I always find it interesting when I discover reoccurring themes in my conversations with individuals. Although we think we are the only ones, we all wrestle with very similar concerns. At the top of that list is our struggle with knowing how to open up and share our thoughts and feelings with others instead of stuffing them and keeping them inside. For many, we don’t know how to open up. We do not know what to share or where to start, and we are afraid to share because we don’t know how it will be received. As a result, we keep our story to ourselves, and we use smiles as Band-Aids to cover our aching hearts. We stuff so many of our thoughts and feelings that eventually we end up like a balloon filled with too much air and ready to pop. We let air out of our balloon by sharing our story, and this means leaping into vulnerability. This means we have to open ourselves and let ourselves be truly seen.
Sometimes when I encourage people to be vulnerable and share with someone what is going on with them, they usually give me that look that says, “You want me to do what? You must be crazy! I’m not telling someone that!” Beginning to practice vulnerability feels a little unnerving at first, especially if you have spent most of your life guarded behind a series of impenetrable walls.
As I have shared before, I am a huge fan of Brené Brown’s research and writing on shame and vulnerability. She defines vulnerability as risk and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is that heart racing moment when you do or say something that pushes you outside of your normal pattern and routine. Vulnerability is scary because it does feel like a risk to put yourself out there and deal with the uncertainty that accompanies letting your guard down. Being vulnerable does not mean we are weak, weepy, needy, or clingy. Being vulnerable means we are strong and courageous because it takes courage to show our brokenness and talk about our mistakes.
This emotional risk naturally begs the question- who can we open up to? With whom do we take the leap of vulnerability? Brown says that you share with the people who have “earned the right to hear.” We share with those who have earned the right to truly see us and know our story. So what does that mean in practical terms? We share with those who give us empathy and compassion, who listen without judgment and without trying to offer a solution or a “look on the bright side” reframe. We tell our story to those who demonstrate discernment, wisdom, and the ability to keep our confidence. We open ourselves up to those who show up not only for us, but also to us.
So am I encouraging you to lay it all out there for every Susie, Sally, and Sandy to see? Heavens no! There is a difference between being vulnerable and oversharing. Oversharing is not vulnerability. Oversharing actually inhibits true relationship building and ends up being a barrier to connection. People overshare for a variety of reasons. The trick is becoming aware of when and why we are oversharing.
- Sometimes we overshare as a way of testing others to see if they can “handle” us or if we are going to be too much for them.
- Other times we overshare because we are experiencing something so painful that we just have to purge it from our minds. We start sharing without taking into consideration if the person is a safe, close friend who will respond with empathy and compassion.
- Lastly, we may overshare as a way of trying to create an immediate, albeit false, bond with someone. We have such a strong desire to create some sort of attachment that we try to jumpstart connection without laying the necessary groundwork to a true relationship.
When we begin practicing vulnerability and sharing our story, we want to do so in a relationship that has a strong enough foundation to bear the weight of the information that is shared. Our level of vulnerability matches the level of closeness in the friendship. As you grow closer, you go deeper in vulnerability, and as you go deeper in vulnerability, you grow closer. Vulnerability creates intimacy.
If you are nervous about beginning to practice vulnerability, remind yourself it is baby step process. Start in the shallow end and work your way into the deep waters. Remember, we share with those who have earned the right to hear. This isn’t a race. There is not a “Best at Vulnerability in Friendship” prize waiting for you at the finish line. There are people out there who want to know you as much as you would like to be truly known. Vulnerability is truly the gateway to connection.
What is an act of vulnerability you could take in one of your relationships today? What is something you could try, create, or share with someone?
Brown, Brené, Ph.D., LMSW. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York: Gotham Books.