Why we Fear and Need Vulnerability
Vulnerability: The secret sauce of relationships
Whenever I’m at a party I’m inevitably going to get that one person who is going to be all like “Don’t psychoanalyze me bro!” “You’re psychoanalyzing me!”
I’ll look at them.
Then look down at my drink.
I’ll often say something like,
“It’s after five. I’m holding a drink. I’m in no position to operate a couch.
You’re good, you’re going to be all right.”
The conversation sometimes transitions into people asking me questions about love and relationships, even try to pull me into giving them either full blown free therapy in the middle of a dive bar somewhere, or giving them some freebies, like answering, for example,
What is the secret to relationships?
What makes relationships healthy and more likely to succeed?
How do you have good communication?
People often want steps and “how-to’s” that help them avoid having to deal with a thorny issue when it comes to relationships. I thought that it’d be important to talk about—right on the heels of talking about something heavy like rejection—our fear of vulnerability and being truly open with someone (I know, less heavy right?).
Why do we fear vulnerability?
We often learn when we’re kids that we shouldn’t express certain thoughts or feelings because if we do, they are going to harm or affect the other person—lead them to not want to be around us, reject us, or pull away from us. We learn to hide different things about ourselves. Partly to protect ourselves from injury or harm, partly because we believe that if we hide a little of who we are, we’ll get to maintain some kind of relationship with the other person.
And even though the relationship may not get particularly deep, even if it is superficial, it is still a way we can remain connected with other people.
And that works to an extent—when we’re growing up or in our first intimate relationships—but at some point relationships may hit a wall. They may not go deeper, or they may not have good communication. They may not even go anywhere. And not just because of poor communication, but because they lack something that is implied in good communication.
And that is vulnerability. Actually opening yourself up to saying the things you are thinking and feeling, the things you are afraid are going to cause injury or harm to the relationship.
When we’re right on the brink of being vulnerable with another person, we sometimes feel tension our bodies, often in our chest or our stomach, where we’ll feel both an impulse to share with the other person what we need, what we’re thinking, or how they make us feel, and at the same time we’ll feel this other tendency to restrict that impulse. It is as if something inside you is saying
“Oh no! Don’t tell them that, because if you do, they are going to go away!”
“If you say that, they are going to be afraid!”
“They are not going to like you anymore!”
“They won’t want to be around you!”
“Don’t say it! Just hide how you feel, and you’ll get to keep this relationship!”
Again, this helps us solve a very particular problem in our lives—it helps us stay connected, but only to a certain extent. You may not get the kind of connection you would want in order to thrive and feel real love, autonomy, and engagement with someone. Because in order to do that—in order to get those special goodies—you might actually need to be vulnerable and be open in a real way, a way you may have learned not to be because of trauma, things that have happened in the past, or even just the way you are with other people.
Why is vulnerability so important?
The thing about vulnerability is that even through we fear it—run from it like the plague—it is also the thing that brings us closer. Vulnerability is the glue of relationships, especially healthy relationships. Vulnerability sometimes doesn’t pay too well in unhealthy relationships, but at the same time it can also be a sign of an unhealthy relationship when you can’t be vulnerable without being attacked or put down in some way.
But in order to find, connect, and keep healthy relationships we do have to take a risk by being vulnerable. Often times when we’re vulnerable with the right person, it triggers something in them. Something that makes them want to come close to us and reveal their own vulnerability, perhaps even their own pain points.
When we’re having a disagreement or misunderstanding, sometimes when we share what we are feeling, or what makes us afraid in having that argument, that vulnerability can often serve as a bridge. It takes what might be an argument that divides us into a dialogue that brings us together.
For example, saying to somebody “When we have these conversations I get really nervous, insecure, and worry that something bad is going to happen.” Sharing that can actually lead the other person to say “Oh my God, I feel the same way!” And for a moment, what might have felt like an “us versus them” thing suddenly becomes a “we” thing. Vulnerability is a really great way to create a sense that we are in this together.
How vulnerability can heal us
It also helps heal something inside ourselves. If we do something that we are afraid to do, and find that nothing bad happens—no terrible catastrophe, we don’t get thrown out into the cold—but find that something good actually happens, it is a little experience that helps correct all those other experiences we may have had in the past that led us to be more closed off and less vulnerable.
In a way, similar to how we talked about rejection in the last post, the way to learn to get comfortable with being vulnerable, is to actually take little risks being vulnerable with other people, especially with the people we would want to get close to, like in our intimate partnerships and relationships.
It’s important to acknowledged at the same time that being vulnerable is hard. We feel that restriction in our bodies that tells us to not go there—it’s painful. At the same time, the fear of something bad actually happening is also real (based on our past experience).
If we let our fear of vulnerability get in the way of us living our lives and getting close to people, we
a) may never learn how to get over that fear or address it,
b) will always have some “thing” getting between us and others,
c) might miss out on people that might be worth being vulnerable with, and who could reciprocate that vulnerability by being vulnerable themselves.
The power of vulnerability is that it brings us together—if we allow room for it.