- Vulnerability in others often resonates with our own experiences and longings.
- The risks of vulnerability are reduced when trust is established.
- Being authentic in close relationships is the best antidote to loneliness.
Being vulnerable is an openness about one’s feelings, successes, failures, strengths, and inadequacies as well as hopes and dreams. It is honesty without defensiveness in close relationships. A person comfortable being vulnerable can talk as easily about the disappointment of not getting a desired promotion as the pleasure of finally getting that long-desired, dream house. Being vulnerable is being authentic or genuine, which is a healthy way of being emotionally intimate with others.
Healthy vulnerability excludes the mentally ill, whose vulnerability is tragically apparent to almost everyone, and chronic complainers, who wear their ailments like a badge of honor. Chronic complainers use their negativity as a defense; they want to keep people away while trying to engage them at the same time.
Why Vulnerability is Appealing
Vulnerability in others resonates with our own unvarnished yearnings and propensities. Experiencing another person’s quest for love and/or validation taps into our own longings. Babies and young children lacking the guile and sophistication of adults are reminders of an earlier time when we were free to be ourselves. Their naturalness and exuberance, qualities we too seldom manifest, are enviable. Similarly, adults who retain a childlike innocence and playfulness are appealing for the same reason.
We tend to like people who are unpretentious and spontaneous—the ones with whom we can easily laugh. The comedians who poke fun at themselves are likable, as are the so-called life-of-the-party types. Besides these fun-loving people, we also like people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and talk openly about their heartaches. Country singers strumming their guitars lamenting lost loves are likable. We can identify with their stories, both the funny, self-disparaging anecdotes and the sad, depressing tales.
The Risks of Vulnerability
While vulnerability is appealing, it can also be risky. We may be hurt, laughed at, betrayed, criticized, shamed, bullied, or made to feel guilty about our behavior. We may fear that we will be viewed negatively—as naïve, immature, unintelligent, neurotic, or perverted in some way– after revealing too much. The worry underlying such fears is that if others really knew us, they would think less of us. One young man feared emotional closeness because, as he said, “They will find out that underneath all that tinsel is more tinsel.” In other words, he feared that he was a phony throughout; that he was all glitter with no substance.
Fears of being betrayed are especially common in romantic love. When we trust someone and then find out that we were lied to, we feel like a fool. We feel naïve to have believed someone whose credibility is a sham. In romantic relationships, the betrayal often centers on sexual fidelity. Finding out that we were cheated on is often a blow not only to our self-esteem but to our sexual confidence as well. “Am I attractive enough to hold onto a partner?” is the unspoken concern.article continues after advertisement
Other risks of vulnerability are losing control of the situation, being disappointed at another person’s reaction, and rejection. Telling someone that we are depressed, for example, may lead to too many phone calls and other intrusive queries that we may grow to resent. Or we may relate a painful life story, only to have the other person react indifferently, angrily, or critically, thus adding insult to injury. Then, too, we may fear that after sharing something important, the other person will turn their back on us and walk away. In contrast to salespeople who grow inured to day-to-day rejection in their professional lives, most of us get deeply hurt when we are rejected, especially by the people we value.
The Rewards of Sharing Vulnerability
Even though sharing vulnerabilities is risky, it is the most reliable pathway to close, meaningful relationships in adulthood. While it requires courage and good judgment (knowing who is trustworthy), letting friends and romantic partners know who we are, warts and all, is the best antidote to loneliness, which is widespread in society. Such sharing enriches our lives and leaves us feeling more at peace with ourselves. It is a means of integrating our inner and outer selves and keeping psychological demons (addictions, chronic anxiety, depression, other psychological symptoms) at bay.
The sharing of our vulnerabilities reaps other social rewards as well. We are more likely to be trusted and liked if we are authentic rather than disingenuous or boastful. Others are more likely to identify with us and find us relatable, that is, easy to talk to and less threatening than people who are defensive or pretentious. Interpersonal honesty facilitates and enhances emotional attachments in both friendship and romantic love.
Degrees of Closeness
Talking about the more superficial aspects of our lives—our opinions about art, food, literature, movies, restaurants, sports, television, and our jobs, for example—is the easiest way to begin and maintain close relationships with a degree or two of intimacy. Most of us are reasonably comfortable talking about such topics without fearing that we‘re revealing too much of ourselves. As a result of such conversations, we can maintain personal relationships that have some emotional connection.article continues after advertisement
Before moving on to share more deeply, though, especially when it comes to revealing failures, weaknesses, and/or secrets, it is important to determine the other person’s trustworthiness. Is this a person who follows through on what is agreed upon? Is this person dependable and conscientious? Does he have our back? Does he like and respect us? When all the “Yes” boxes have been checked and a degree of trust established, then it is safe to attempt deeper levels of closeness.
While being able to talk with someone in person about daily joys and tribulations is ideal but rare in this technological age, such a daily exercise is worth pursuing by phone or social media. E-mails, social media, and texts do provide some connectivity, even though they’re emotionally limited because they lack facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.
However, being able to respond honestly by phone or text to a friend or coworker who asks about our well-being with even stress-filled comments such as, “I’ve had a bad day. My computer was down, and I didn’t accomplish a thing,” or “I’m worried about my mother. She seems to be getting worse” is a meaningful way to connect emotionally. And if one’s friend responds with empathy, the conversation is off to a worthwhile start.
Besides feeling less anxious after such contacts, there are some insights to be gained. We learn, for example, that others, even the most confident appearing, have bad days filled with worry and frustration. We learn that we are not alone in this world, that pain and suffering are part of the human condition, and that we suffer less when in the company of compassionate friends.
This post is adapted from an essay, “Vulnerable People Are More Likable than Super-Confident Ones,” published in Beyond Pipe Dreams and Platitudes: Insights on Love, Luck, and Narcissism from a Longtime Psychologist, Outskirts Press, 2021.