how do build closer friendships
March 29, 2012 7:57 AM   Subscribe

How to build deeper social connections by addressing vulnerability issues?

Lately, I've been working on cultivating more self-compassion, trying more to better connect with my friends and colleagues...but a key ingredient, addressing my vulnerability issues is making the effort a hard-fought struggle. Writing a dissertation at the same time isn't helping much.

I think part of this stems from being guarded about my personal life, and the (un)conscious things I do in social situations to steer conversations away from people asking me detailed questions about my personal life. I'm reasonably good at small talk and moving conversations along varying directions, I'm equally deft at sprinkling humor into them, and I generally consider myself a good listener. For instance, I know that many of my closer friends willingly share a lot about their personal lives to me because they trust me. I don't aim to give advise or judge based on what they divulge to me, but I'm usually there with undivided awareness.

The problem is, I don't think its balanced since I hardly share or reciprocate anything of the same weight; but I feel like at the same time proactively volunteering personal details is something that I have difficulty with.

So I guess my question is: Is there something I'm doing subconsciously that makes it difficult for my friends to ask more personal questions about me? What can I do to foster a bit more intimacy in my friendships?Do I just need to share more proactively? Am I missing some social cues? Thanks a bunch in advance.
posted by wallawallasweet to Human Relations (12 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
You need to be more aware of when you are steering the conversation away from you and when you are hiding your vulnerabilities. This is what meditation does for you.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:14 AM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Do you feel like steering conversations away from you personal life is largely unconscious? Do you look back on conversations and feel like they are not balanced? Or do you realize, in the moment, that you are uncomfortable with the questions/comments and then steer away? If you are steering away from intimate conversations, I imagine people will just stop going there. They don't want to continue to make you uncomfortable.

Some people ask lots of questions, and some wait to be asked. If you are someone who waits to be asked and also is hesitant to put yourself in a perceived vulnerable conversation, intimate conversations are not going to occur often, thus giving you little opportunity.

If you want to practice being more vulnerable, you could start with someone you trust very much, and ask them for advice regarding a personal topic ("Hey, can bounce something off of you?" "Have you ever been in this kind of situation?"). It doesn't have to be a big issue, but something you are willing to divulge a little personal information and history about. See how you feel. And then ask yourself what scares you, if anything, about that conversation. Go from there.

With practice, you will probably start feeling better about opening up to people, creating deeper connections, and balancing your relationships. It sounds like this is something you desire more of?
posted by retrofitted at 8:24 AM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

You could start by just offering them things like companionship and service. Help them when they move. Make them food when they're sick. Walk their dogs when they're out of town. These are things that can enhance that feeling of intimacy so that you can build up your trust in other people.

The thing is that your friends and acquaintances probably know more about you than you think they do... and they're perfectly fine with that.

I dated a guy who was very extroverted, loved to be the center of attention. He would do anything for a friend; on multiple occasions, he dropped everything and drove over 500 miles one-way to pick up a friend who had just gone through a bad breakup. But he would never allow anyone to give him even a sliver of the same courtesy.

The thing is, EVERYONE knew he had dad issues, was prickly about privacy, needed validation, needed to be the expert at all things at all times. Everybody joked about him being a lovable asshole. Knowing all of this, they were still his best friends.

I once asked him why he didn't sit down and talk to his friend -- his best friend of 10 years, who had gone through a ton of stuff and would provide unspoken and appropriate support in any situation. His response was, "Why should I burden other people with my problems?"

Because it lessens the burden. Because you'd do the same thing for them. Because getting something out now means you don't have to worry about it as much later. Because they care about you way more than you know.

This is the human condition. Maybe you're worried about what other people will think about you, or that they'll judge you. Remember that everyone has problems, most of which you don't know about. Every single person you see, from the most successful CEO or politician or actress to the homeless guy on the street, has issues. EVERYONE is fucked up. For the most part, nobody cares.
posted by Madamina at 8:33 AM on March 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

On the other hand, one must be careful when choosing to 'let it all hang out' as well. Perhaps there are subconscious messages or signals that you might not be able to trust this person to contain your inner knowledge with the trust and respect that it deserves. As you contemplate when and where you choose to divert these conversational opportunities, also consider with whom and why.
posted by infini at 9:12 AM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is my struggle. I could have written this a couple of years ago. Vulnerability is my greatest fear.

