We all have a deep hunger to be known, respected and loved. But we fear being vulnerable, which is essential to being present with another. Why is being vulnerable so hard?
Our need to belong is essential to our wellbeing. But asking for the kind of connection we want is scary. It means we have to be vulnerable.
If we want to build a loving relationship or feel closer to someone, we risk rejection. Yet, we can’t enjoy the rewards of tenderness and safety without taking on some risk.
Connection starts with offering our presence. We can offer our presence in small ways — with a smile, or a safe greeting like, “How are you?” We can offer it in bigger ways like “What are you doing for lunch?” Or, “I realized today, how much I enjoy being with you.”
But the thought that someone might scorn our need, our loneliness, or our love is terrifying.
We hesitate to open up because we fear being vulnerable.
Here we look at some of our biggest vulnerability fears and healthy ways to address them.
1) We don’t want to get hurt.
If we ask someone for their company in some way, they might say ‘no.’ Being rejected hurts, even if it’s over something that looks small.
When a friend says they’re too busy to meet for coffee, we may shrug it off. But still, it stings. Worrying about being rejected can feel so uncomfortable you decide not to ask.
Finding strength when you fear being hurt:
It’s not just you. It’s normal to flinch a little inside, even over a simple thing like offering to walk someplace together.
Be gentle with yourself. See if you can tolerate that awkward feeling, and ask anyway. Making space for uncomfortable emotions is part of learning to care for yourself. It might be more difficult to reach out to connect with someone, especially at first. But that doesn’t make it a bad idea.
2) We’re afraid of conflict.
Watching a fight escalate can be terribly frightening. Growing up with caregivers who raised their voices, fought with fists, or used other violent behavior can be traumatizing, especially if you saw this repeatedly as a child. When this happens, a person can grow up convinced it is not okay to have emotional needs, much less express them.
You may feel unsafe to ask for what you needed for other reasons. Maybe you feel unsure about how to heal the injuries that can happen when people disagree. Conflict between people is inevitable. That doesn’t mean we’re doomed to hurt each other in our relationships.
Where to find strength when you fear conflict:
Healthy couples work to co-create healing. They don’t intend to hurt each other when they disagree. But if it happens, they attend to the hurt.
They listen until they fully understand what was painful to their partner in the conflict.
They look at the injury together, and offer comfort and appropriate apologies or empathy. Healing together is an intentional response to conflict in a healthy relationship.
Conflict hurts. But isolation hurts, too. If we forego exploring healthier ways to open up to friends and loved ones, we may end up feeling lonely.
Being vulnerable in a healthy relationship means you can be open about how the two of you are different, and still feel safe.
3) We’re afraid we won’t measure up.
If we struggle to connect with others, we may find ourselves facing this nagging worry that we’re not good enough. Some people feel deficient, like something’s wrong, or that they’re unworthy of another’s kindness and care.
“So many of us spend huge amounts of our lives feeling this way…. We’re not good enough, we’re falling short,” says Tara Brach, meditation leader, and author of Radical Acceptance and other books. A habit of self-judgment makes it hard to feel free to open up with others. “You can’t be intimate with someone else unless you have a capacity to embrace your inner life.”
How to find strength when you feel inadequate:
Learning to see that you’re hard on yourself is the first step to healing.
Healthy responses to shame are skills any person can learn. Shame-healing tools — or practices — include self-compassion, mindfulness, and grounding yourself in good self-care. By becoming your own friend, you develop the kindness and sensitivity that will serve you well in forming friendships with others.
4) The emotional world feels unfamiliar or strange.
Some of us don’t know how to deal with a friend who sees ‘below the surface’ — who connects with our inner world. Many of us grew up feeling distant from the caregivers in charge. Maybe there were two parents present, but not a lot of warmth.
While there may have been food on the table, and all the bills were paid, you didn’t have a sense of much feeling being shared among family members. Everyone kept to himself or herself.
So when someone new — a friend, or a romantic partner — laughs easily, is outgoing, or openly expresses a full range of emotions, you may freeze.
How do you respond?
How to find strength when you feel emotionally overwhelmed:
First, take the opportunity to welcome your new awakening. You’ve just noticed that you don’t have the freedom and ease with your emotional world that you’d like. You might become overwhelmed at first. You may even get mad at yourself for having to struggle so hard to work with your emotions.
Curiosity is a powerful healing skill. It helps you digest big emotions in small bites.
Know that no one is perfect in navigating their inner world. We need attuned, responsive people in our lives to help us. We’re all on this journey together. There isn’t a right way to do personal growth. Your growing edge isn’t ‘wrong’ for being different from someone else’s.
What matters is the curiosity and kindness you can bring to the process of opening up.
5) We’re afraid of looking stupid, needy or silly.
Our larger culture teaches us what it means to be successful. To a greater degree than we may think, our culture encourages us to ‘make it’ on our own. We’re supposed to be strong, be the help giver, not the receiver.
But asking for love, attention, or help soothing a hurt means showing you need something personal from someone.
Where to find strength when you feel ashamed:
Allow yourself to be human. The problem isn’t our need for others. The problem is not recognizing that our need to bond is natural, human, and essential to our nature as social beings.
What happens if we believe a standard that says self-reliance makes us respectable and lovable? We end up working hard to look strong and independent to feel accepted. But we’ll be terribly lonely.
Yes, being vulnerable is scary. It might result in getting hurt. But vulnerability is part of connecting in ways that ease hurt and build intimacy.
Why Vulnerability Is the Key to Personal Strength
Being vulnerable with another allows us to feel alive and connected. Being vulnerable and accepted helps you feel more secure standing up for who you are. The secret to finding your truth, speaking more openly, and creating deep, heartfelt love comes from seeking and finding what you need from those closest to you.