Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Vulnerability: The Key to Close Relationships

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Vulnerability: They Key to Close Relationships

The best part of being human is being able to connect with other humans. We’re hardwired for it. We live in tribes and families, work in groups, love as couples and thrive in friendships. The drive to connect is in all of us whether we acknowledge it or not.

Yet, we’re seeing more loneliness, more depression, more broken relationships, more disconnection. What’s happening?

Vulnerability is the driving force of connection. It’s brave. It’s tender. It’s impossible to connect without it.

But we’ve turned it into a weakness.

We’ve made ourselves ‘strong’. We’ve toughened up, hardened up and protected ourselves from being hurt. We’ve protected ourselves from vulnerability and disallowed the surrender. Here’s the problem. When we close down our vulnerability we are shielded from hurt, but we are also shielded from love, intimacy and connection. They come to us through the same door. When we close it to one, we close it to all.

Without vulnerability, relationships struggle. Vulnerability is, ‘Here I am – my frayed edges, my secrets, my fears, my affection. Be careful – they’re precious.’ In return, it invites, ‘Oh, I see you there. It’s okay, you’re safe. And here – here’s me.’ It builds trust, closeness and a sense of belonging. Relationships won’t thrive without it.

Vulnerability is openness to experiences, people and uncertainty. It’s terrifying at times, and brave always. 

Occasionally we get hurt. Relationship pain is an unavoidable part of being human. When it happens it can steal you. I know. But we can see this for what it is – a mismatch of people, a redirection, a learning, a happening – or we can take it as a warning and protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt again. In this case, we make the decision to not be vulnerable. We shut it down. By shutting down to the risks of being vulnerable, we also shut down to the possibilities – the possibility of joy, intimacy, closeness, gratitude and connection.

Connected or Not: What makes the difference?

Brene Brown PhD is a research professor from the University of Houston and an expert in the field of vulnerability. She’s looked at those who have a strong sense of connection and belonging and those who don’t. Her research has found that the difference between the two groups was that those who had a strong sense of love and belonging believed they were worthy of it. People who believed they were worthy of connection experienced greater connectedness. 

When people believe themselves worthy of connection, they’re more likely to move towards others. They’ll be the first to say ‘I love you’. They’ll be quick to say, ‘I miss you’ (not just in absence but in the growing apart). They’ll ask for help and they’ll be open to the  love, affection and influence of others. They’ll be grateful. They’ll be connected. 

This doesn’t mean they’ll always get what they want. What it means is that they are more willing to be open and vulnerable in relationships because their potential for shame is less. If the connection falls short – if the ‘I love you’ is left hanging, the ‘I miss you’ isn’t returned, the request for help is declined, people who believe they are worthy of connection are less likely to blame themselves and their own ‘unworthiness’ for the disconnection. They are often the people who people want to be with. They give to the relationship and they receive openly, abundantly, honestly and with love and gratitude. They allow themselves to be vulnerable to the uncertainty and they make it safe for others to do the same.

Daring to Connect.

  1. Live with heart.

    Listen to and move towards what you really want. It’s that voice that speaks from intuition, experience and things unsaid. It’s the signal, sometimes faint sometimes not, to love openly and honestly and receive it gratefully. And to walk away when it’s gone. Move towards what you want and be vulnerable to the risk – it’s the bravest thing you’ll do. When you live with heart, you’ll feel when there’s something missing, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

  2. Live with courage.

    What would you do if you could act without fear of shame? Would you change jobs? Follow your passion? Tell someone you love them? Tell someone you miss them? Initiate sex? Expect more for yourself? Get rid of relationships that hurt? Fight harder for the relationship you’re in? You can’t trust that there won’t be rejection and disappointment, but you can trust that you’ll cope with it if it happens – which you will. What’s harder to live with is teetering around the edges of something that feels important, wanting more but never dropping the guard enough – being vulnerable enough – to let it in.

  3. Look for a new ‘what if’.

    Question your beliefs. Sometimes we believe things for so long they just settle in and stay. Challenge whether or not they’re still working for you. What could happen if you open up, take a chance, let yourself be vulnerable? Too often behaviour is driven by the need to avoid shame – the need to avoid receiving any proof that you’re not worthy of love, connection and receiving what you’ve asked for.  The more you think you’re not worthy, the more  you’ll act as though it’s true and the more you disconnect. What if you believed you were worth the connection. The risk of not being received is always there, but this is no reflection of any unworthiness in you.