It was never that I didn't desire to share my hopes and fears with those I cared about, it was that I didn't know how, and simply wasn't capable. I couldn't be vulnerable and share those deep parts of my heart with anyone. Not my closest friends, not my family, not a therapist. I couldn't even share that vulnerability with myself. I couldn't write it in a journal. I couldn't even manage to form it into language in my mind. Almost like I could see them out of the corner of my eye, but couldn't and wouldn't turn to face them. I couldn't even trust myself with the deepest parts of me. I wasn't ready.

It took so much work for so long to even reach that far. 27 years of effort until I could face and acknowledge my own heart. I found my ability to hold my own vulnerabilities safely. It was the most important work I've ever done. But at the end I was still desperately lonely. I had friends I loved, who loved me. I could hold their vulnerability safely, but could not offer my own. There was this chasm between my heart and the world, and it was unbearable. I couldn't bridge that chasm without help, so I found a fantastic psychiatrist and we found a medication that managed my anxiety and fear enough that I could gather the strength and toughness to face my deapest fear. I found intimacy and real human connection for the first time. My progress rocketed forward. About a month ago I hit another wall. I realized that I needed to stop avoiding therapy, so I found an amazing therapist and I'm rocketing again.

But that's the journey, you start with yourself and work outward, slow enough to be safe, but being careful not to procrastinate or avoid the hard things you must do.

Yes, you're unconsciously behaving in ways that don't inspire your friends to ask more personal questions, or to offer their emotional support to you. The don't percieve that you need that. I'm going to guess that you're at least somewhat like me. You probably come across as very strong and capable, as very self contained. You come across as a rock of dependibility. You support yourself so well that how could you ever need their help or understanding? What could they ever offer you that you don't already have? I bet that you *are* very strong and capable. You can handle a lot on your own. But we all need help and support. You know that, but you don't know how to ask or express that.

You give your friends your attention and care when they bring their personal vulnerabilities to you. You accept them without judging, and that is a wonderful gift. At the same time, they give you their deep trust, and they offer you the most precious parts of themselves. It's the most beautiful gift we can ever recieve. You aren't returning that gift. Not out of any fault of your own, you just haven't learned how yet. First you have to learn how to hold your own vulnerability safely, so that you can pass it to someone you trust with the most precious part of yourself. It's terrifying, but you'll get there. But you start with yourself, and extend that outwards.

The biggest resource I've had in this area has been my migraines, surprisingly enough. I've had to learn pain management skills. Turns out that the skills that work for physical pain also work for fear, anxiety and emotional pain. If you fight and tense into a headache, it will only get worse. You have to acknowledge and notice it, and then you relax into it. You have to accept it and let it wash over you until it leaves. It's basic mindfulness. And you don't just notice what is happening in your mind that make you tense, you have to notice what happens in your body. When I have a migraine, my shoulders, neck, and face tense, and my breathing wants to be shallow. I have to notice these things continually to relax my muscles, and to breath deep and down. When I'm anxious, the exact same thing happens to my body. It's very useful to bypass your mind entirely, and to pay attention to these physical cues. When I'm showing vulnerability to someone, I begin to feel very anxious. My stomach tenses, and then the rest of me. My breathing goes shallow. When I relax and breathe deep, my mind feels better. I feel safer.

So I learned to acknowledge pain and not react to it in negative ways. Then I started applying this to my emotional life. I learned to notice my thoughts and feelings without judgement. I learned to accept them and not react in negative ways. Once this skill is established, you start to notice *why* you feel and think these things. You notice both what it is that scares you about vulnerability, and why it scares you. You've turned around to face those deep parts of your heart. And facing your fear with courage and toughness is the first step to overcoming that fear.

You give your friends your undivided awareness, and you accept them without judgement. This is why they trust you. You can learn to do this with yourself. Befriend yourself. Give your heart and mind your undivided awareness, and accept them with affection and kindness. You will learn to trust yourself. You will learn to hold your vulnerability safely. Then you can begin to learn how to pass that vulnerability along to someone you trust. Maybe you already know how to hold your vulnerability safely, and just need to know how to pass it along. Maybe you're like me and could use medication or therapy.

Either way, I don't think it's a matter of reading an answer here that changes your understanding in a way that revolutionizes your behavior. You might change or improve your understanding, learn important tools and techniques, but the only thing that revolutionizes behavior is practice. Intentional practice is extra effective.

