Just as connecting with the people in our lives is an essential part of happiness, I’m convinced that being vulnerable is an essential element of connection. The more layers of defense you peel away, the more tender parts you expose, the deeper the connection you can have with others.
But vulnerability, as important as it is in getting our most basic needs met, is also fundamentally one of the most difficult states for us to put ourselves in. It runs counter to our instincts. While everything in our DNA screams “protect yourself from harm”, to be vulnerable is to do the exact opposite of that. It is to move aside our shields and say “here it is, the place where you can pierce me.”
It’s no wonder so many of us struggle to commit this evolutionarily stupid – and yet psychologically necessary – act of courage. And yet we must figure out how if we’re to move beyond superficial relationships.
Like any other hard thing, I think vulnerability can be practiced. We can find small ways to be brave, gaining confidence with every tiny triumph.
We can practice vulnerability by…
- Giving compliments. The risk is relatively low here because hardly no one dislikes being told their new haircut looks good or their shirt is cool. And yet how often do we hold our tongues because it’s awkward to approach a stranger, even to say something nice?
- Asking for help. As much as people like giving help, it’s still kind of scary to ask for it. What if they say no? (Re-JECTED!) What if they say yes but secretly hate doing it? (Oblivious loser!) Let’s go back to focusing on the fact that most people actually like to help. It makes people happier, in fact.
- Saying how we feel. When my kids were little, it was popular to focus on teaching kids how to identify emotions. “What are you feeling now?” we were told to ask when kids were throwing tantrums or refusing to eat their strained carrots. I still try to play a slightly less annoying version of that game with my teenager, and it’s a little embarrassing how frequently I discover I am wrong about how he is feeling. Jared and I experience the same thing with each other: I think he’s mad at me when he’s really thinking about the last time he went to the gym; he thinks I’m annoyed that he worked late when I’m really hashing out a work problem in my head. Saying exactly how we feel makes our lives easier, and yet it also sets us up to be judged for our true feelings – which I’m assuming is why we don’t do it often enough. Saying how we are feeling is especially difficult (and powerful) when we aren’t sure why we’re feeling a certain way or what to do about it. “I’m really annoyed by you lately, and I’m not exactly sure why.”
- Dressing up (or down). This sounds silly, but our clothes are the physical armor that stands between us and every single person we encounter. They can say “look at me!” or “there’s nothing to see here.” My mom recently started dressing more fashionably and on purpose, and she immediately heard comments about her appearance from co-workers. Inviting people to talk about how you look? Now that’s making yourself vulnerable.
- Putting your smartphone away. I’ve noticed recently that I – and many people I know – have a tendency to use smartphones as a defense. They protect us from boredom and loneliness. We don’t have to be the pathetic person not talking to anyone at the party, or the loser who is missing out on the interesting discussions online. We don’t have to endure the natural lulls in conversation that used to happen when people chatted face to face. Want to make yourself uncomfortable in the name of enhancing your connections? Put your phone away.
- Identifying and doing what makes YOU uncomfortable. Vulnerability, like happiness, is not universal. When I first started blogging, people used to comment on my bravery for sharing so much of my personal life, but oversharing was never the hard thing for me. Developing healthy boundaries at the risk of excluding someone was actually much scarier for me. Similarly, you may find sitting quietly in a room (at the risk of being unnoticed) is an act of vulnerability for you, while talking to a stranger (at the risk of looking stupid) requires courage for someone else.
Brene Brown is a researcher who has written a lot about the importance of vulnerability. I have a hard time not getting lost in the academic nature of her work, but she has brilliant things to say about the topic of vulnerability. You can read some of them on her blog.
I’d love to hear what you have to say about vulnerability. Do you practice it – and if so, how? My son admits that he prefers to remain guarded, and I’m curious if any of you feel that way as well.