significant other will ultimately reject them if they don’t continue to present themselves as the perfect partner. In trying to maintain this veneer of perfection, they deny their partner an opportunity to really see and get to know them. This act of pretending and hiding their other parts can ultimately bring about the outcome they fear most, as they don’t allow for a genuine connection to develop. It can also harm an individual’s sense of self if they spend most of their time in relationships trying only to show the parts of themselves they think their partner finds most appealing. By doing this, they can make a habit of ignoring their own needs to cater to whatever they think their partner wants. When we stop tending to ourselves and don’t see the value in expressing ourselves honestly, we may even come to actively dislike all the parts of ourselves that we don’t think fit into our partner’s ideal. This behavior can also create instability in a relationship because the connection will not be based on truth and honesty. What’s more, we may unknowingly begin to resent our partners because we cannot “be ourselves” in the relationship.
By practicing vulnerability with their partner, they can not only feel less like they’re hiding the deepest darkest parts of themselves, but they will also hopefully realize that those parts are all worthy and deserving of love.
Studies indicate that vulnerability, or “vulnerable disclosures,” facilitates intimacy in romantic relationships by making partners more responsive to each other. They also help us understand that when the parts shared include difficulties with the partner, this does not enhance intimacy like personal disclosures do when they are not about the partner. To have these tougher conversations and to be vulnerable about challenges within relationships, partners start by creating emotional safety in a relationship. This occurs when we feel safe being vulnerable and genuinely knowing that our partner will accept us and won’t view us from a place of judgment or criticism. When emotional safety is present, we can be our most honest selves without fear or shame. When absent, it can become difficult to talk about challenging topics or make space to honor our needs or desires, and it can be hard to connect and feel close.
Vulnerability in Friendships
For so many of us, our friendships are the relationships we look to that offer us belonging and care, starting in childhood. We often rely on friends for a sense of acceptance and understanding that we may not even expect from our family or romantic partners. And to have such close and supportive relationships, we must be vulnerable.
Frankly, it’s hard to make friends without being even the tiniest bit vulnerable; we have to share about ourselves to find commonalities and discover connections that will ultimately be the foundation of our friendships. When we try to avoid vulnerability in our friendships, we also deny our friends the opportunity to show that we can trust them. Being closed off can make any relationship difficult to maintain. People, in general, want to feel trustworthy, especially to those closest to them, and it can be immensely hurtful if their attempts to foster that sense of trust are denied through no fault of their own. Maintaining healthy friendships includes a give and take, which means sharing more openly and offering support when a friend shares with you.
Vulnerability at Work
Professional relationships can be challenging to navigate because there are so many unwritten rules we imagine we must follow about how we conduct ourselves in work settings. It’s not unusual to have a different version of ourselves at work versus our family or friends. And while there is something to be said for taking care to present your professional self at work, there are also benefits to allowing more vulnerability into your work relationships.
Most notably, this can help you foster a sense of mutual understanding between you and your direct superiors. Many struggle with allowing supervisors to see if they’re stumbling or when they find a task particularly difficult; they might even feel inclined to hide if they have personal challenges unrelated to their work, like their health or home life. Keeping their need for help or their outside lives private can seem like the safest option. We’re socialized to think that if we’re not perfect, uncomplicated, highly efficient worker bees at all times, there’s a risk of disappointing managers and potentially losing a job. But by hiding what’s going on under the surface, they aren’t allowing their employers to see that they are flawed people that could be dealing with various external factors at any given time, which could impact their work. In fact, by not allowing oneself to be open at work when struggling, an employer might simply attribute poor performance to a lack of care or hard work. By allowing vulnerability in the moments when you’re struggling, you’re allowing your employer to see what’s going on and support you if necessary.
Vulnerability in the workplace can also be beneficial for those in leadership positions. It’s not uncommon for people to have somewhat skewed perceptions of their bosses. Practicing vulnerability in a working relationship creates an environment where employers can feel more comfortable being open with their team. This openness can foster a sense of trust and a deeper understanding between all parties and create a more productive working relationship overall. A recent study surveyed employees from organizations across the country found that employees are far more likely to trust their employer and recommend their company as a great workplace if they feel that their superiors are honest and open about the organization’s challenges. Feeling like their employer trusts them is key to one’s ability to trust their employer in return, which can lead to higher employee engagement and satisfaction.
Practicing Being Vulnerable
Practicing vulnerability also can be incredibly beneficial to our mental health. Many people suffer unnecessarily when they try to suppress or ignore their vulnerabilities. We often avoid vulnerability in the aftermath of an experience of emotional pain that convinces us to develop a hard shell or barrier of self-protection moving forward. And while this tactic might protect us from being hurt in the short term, the long-term impacts can be detrimental. As previously mentioned, it can be nearly impossible to trust others without allowing for vulnerability, and living a life where you feel like no one around you can be trusted has the potential to be isolating and lonely. Walking through the world with constant hypervigilance and distrust of others would not only be exhausting but could lead to depression and feelings of hopelessness.
