Science has uncovered a long list of complex reasons why social connections benefit our mental and physical health. Having relationships and support can lead to longer lives, healthier habits, reduced symptoms of stress, and a greater sense of meaning. Most of us have personally experienced these rewards and don’t need a study to tell us why our relationships matter. However, despite our bent toward connection, we all hold certain patterns and beliefs that can lead us to resist the intimacy and vulnerability that are essential to not only sustaining these connections but also fully experiencing their many benefits.
Humans are naturally a social species. While most of us think we want close connections, we resist vulnerability, the very trait that makes that connection possible. In a culture that often praises having thick skin and staying strong and self-contained, we mistakenly brush off being vulnerable as weak. We believe it will unnecessarily expose us to hurts and humiliations we could otherwise avoid. But what vulnerability is really about is the willingness to truly be ourselves — to expose a softer side not hidden behind our defenses. As researcher Brene Brown put it, “Vulnerability is about having the courage to show up and be seen.”
Our reasons for avoiding being vulnerable are deeply personal and specific to our unique experience. They often tie back to our early lives. We are keen observers when we're children, and so we learned how to relate from our earliest relationships. We absorbed how our parents saw and treated us, themselves, and others. Limitations in our environment or ruptures in our childhood relationships gave us a model for how we see ourselves and the world around us today. If we had a rejecting or neglectful parent, we may see ourselves as a burden or intrusion. If we had a parent who was critical or flew off the handle, we may walk on eggshells and keep to ourselves. Whatever the circumstance, the message most of us internalize is that “It’s not okay to just be me.” We grew up believing, to varying degrees, that something about us is flawed or shameful. As a result, we expect that we won’t be accepted and that others will fail us. We try to protect ourselves by keeping our guard up.
The patterns of relating that surround us at an early age not only serve as models for how we expect the world to work but they also teach us to defend ourselves in ways that, although adaptive in childhood, hurt us in our adult life. Originally, we developed our defenses to protect ourselves when we were dependent and helpless and felt overwhelmed by the hurt of being rejected, ignored, or not getting our needs met. But ultimately, our defenses lead us astray, because as adults we can tolerate pain and frustration. Being defended and unwilling to be vulnerable hurts our connections to others.
My father, Dr. Robert Firestone, often refers to the inner dialogue that personifies these psychological defenses as our “critical inner voice.” This is a destructive thought process that acts like an internal parent and tends to assess, judge, undermine, and insult us as we move through our lives: “Don’t show her who you really are. She’d want nothing to do with you,” it warns. “You’re going to make a fool of yourself. Don’t put yourself out there,” it beckons. This “voice” reinforces old, negative beliefs about ourselves and leaves us feeling anxious or afraid of being an imposition on others. It tells us in a variety of ways that we are not acceptable. It also warns us not to trust others. “He only wants to take advantage of you.” “She will never really love you. Keep your distance.” Basically, it does everything in its power to prevent us from being vulnerable and forming intimate connections with others.
Yet our willingness to be vulnerable and tolerate intimacy matters much more than we think. After conducting thousands of interviews, Brown came to the conclusion that vulnerability is the key to connection. “There can be no intimacy — emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, physical intimacy — without vulnerability,” she said. “One of the reasons there is such an intimacy deficit today is because we don’t know how to be vulnerable. It’s about being honest with how we feel, about our fears, about what we need, and asking for what we need. Vulnerability is glue that holds intimate relationships together.“
When we resist vulnerability, we’re listening to a “voice” that’s telling us we shouldn’t be open, but in truth, we’re actually denying the people close to us by not allowing them to fully know us. We fear we will be hurt or rejected, but vulnerability actually draws people in. We do ourselves and the other person a favor by being open.
Many of us struggle with vulnerability because of fear, but we also fail to fully realize all of the ways we protect and distance ourselves from others. It may feel like we’re doing the right thing by keeping our mouths shut, when in fact, we should be doing the opposite.
Being vulnerable involves the following:
1. Ask for what you need. When we’re hurting, it’s easy to dismiss our pain or try to protect ourselves and the people around us by closing off. But achieving close connections means being willing to speak up when we’re in need. Admitting that we need someone to lean on or that we’re struggling and need help allows our loved ones to feel for us and respond to us in ways that bring us closer.
2. Be willing to expose your feelings. Sometimes we are afraid to expose our feelings even to ourselves. But acknowledging and accepting our feelings is an important part of being in touch with ourselves and sharing ourselves with others. A big part of strengthening our connections involves being willing to communicate how we feel.
3. Say what you want. As a therapist, I’ve sat with so many couples that are very good at stating exactly what they don’t like and don’t want from their partner. This leads to a lot of tit-for-tat and back-and-forth that gets them nowhere. Instead of blaming each other and complaining, I encourage couples to say what they want from each other. It’s usually much harder to do this. When partners take a chance and try to get in touch with what they want and then express it, they often feel sadness from opening up and being vulnerable. Their voices and expressions soften. Much of the time, their partner no longer feels on the defensive, and their body language changes, turning toward their partner and really feeling for the other person. It’s touching to see the connection people feel for each other when they’re strong enough to be vulnerable and say what they want.
4. Express what you really think. In addition to expressing our wants and needs, it’s important to be honest about our point of view and show our real selves. Our relationship should be a space in which we aren’t afraid to say what we truly think. This doesn’t mean being insensitive or unnecessarily hurtful, but it does mean offering an authentic exchange. We should be open to giving and receiving feedback without being overly defensive. Remembering that we are all human and flawed can help us have more self-compassion and interest as we engage in more honest exchanges.
5. Slow down and be present. Part of vulnerability is being willing to be in the moment with someone else. When we listen to our critical inner voice or spend a lot of time in our heads, we can miss out on intimacy. Looking our partner in the eye, listening to what he or she has to say, and being willing to give time and attention to the moment are acts of vulnerability that are often harder to do than we imagine. Yet, engaging in each of these behaviors keeps us closer to one another and to our own feelings.
It’s surprising just how anxious being vulnerable can make us. Many of us have deep, even unconscious fears of intimacy. There is real sadness and fear around allowing another person to really know us and to feel close to that person emotionally. Both intimacy and vulnerability challenge us to give up an old, familiar identity and form a new conception of ourselves in which we believe that we’ll be accepted for who we are. However, staying vulnerable helps us consistently recognize our value as unique and independent human beings, while giving us the courage to reveal ourselves in ways that will strengthen our connections.