Vulnerability is regarded as a key ingredient in healthy, fulfilling relationships. But when it comes to actually being vulnerable in real life, many of us struggle to open up.
Contrary to what many folks were raised to believe, vulnerability is a measure of strength and courage, not weakness.
Brené Brown, famed vulnerability researcher and author, defines it as the “emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty” that “fuel our daily lives.” In a romantic relationship, that might mean saying “I love you” first, owning the mistakes you’ve made, being the one to suggest couples therapy or having the courage to directly tell your partner what you need from them.
“Vulnerability often involves exposing ourselves personally in a manner that could potentially lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, self-criticism or other uncomfortable emotions,” Lee Land, a psychologist in Fort Collins, Colorado, told HuffPost.
Risky as it might feel, the rewards of vulnerability are plentiful. “Through emotional openness and vulnerability people can improve their connections in close relationships and develop true intimacy,” Land said.
We asked relationship experts to explain why vulnerability can be daunting and how we can incorporate more of it in our lives anyway.
Why We Struggle With Vulnerability
In our romantic relationships, we fear that if we were to honestly express our insecurities, needs, mistakes, fears and character flaws to our partner, they’d change their mind about us. We’d be ridiculed or deemed unlovable. They’d judge us, misunderstand us or abandon us — all terrifying prospects.
“Vulnerability involves sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings with others in ways that may lead to rejection,” Land said. “We’ve all experienced times in our lives when people respond to us in hurtful or disappointing ways. The pain of emotional disconnection can lead people to hide their authentic feelings in an effort to protect themselves.”
Often, a person’s level of comfort with vulnerability ties back to how they were raised and other past experiences. If their parents or caregivers have modeled and encouraged this type of honest expression, a child has a better chance of being able to connect with others in a similar way, said Spencer Northey, a marriage and family therapist in Washington, D.C.
“But if showing vulnerability at an early age meant you got hurt, it is more likely you will struggle around opening up,” Northey said.
How To Be More Vulnerable
If you struggle with vulnerability in your relationships, you’re certainly not alone. We compiled expert-backed advice that might help you practice vulnerability not only in your romantic relationships but in other areas of your life, too.
Identify the people in your life who display vulnerability. Then learn from them.
Maybe it’s the co-worker who wrote about her miscarriage on Instagram or the friend who was brave enough to ask for help dealing with his addiction issues. By surrounding yourself with vulnerable people, you might soak up some of their authenticity. Slowly, your guard begins to come down, too.
“Not only can it build comfort to spend time around people who are emotionally open and vulnerable, these types of relationships can often facilitate the kind of interpersonal safety that gives us permission to share more openly,” Land said.
Those who find it difficult to be vulnerable with a romantic partner have often “been burned before,” marriage and family therapist Anna Osborn told Bustle. So you don’t have to dive in headfirst. Dip your toe in by opening up in small ways until you get more comfortable sharing the bigger stuff.
“The more you practice and see that you can do it, the more willing you’ll be to continue to take the risk of vulnerability in love,” Osborn said.
Take the time to clarify your feelings and keep checking in with yourself.
When you’re in the habit of avoiding or suppressing difficult emotions, you may start to lose sight of how you actually feel. Journaling, meditation, working with a therapist or other similar practices can help you better understand yourself and deepen your emotional life, Land said.
“By developing increased comfort with strong emotions, people can learn to share vulnerable feelings in ways that foster closeness and connection,” he said.
“Therapy can provide an environment that allows people to experiment in a safe way with healthy emotional vulnerability,” Land added.
Validate your partner’s feelings.
Relationship conflicts arise when one partner musters the courage to reveal something vulnerable and the other partner then either gets defensive or immediately starts offering solutions instead of really listening, said Portland, Oregon-based relationship coach Jonathan Robert.
“Often this is jumping the gun and rushing past the emotionality of the hurt or fearful partner,” he said. “First, validate. Then, solve. This can be confusing for the listener because they think they are helping when, in fact, they are hurting.”
To validate your partner’s feelings, you need to acknowledge their experience ― even if you don’t necessarily agree with their perspective.
Robert offered these examples of validating statements: “Oh, I can totally see how you could interpret what I said in that way,” “It must feel so scary/hurtful/surprising for you to experience that” or simply, “That makes sense.”
After the validation, you can gently introduce your point of view and start a conversation about how to address the issue. Try something like, “I didn’t intend for you to experience that but I can see how you did,” or “I want to understand how you feel so that we can work on a solution,” Robert suggested.
When figuring out how to bring up a concern with your partner, use a “soft startup.”
When voicing a complaint in the relationship, many partners immediately resort to criticism: “You always come home late after work and now dinner is cold. You’re so self-absorbed.” But a better — and more vulnerable — approach is to reflect and then reframe that criticism as an expression of a need, rather than an attack on your partner’s character.
Renowned relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman came up with the “soft startup” technique that uses the set-up: “I feel _____ about ____, and I need ____” to broach such conversations.
“In my work,” Northey said, “I have found that criticisms are almost always needs in disguise.”
So in the example above, you might say: “I feel lonely and disappointed about you getting home so late and I need you to make an effort to be home in time for dinner more often. When you can’t make it in time, I need you to call me to let me know.”
And remember that people generally respond to displays of vulnerability in positive ways.
Think back to a time someone opened up to you. Chances are, you were honored that they shared their story with you. Maybe you admired the courage it took to do that. Perhaps it made you feel more connected to them.
“Keep in mind that when others share their experiences with us in an authentic, vulnerable manner, we generally tend to feel closer to them and are more likely to reciprocate emotionally,” Land said.
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