It’s human nature to want to feel seen and understood, even if our fears make that elusive. Many of us also avoid vulnerability because we want to project this image of perfection, which can also negatively impact us. Denying ourselves the chance to be open, honest, and accepting of our flaws and shortcomings by trying to present this facade of perfection can lead to negative self-perception, as no one will ever be able to live up to their own impossible self-imposed standards. By avoiding vulnerability, we end up preventing ourselves from being able to work through and process our feelings of guilt and shame which unfortunately won’t resolve on their own and can impact our lives in other ways.
So how do we work to resolve the fear of being vulnerable to live more openly and foster more intimate relationships?
Allow yourself some compassion and kindness: We tend to be our own harshest critics, and many of us shy away from vulnerability because we genuinely don’t feel we’re worthy of a compassionate, loving, or empathetic response from those we would open up to. Changing how we talk to and think about ourselves is never easy. Still, it can start with something as simple as a daily mantra or meditative practice to remind yourself that “I am worthy of love and understanding just like everyone else.” Write it down if you need a visual reminder, but tell yourself that every day, as many times a day as you need, so that when the doubt and negative self-talk start to creep in, you’ll have your mantra ready to challenge it. This practice may even help you realize that there is nothing you could have done to be considered undeserving of acceptance and understanding. And eventually, once you start believing this, you may feel it becomes easier to express yourself more openly and be more vulnerable with those closest to you.
Understand what’s getting in the way: Vulnerability and the emotions that may make us want to avoid it (shame, hurt, fear, etc.) can be complex and hard to recognize and address when experiencing them. For those that struggle with allowing themselves to be vulnerable, it might be helpful to actively take note of what emotions arise when you find yourself in a vulnerable moment. Or, in the aftermath of an exchange where you avoided the opportunity to be vulnerable, spend some time later thinking through what came up for you at the moment. What were you afraid of? How did closing yourself off make you feel? Do you wish you had responded differently? Please write it down to help yourself conceptualize all that you’re experiencing. It’s only through recognizing these potential barriers to vulnerability that we can effectively work through them and allow for more open and honest interactions.
Share more of how you’re feeling (the good, bad and ugly): When it all comes down to it, the best way to allow more vulnerability into your life is to… well, practice being more vulnerable. It might be easier to start with the positive things you’re feeling. And by sharing more of what makes you happy, you’ll find that you and those around you like similar things and have world views that are not too dissimilar, which can instill trust and a sense of acceptance. Once you’ve gotten more comfortable with that type of vulnerability, try to move on to sharing the less-than-positive feelings. If you’ve been hurt, rather than retreat inwards, share with someone that you’re hurt. There’s a chance that you’ll get a negative response. Still, more often than not, you’ll see that your honesty and vulnerability are met with compassion. Flexing this muscle regularly will soon turn what was a fear into a way of living and being that will help you foster a more robust and healthier relationship with yourself and with others.
Remember that vulnerability can make you stronger: It’s easy to associate vulnerability with weakness, but what if it was a way to demonstrate the opposite? As we previously mentioned, allowing yourself to be vulnerable requires a great deal of strength and can work to build resilience and self-esteem. In sharing the most vulnerable parts of yourself with others, you theoretically decrease their ability to hurt you by authentically and radically accepting who you are. You might still get a judgemental response here and there. Still, by opening yourself up in the first place, you’re communicating that you feel worthy of acceptance and compassion, regardless of anyone else’s opinion. By practicing vulnerability, we take control of our narratives rather than giving it up.
Of course, practicing vulnerability, especially after a lifetime of avoiding and rejecting it, will never be as simple or straightforward as these suggestions might seem. It’s such a complicated emotion that can get so entangled with many of the feelings we’d rather avoid, so it often just becomes much easier to suppress the need for vulnerability. To be vulnerable, however, we need to be willing to risk getting hurt, even if that goes against every protective instinct in our bodies. It’s vital to our ability to form healthy relationships, build community and ultimately live more truthful, compassionate, and fearless lives.
It’s also important to remember that we build up to vulnerability in relationships and when we practice it, it’s best to do so in safe relationships. There are certainly times when it makes sense not to be vulnerable, and there are relationships where it could cause you more harm than good. The research supports that being vulnerable is brave and courageous, enhances intimacy, and brings us closer together. It also reveals that when we haven’t already established safety and developed some closeness, it can be off-putting, and it can, in fact, negatively impact how others see us. It can be wise to take a step towards vulnerability and take inventory. How do you feel? How is the person you are practicing vulnerability with responding? Does it make sense to take another step in that direction?
I wish we were safe in every relationship and circumstance and that our society championed vulnerability across the board. While that’s not necessarily the case, I hope taking risks and developing this skill seems worthwhile. Please remember that we are here if you’re still unsure when and how to practice vulnerability or just need help with it. Reach out to us with the knowledge that you’ll be safe and that we know what it’s like to be vulnerable, too. Call or text (323) 388-5578 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.