So I'll list some resources, tools, and techniques I've practiced that have helped me immensely.

-Cognitive behavioral therapy. If you're not already familiar with it, I recommend you read up a bit. It's really effective for any problem, big or small. My introduction was Feeling Good by David Burns. There's a lot of good info out there. Probably plenty of good resources online that wouldn't require you to buy a book.

-Meditation. I resisted it as ephemeral and new age-y for a long time, but it's really very practical and grounded. It's just attention practice, at its core. You practice noticing what happens, rather than burying it and filtering it through assumptions and reactions. There are tons of good questions here on askme about meditation. I started with basic awareness of breath and body to help with my migraines. I've been sitting every day for about two weeks now, and I'm already seeing a major difference. But it's a method that doesn't work for everyone. I like Sharon Salzberg's Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. It's a buddhist method, but is presented in a non-religious way and non-denominational way.

I also really love planting myself on my stationary bike or rower and noticing my body as it moves. You can really flow into a current awareness this way because there is so much going on in your body to pay attention to. Especially when I'm on the rower, and I have to notice my posture and the mechanics of what I'm doing. When your body gets going, it's really satisfying to notice your deep breaths, your strong heartbeat, and visualize your bloodflow. And really zoning in to what your body and muscles are doing. Sometimes it's sort of an "extend, contract" chant. Sometimes it's noticing which muscle is doing what, "hip flexors and hamstrings contract, quads and glutes extend hips and pull oars along mid and low back". It's all paying attention to the moment and noticing what exists there. Thich Nhat Hanh has written a lot about walking meditation.

I started doing metta (lovingkindness) meditation a handful of months ago, and it's been really amazing for me. It's really useful for "befriending yourself" like I mentioned earlier. It's deepened my understanding and love for myself and the world around me in a monumental way. Again, I recomment Sharon Salzberg Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

-Journaling works for some and not others. It's very useful to me. The rythm and speed of writing by hand really works well to pace my thoughts. Sometimes it's hard for me to move out of my head and intellect to really connect with what I feel all the way through my body. I try apply patience and structure to my intense emotions like anger (usually a very good thing), but if I can't feel and express my anger in a healthy way it bottles up, and interferes with my health and with my friendships. When I need to just get rid of it, I exercise it out. When I want to express, feel, and understand it, I write it down. To keep that feeling immediate and flowing, I write as fast as I can trying not to look at the paper. I think that typing without looking at the monitor would also be helpful for this.

-Tell a close friend exactly what you're trying to accomplish. If they are worthy of your trust, they will be happy to help and support you. That doesn't mean you have to start revealing these things right away, but it lets someone know that you're trying. Then this friend can try and pay attention, and ask more questions. I'm not sure about you, but at first even being asked really personal questions felt scary and exposed. If this is the same for you, then you could let this friend know that they can help you by asking questions, or being ready to listen, but backing off immediately when you feel overwhelmed. This was a huge help to me. Being able to say "I can't talk about that right now, I hope someday I can" provided a vital safety net.

Holy shit, this turned into a novel.

Good Luck! It's only a matter of time and practice until you can grow closer in your friendships.
posted by f_panda at 10:34 AM on March 29, 2012 [25 favorites]

Just wanted to say that I could have written this question, the answers are really helpful, and I'm now watching the Brene' Brown video and it's fucking fantastic.
posted by Miko at 1:59 PM on March 29, 2012

Seconding what Miko said. And thank you f_panda for sharing all of that. I'm actually kinda surprised there aren't a ton more answers here already.

For me, I think a large part of the problem is that the moments in which I could be sharing personal things with people and being vulnerable with them take me by surprise and I clam up. Then later on I've figured out exactly what I should have said (typical introvert trait) but by then it's too late and the person with whom I was talking has taken away the impression that opening up (to them) makes me uncomfortable and so they try to avoid those situations.

I've found that I can be much more open and vulnerable in letters, emails and texts because I have enough time to think about it. Some of the things I've said to people in writing would have been pretty much impossible for me to say to their faces and the thought of doing so frankly scares the crap out of me.

Another thing which I'm trying is to plan ahead when there's something I want to share. I have a friend coming over at the weekend and I have actually written down on a to-do list "talk to x about y".