  4. Embrace vulnerability.

    As explained by Brene Brown, people with a strong sense of love and belonging believe that vulnerability is a necessity. They believe that within their vulnerabilities are the things that make them beautiful. And they’re right. Vulnerability is key to connection because it is the courage to be open to another human. It’s saying the words that are pressing from the inside. It’s opening yourself up to somebody getting closer. It’s letting them know. It’s giving without expectation or agenda. And receiving with an open heart.

  5. Quick now. Do nothing.

    Increasingly we are living in a fixit world. We have little tolerance for uncertainty or discomfort and tend to move quickly toward resolution. We fix everything – problems, health, feelings, people. Sometimes though, uncertainty or discomfort is exactly where we need to be. It’s here that we often find clarity and insight and and a readiness to move forward or pull back. Don’t be too quick to move out of uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes they’re the richest source of growth and information about what’s right.

What Vulnerability Isn’t.

Vulnerability does not mean oversharing and offering every detail of your life up for consumption by anyone with a head. It about intention. There are those you hold close, or want to, who are worth taking a risk for. You open up, you let them know, you offer some of yourself and hope it will be received. Then there are those who you know, but who may not have earnt your vulnerability. 

Your vulnerability still has to be earnt by others to some extent, but you have to be ready to see when someone deserves it from you. Offering every detail of your life to the person behind you in the 15 items or less aisle at the grocery store can walk dangerously close to a lack of boundaries and can leave you overexposed. 

And finally. 

Somewhere along the way, the need to protect ourselves from being vulnerable has trumped the need to connect. I understand that. Few things hurt as deeply and completely as the heartache that comes from relationships. But heartache and uncertainty is part of being human and it’s avoidance is getting in our way.

In response to this, we’ve stopped allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We’ve toughened up. We’ve turned vulnerability into a weakness and guardedness into a strength.

 Of course there are times to be guarded, but there are also times to be vulnerable. We’re protected, but we’re disconnected.

 Life happens – really happens – in the midst of our vulnerability. It’s here, in strength and with the greatest of courage, that we ask for help, say the first ‘I love you’, reach out for sex and physical intimacy, tell someone we miss them, ask where we stand, feel. When we shut down our vulnerability, we shut down the possibility.

There are no guarantees. There never have been. But what is certain is that we deserve more than to have our vulnerability – the greatest vehicle to connection – shut down by fear. We cannot guarantee the outcome, but we can have faith in our ability to cope with it. Living and loving with a vulnerable, open heart will bring its own rewards. There is no daring more honest and more courageous than that which comes with respecting our vulnerability, embracing it and acting from it.

(Image credit: Unsplash | Alexander Shustov)

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18 Comments

Mary Lacey

I love this article. I am working with so many 20-somethings on how to be more vulnerable. Growing up and being the first generation to have screens, I am seeing a total disconnect with them from real relationships and connections. I find myself teaching them how to build interpersonal relations more than anything!

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heysigmund

It’s a big one, isn’t it – vulnerability and relationships. I’m pleased you enjoyed the article – thanks for letting me know. It’s important work you’re doing.

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Matthew Dahlitz

Great article and love Brené’s work as well. I find in working with couples it is their ability to be vulnerable that is the key to reconnecting – yet also the most difficult and ‘dangerous’ thing to be. Your article wonderfully highlights this very important aspect of healthy relationships.

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heysigmund

Hi Matthew. Thank you for your comment! You’re so right – vulnerability is one of the most difficult and dangerous things to be, which is why it’s the beautiful difference in relationships that work.

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Bernadette Barquet

I cant find the words to express the insightful that it has been to read your article.
Thank you very much.
Sincerly from the bottom of my heart.
Bernadette Barquet.

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Yolanda P.

Absolutely loved this article. When you finally allow yourself to be vulnerable in a relationship, no matter how terrfiying it may seem, that’s when you give your relationship a real chance to grow.

