There’s been a lot of chatter lately about how being vulnerable can help you connect with someone. Sociologist Brené Brown’s TEDx speech “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the most watched talks ever, and psychologist Arthur Aron also received a lot of attention with his claim that you could quickly fall in love with anyone by asking and answering 36 revealing questions.
The idea of showing up in life so emotionally naked sounds equally terrifying and liberating – much like spilling your guts to the stranger in the airplane seat next to you. It doesn’t matter if you ignore each other at baggage claim afterwards. The conversation was a lovely reminder that you never lose the ability to go to an intimate personal place.
So why is vulnerability so potent? Brown cautions that it shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness. To be vulnerable is to be brave. You’re strong enough to risk showing your most private self. Your companion then feels inspired to share back. Over time, you build a deeper connection than, say, chatting about sports or your favorite smoothie recipe. One important caveat: You only share your scariest stuff with someone who’s earned the right to hear it. You don’t gush about your deep childhood wounds on a first date. You disclose slowly until you develop mutual trust.
But being vulnerable is about more than big reveals. It’s the daily practice of sharing your authentic feelings. It’s showing up to a date and admitting, “I haven’t been on a date in a while, and I’m nervous.” It’s baring your less pretty side with “Your divorce sounds rough. I know I really struggled to stay positive during mine.” It’s being real. It’s having an open heart.
However, even the bravest of us have well-honed defenses that we unknowingly summon. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Love, Brown discusses how we “armor up” our hearts and unknowingly block love. I recently attended a workshop in which we identified some of the culprits.
We know about the obvious escapes that keep us disconnected from our feelings, such as nachos, wine, Facebook, and staying crazy busy. Yet many sneakier defenses rear their heads during dates and might be sabotaging romantic connections.
Occasional sarcastic banter is fun and clever, but it easily ventures into negative territory. You don’t feel safe showing your vulnerable side to someone with an edge.
Are you always giving advice? Offering to run errands or make professional connections? Of course, generosity is important to nurture any new relationship. But it can also become an identity that gets in the way of opening up and receiving.
Never accepting help
This is a close cousin to helping. If you rarely accept help of any kind – even travel tips from someone’s cousin who took the same vacation you’re planning – you keep your heart all sealed up. It’s safer to say “No, thanks. I appreciate the offer, but I’m good.” But it doesn’t create intimacy.
This can take many forms. Perhaps you’re bragging to elicit “Wow! You’re amazing!” Or you’re downplaying your accomplishments to evoke “No, you should be proud of yourself!” It takes courage to show up with an attitude of “Here I am! I like myself and hope you do too.” And be okay if they don’t.
Keeping it light
I’m guilty of this. Instead of tolerating awkward silences, I launch into my “pleasant chit chat persona” that’s been honed through decades of interviewing people for a living. It’s small talk at its finest, but it doesn’t help you “get real” with anyone.
Sometimes we may need our armor. Perhaps we instinctively know it’s not safe to open up to another person. We might want to summon our most fake selves to get through uncomfortable situations. But more often than not, we don’t need our defenses, which are simply habits that don’t help us find love.
What do you think – do you use different tactics to avoid becoming vulnerable with another person?
About the Author:
Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate, and Salon.