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Sharing Vulnerability: A Secret to Closer Friendships

Paradoxically finding closeness in the time of social distance

Deborah Cabaniss
Source: Deborah Cabaniss

The other day, I was on the phone with a friend. “How’s it going?” she chirped, as we generally do when we start a call. “Tough week,” I said. “Some real problems. Glad we’re getting a chance to catch up.”

Tough week? Real problems? That’s not the requisite “Fine!” or “Great!” or even “Busy!” we’re used to hearing. Rather, it’s honest. It’s an appeal for help. It’s showing vulnerability.

Many of us have been socialized not to reveal vulnerability. We’re supposed to have it together, and, if we don’t, to keep it to ourselves. Calls to friends are often more like reports: “Cal is starting sophomore year—it’s perfect for him. And Judy loves her new job!” We buoy our self-esteem by letting people know how well we’re doing, and if things aren’t going well, we stay off the phone. “It’s nobody’s business,” I was once told. “Nobody wants to hear your trouble.”

But here we are in the middle of a pandemic. Everybody has some kind of trouble. Some of our troubles are similar—we’re worried about getting sick, tired of isolation, and concerned about the state of the country. And some of our troubles are different. Some of us are worried about sending small children to school, some have other medical problems, and some are caring for elders. Today, though, there isn’t anyone who can honestly say, “Everything’s great! No problems at all!” in response to the “What’s up?” query.

It turns out that that’s incredibly freeing. Since everyone has something going on, revealing problems, anxieties, family issues, or even depression is easier. People are less worried that they are the only ones with trouble. They’re discussing feelings and asking for advice. Calls are longer and more frequent. I’m learning new things about old friends. And despite the social distance, I feel closer to them than ever.

When I became consciously aware of this new closeness, I tried to understand it. My belief is that it has to do with intimacy. Intimacy is about more than whispering secrets or even physical closeness—it’s about sharing vulnerability. To whom can you say, “I feel lousy,” or “I’m having trouble with my daughter,” or “I made a real mistake”? Your intimate friends. It’s hard to talk about your own difficulties with someone who never shares theirs—so this is a two-way street. All of that socialization about not sharing problems was paradoxically blocking intimacy. Who knew?

If you’re not used to sharing, it can feel daunting, or even risky. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Text before you call. It’s hard to share something vulnerable with someone who is having dinner or just about to put their kid to bed. Set yourself up for the best chance of having some time with your friend by texting in advance. Something like, “Is this a good time for a call?” helps you feel like you’re not interrupting something and helps your friend know that you’d like to take some time on the phone.

2. Ask about them first. Unless it’s a dire emergency, try to see how your friend is doing before you launch into your own stuff. It could be a day that they have a major problem, and then you might want to put your own sharing on hold for at least a little while.

3. Ask if they have time. Even close friends can’t read each other’s minds. So, if you think you’ll need your friend’s time, ask if they have it. It will help both of your expectations—your friend will expect to spend some time talking, and you’ll feel better about taking their time. Something like, “I do have something I’d like to talk to you about. Do you have some time now?” should do the trick.

4. Don’t be defensive. Even if you don’t ask for it, you might get advice! If you really don’t want it, you can say that in advance (“This is hard to talk about, and I just want to talk, I don’t necessarily want advice. OK?”) But you might get it anyway. If so, don’t get defensive—meaning, don’t just bat the advice away. Remember that hearing about your difficulties naturally prompts your loved ones to try to help—try to hear what they have to say in that spirit.

5. Say thank you. You got time from a friend, and probably some empathy and love. Be grateful! It’s a great gift. Doesn’t have to be a gush; just saying, “Thanks—I really appreciate being able to talk to you like this” is enough.

6. Mix it up. If every call from you feels like a plea for therapy, your friends may feel burdened. You’re a complex person, so make sure that you are talking about the good as well as the bad and the ugly.

And then practice sending the love back. Listen, don’t rush to give advice, and resist the temptation to make it all about you (“Wow, the same thing happened to me!”). Instead, ask about their experience, try to validate feelings (“Of course, it’s so natural that that made you angry!”), and offer support (“OK, you had a fight. But he knows what a great dad you are.”).

Sure, there’s some risk in sharing vulnerability. But the risk is probably lower than you think, and the closeness you are likely to receive is well worth it.

More from Deborah L. Cabaniss M.D.
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