With Whom Should I Be Vulnerable?
Relationship stress, parenting disappointments, financial scarcity, career failures, crippling fears, health challenges, exhausting depression, unmet expectations, identity crisis, paralyzing indecision ... There is so much in this life that hurts. As if those aches weren't enough, compounding the fear and angst, far too many of us suffer alone.
Why We Don't Reach Out
We stay quiet for any number of reasons, including (but definitely not limited to):
- It's harder to stay in denial if we have to speak it out loud.
- We've been hurt before when we've shared honestly so it feels far too risky now.
- It's important (to our job, to our ego, to our spouse/family) that we keep up a certain image.
- We can hardly manage our own shame/grief around the situation that we doubt we could handle anyone else's feelings, too.
- Our greatest fear is being rejected or judged so why would we ever want to look less than perfect to someone else?
- We don't really know anyone well enough to share deeply.
Why We Must
Unfortunately I have to stay brief on this part since what I really want to talk about is how to determine who to talk with, but it's worth reminding our brains that external processing is crucial for growth.
Self-reflection is limited to that which we are already conscious of in ourselves; interacting with others is what pushes us to new ways of thinking.
Even for people who prefer internal processing (a descriptive of many introverts), they are limited only to their own thoughts (which often just keep spiraling and spiraling) and can't access all the new inspiration, ideas, resources, awareness of blind spots, and reminders of love, acceptance, and normalcy that others can give. (Similarly, I'd tell those who prefer external processing that there is also a huge need for them to spend time checking in with themselves and reflecting more! Both are needed!)
Furthermore, oxytocin, the hormone that helps us feel safe, connected, and loved flows through us when we are sharing, touching, and being seen. This powerful chemical also prohibits cortisol which is released by our stress, so engaging with others actually protects our bodies from the impact of whatever is causing us pain or stress. Our stressors deplete us, but relationships fill us up. (We can't always eliminate that which is draining us, but we can always be responsible for adding more of the things that energize and heal us.)
So Who Do We Share With?
- Do we share with the people we like the best?
- Or the ones who we've known the longest?
- Or the ones who have been through something similar?
- Or the ones who appear to not struggle in this area?
- Or the ones who have opened up and shared with us in the past?
- Or the ones who seem to have time?
The answer is: none of the above.
While the person we practice opening up with may fit 1-2 of those descriptors-- in and of themselves, they are not a reason to be vulnerable with someone. The chances of backfiring are high with any of them if we don't take into account the real reason to choose someone.
In short the answer is: The person we practice being vulnerable with the big stuff is the person we have been practicing vulnerability with on the small stuff.
What does that mean? Let me give you an example: If you'd rate your pain/fear as a 7 or 8 on a scale of 1-10, then you're better off sharing it with someone whom you've shared with before and appreciated their response. So hopefully there are a few people you've practiced being vulnerable with regarding matters that you'd consider 5's or 6's? The jump from a 5/6 to a 7/8 really isn't that risky. You have a history of practicing vulnerability with them in a way where their response was meaningful or helpful so while it may still feel scary to share, you don't need to fear their response or wonder if they will still love you.
You two have practiced vulnerability so it's not a new dance, but rather just a more experienced dance move.
What If I Don't Have Anyone?
The other option if you don't have people around you whom you've practiced vulnerability with already is to intentionally and incrementally start deepening some of the friendships you do have. Think of the scale in your mind and make sure you're sharing only a little bit at a time to then have the opportunity to step back and assess how it feels before sharing more. In other words, if your pain is an 8, share as much as feels like a 3, before jumping up to 5, and before eventually sharing the 8.
What does that look like? Maybe you're struggling with a possible impending divorce. Before you pour out your heart and dump on someone, see how it feels to share a small piece of it: maybe just a fight you've recently had or acknowledging in broad strokes how hard marriage can feel sometimes. Does she meet you there? Does she judge? Does she listen and ask questions? Does she validate your feelings? If she responds in a way that feels safe to you, then you can up the ante a bit and maybe share something more specific or deep.
But I'd caution you that if you've bottled up a lot and haven't shared too deeply with others, it's probably wise to not go from 1 to 8 in one sitting with someone, even if she is responding kindly and encouragingly. My best advice would be to see it a bit like a first-time at the gym-- don't overdo it; you can always do more next time, building up to higher numbers as you engage more often. Your goal isn't just to find someone to vomit on, but to build a lasting relationship that can support both of you so make sure you ask about her life, share something positive, and be someone who she would look forward to getting together with again. (If you NEED to talk and don't have those friendships in place, it's usually wise to realize that what you need might be a therapist, pastor, or other professional whose goal is to help you, not to build up a mutually confiding friendship.)
I'm excited for my next book to come out next Spring (the title is Frientimacy) where I talk in-depth about how to deepen friendships, but if you want more now then see pages 163-168 specifically about how to share when you're feeling broken and hurt (and all of chapter 8 on vulnerability for more general sharing) in my book Friendships Don't Just Happen!
What I want for all of you, eventually, is the awareness that you have developed a net of supportive relationship under you, made up of people who have practiced going as deep as possible with you... so that you live with confidence and peace that when the 10 hits (and chances are high it will), you have a couple of people who can support you through it.
Far too many people say, "When I went through such-and-such, I learned who my real friends are" as though it's an indictment against all those who didn't stick by them, but often it says less about the people, and more about what level of relationship was developed.
We owe it to ourselves to develop the relationships that incrementally and intentionally foster safe and mutual sharing. I want that for you!
Leave a comment! Does this make sense? What questions do you have? Do you have any experience with sharing too much/too fast or not sharing enough to feel supported? We'd be honored to learn with you!