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Dave

I have tried to listen to reason, have tried to accept the fact that my limited viewpoint was both irrational and unhealthy, but I simply cannot accept vulnerability and, therefore, social and romantic relationships of any kind.

It is very hard to be outgoing when virtually every friend you’ve ever had and over 85% of your family has hurt and betrayed you so severely, multiple times over the brief period of your life. Of course it doesn’t help to be an introvert with a sensitive nervous system – two traits that are shunned socially, sometimes considered as mental disorders. This in turn hosts the impossible belief that there isn’t a single honest person to feel safe around. Or, if said person is honest initially, there is nothing to say that he/she will turn on you like a wild animal at any given moment. It isn’t an exaggeration, every interest, opinion, thought, and fear of mine has been put under the microscope and ridiculed by a healthy sample group of the human race, much to my embarrassment and abuse. The pain is indescribable. After a while you get tired of the pain and simply vanish into yourself. Sure, call it protection, I prefer to think of it as hassle-free living.

Truthfully, I find myself more at home in the elements of nature, without the hustle and bustle of modern life. I prefer solitude and reflection and simply desire to be alone. I’m not robbing anyone of my presence, if anything, I’m saving them the bother of dealing with me. I just wish that communities that advocate vulnerability and socialization realize that there are people out there who are simply happier and healthier alone. The health threats issued by physicians and psychologists that scare people into society need to stop.
I think it was Bukowski who said it best: I don’t hate people, I just feel better when they’re not around.

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Lisa

Dave,

Oh my, what a compelling story. I am truly sorry for the idiots that you have encountered all your life. You sound like a stand-up guy too. Good people are far and few between. They are the ones missing out…not you. I sure hope and pray that you are happy and peaceful whether it be sheltered from the world or not.

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Pam

Hi Dave, I so can relate to what you’re saying here. In so many ways I feel the same way. Especially in the last year it seems that everyone I have ever let my guard down to has taken it and somehow used it as a weapon to hurt me with. And for the life of me I don’t know why. It’s made me very hard and determined not to open myself up to the hurt they can deal out. And it’s from the people you trust the most to take care of your heart, that causes the most pain. My question for you is this. You say you are happier being alone and just want to be left that way and I’m wondering if that’s completely true or not? Are you seriously happier, or you just safer? I’m not asking this to give you a hard time or to make it look like I don’t believe you although I am asking for completely selfish reasons. I am living that same kind of self-imposed emotional exile too, and while it certainly is safer, no one can hurt you if they can’t get to you. But am I truly happy about it? I’m not, I’m sick of my own company, and I want to be able to let down my guard sometimes. I want that feeling of being needed by another human being. And it doesn’t make me feel happy being the way I’ve become. I keep thinking that someone out there has to think like I do, and has to be trustworthy and capable of truly being honest with themselves. My problem isn’t other people really, it’s within myself. I don’t trust me anymore, I mean, I don’t trust my own judgement of others anymore. And that’s what stops me from even wanting to try again. My track record is proof that I can’t see people in the right way. I don’t know when it’ safe anymore to take a chance on someone, so I take this way out. I was going to say I take the easy way out, but it really isn’t the easy way and I feel miserable at times because I think we need people in our lives. Fear of being hurt again is what stops me and in a lot of ways I feel it isn’t a choice but a necessity to keep others at bay. So are you really happier? Or just safer? And if you are really happier, what is it that makes you happier? I want to learn how to be happy with just myself and that is my only reason for asking you this.

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Dave

Pam,

My experiences have been from a good chunk of my life. Since said experiences can influence our development, I am not surprised about how skeptical I am when it comes to relationships.
As a highly sensitive (HSP) introvert, the mix of these experiences have allowed me to construct a wall around myself that, if I have it my way, will never be conquered.
To answer your question, yes, I am happier with such security. On top of these defenses I have amassed enough offensive weapons (statistics) to repel any good intentions and concerns that come my way.
Lately I have wondered if I actually get a high from rejecting others before they have a chance to reject me. It’s almost like a form of self-medication.
And then there’s the self-doubt. I am always rejecting compliments and positive-based comments from family and strangers. Often times I simply disagree and feel that, since I know myself better than anyone, my facts are straight and everyone else is just blowing hot air for the sake of societal pressures and habits.

Professionals might note that such mindsets provide the illusion of control, both external and internal locust, and they have some value to this approach.

I just find too much evidence to the contrary.

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Pam

I guess I haven’t been hurt as deeply as you then. I don’t feel any kind of joy from rejecting people or sending them on their way. In fact, its quite the opposite in my case. Although that doesn’t happen often because I don’t let them near enough to even need to reject them. Keep Out and No Trespassing signs still work and no one really has a reason to come here anyway. And for me it happened so gradual, it wasn’t really planned. I just quit answering my phone and didn’t invite people to come see me, and discouraged the ones that mentioned anything about a visit. It didn’t take too long and here I am alone. I am not a shut in as i do have to go out for groceries and food and supplies for my pets, things like that. I see people in town that I used to know but can’t make myself stay to visit, or talk anymore than just small talk, weather, etc. Hearing you I realize that I don’t want to keep living as I do. And I hope I”m not offending you by saying that, it’s just that you have chosen a road that I don’t want to go any further down. I do feel that we all have our choices in life and I understand some of your reasoning, and I certainly am not judging or deciding you are wrong. I only know what I need and want, and not even that very well. I know that I am a good person, at least I try to be, and I have to believe that there are others that think the way I do. I just need to be able to see through the veneer people carry and learn how to not get taken in again by hurtful people. I think I might recognize those traits a lot sooner now, and stop anything like that from becoming part of my life. I am getting tired of my own company and I want to live more free instead of this solitary existence. I thank you for your honest reply, and I hope you can sustain yourself as you wish to. I feel bad that people can hurt others the way you have been hurt, and I hope one day you realize that not everyone is made that way. There are some honest and good people on this earth, it’s just real tough sometimes to tell which are which. Peace to you.

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pam

I agree with you Dave. Why put yourself on the line when everyone you know has either lied to you, stepped on your heart, deserted you or betrayed you completely. And it was because you were vulnerable, willing to trust your heart to someone you thought you could be assured would not hurt you. And they don’t hurt gently, they take everything you have inside to give and then walk away laughing. How many times can you live through it before you say, no. Better to learn to enjoy your own company and not leave the door open to all the bad in this world. There is a point when you just can’t trust anymore and I’ve reached it too, I choose not to give anyone else a chance at me. And yes, it gets very lonely at times, we are human and naturally want that closeness but at what cost? Not worth it to me either.

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Marcia

Wonderful article. Such valuable information. Thank you for such relationship information. As a therapist I see that so many couples are helped by being encouraged to express their true selves in a safe environment of a therapy session. It is beautiful to see relationships transformed with true connection evolving along with a deeper level of trust.

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Not Convinced

Came across this (now years old) article on vulnerability. I’m searching for reasons that I can relate to as to why being vulnerable is worth all the pain it has always led to for me. Every time I was vulnerable in my now 59 years of life I was physically and/or emotionally abused – parents, caretakers, “friends”, and now wife of 24 years. No one is “safe” or trustworthy. So the idea of being vulnerable is terrifying to me, hence I have never experienced/felt love, joy, happiness etc. To me these are foreign concepts. The only emotions I have ever been aware of feeling are anger and fear. So reading statements about the benefits of being vulnerable are meaningless to me. I have no concept of what those “benefits” are or would feel like, but having all too much knowledge of the pain and hurt by having been vulnerable means I have zero motivation to risk it again. My only motivation is my “duty” to love my wife, but since I don’t love her I’m exhausted from decades of pretending to love her and trying to learn how to love. We have a myriad of other problems (e.g. sexless our entire marriage, my touch aversion etc.) but the root I believe is my inability to feel anything positive (love, affection) for myself or others. If anyone reads this, I’d love to hear more on what joy and love are so that I could try and believe they are worth a lifetime of hurts and emotional wounds that never heal.

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Jace

Just stumbled upon this article when I was searching for others about being vulnerable. This article is definitely one of the best ones I have read. I loved getting insight from it. I teach young teenagers and this is such a great article to get insight from for them.

It is so worth to be open and raw with those we love, even though pain can come from it. Boundaries and knowing who to say these things too can help, but being vulnerable is a gift that most do not want to go into.

Loved your article again. Thank you!

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