The TED talk is really thought provoking and I'll definitely be trying to find out more about her research.
posted by neilb449 at 2:50 PM on March 29, 2012

I'm with you too! I wish there were more responses from people who've done this successfully but if it's any help to know that there are others in the same boat (I know that's usually the case for me), well, here I am, in the same boat with you. And neilb449, it is so funny that you said that about letters and emails and texts because f_panda's mention of telling a close friend what you want to accomplish inspired me to write a friend a letter (which I have neither printed nor sent you), even though of course I could just call him right now. I totally can't deal with that, but I can deal with writing a letter.

I am way way way at the beginning of this journey, though, and I have a lot of protective mechanisms (to wit, sarcasm, joking, visible signs of discomfort that warn my friends off) that I'm going to have to learn to dismantle or at least regulate in a more productive way.
posted by mskyle at 5:18 PM on March 29, 2012

I totally understand what everyone is saying about clamming up in the moment. I still do this pretty often, and have to ask to end the conversation. Sometimes I can come back and finish the conversation in person if I can find a better, more prepared frame of mind. In that case I've found it helpful to just text or email the person and say "hey, I clammed up about this in the moment, but I'd like to talk about it now." Or I will write it in email or one of those long, long texts. I really like handwriting letters, so sometimes I do that as well.

neilb449, maybe you can notice that the person you were talking with took away the right impression, and avoid these situations because they would never want to make you feel scared or uncomfortable. Opening up does make you uncomfortable, it scares the crap out of you. Your friends want to respect your boundaries and make you feel safe. And realize that it's not "too late" because, like you said, you can be much more vulnerable in letters, emails and texts. If they are worthy of your friendship and trust then they will want to help you in the way that feels safest for you. I bet they would be happy to get an email after a conversation clams you up, and they may have felt bad about making you uncomfortable.

I think that anyone you can trust to receive your vulnerability with care is someone who will feel honored that you asked them for help. They will realize how brave you had to be to ask, and how much you love and respect them to be able to trust them to keep you safe.

mskyle, writing that letter was a big deal even if you never send it. I have a big pile of unsent letters. They've helped me practice how to express what I want to say, and are kind of like a dress rehearsal.

This stuff is hard fucking work. It scares the shit out of me almost every time I do it. It's taken me a long time of dedicated work to get this far, and it's taken all the courage I have. It has been so worth it, because I've found out how brave and tough I am.

Even the fact that you want to achieve this, that you're thinking and learning about how to overcome this, is proof of what a fucking badass you are. So many of us just keep running, because it feels easier.

You're not running. Even if you haven't progressed towards your goal, you've stood tall and turned around to face a deep fear. Fuck yeah.
posted by f_panda at 8:23 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thank you so much MeFites: what a wonderful feeling to read such nail-on-the-head-hitting responses and to really know that others know what I'm faced with!

retrofitted, f_panda, you both are absolutely right, it's about intentional practice. That's the sticker, and it's hard when your cohort or you yourself have gotten used to a certain social function played (i.e. the comic relief or the person who is outwardly calm and/or is always willing to go the extra mile) and (un)conscious comfort zones. It's going to take effort because sometimes intention brings anticipation and thus a rush of anxiety...but I will try to work at my own pace.

Please keep the responses coming, they've been so insightful.

PS: Regarding Brene Brown's talk on TED, I remember most when she talks about whole-hearted people feeling worthy of belonging---it's such a crucial point that we often gloss over.
posted by wallawallasweet at 9:31 PM on March 29, 2012

IT's true, the shame thing really resonates. I'm often hyperconscious of things that I'm "ashamed" of in that I think they make me so deficiently different from others - I don't have kids, I don't have much fashion sense, my politics aren't mainstream, I've taken a different path through life. I feel like these things must make it harder for people to relate to me, or want to relate to me, so I don't want to go into my personal life much because I think most people would find it either strange or pitiful. Much better and safer to stay in "capable and private" mode.

Wish I had some solutions to offer you, but you're farther along than I am in tackling this!
posted by Miko at 7:50 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's been over month, and I wanted to provide an update because I've noticed several, notable changes based upon the insights I've observed and committed to my way of living...this is only a start, but I think it's a sustainable snowballing of building solid friendships

I'll start off the f_panda's insight:
"I think that anyone you can trust to receive your vulnerability with care is someone who will feel honored that you asked them for help. They will realize how brave you had to be to ask, and how much you love and respect them to be able to trust them to keep you safe."

Confirmed with hard evidence. Lately, I've been in wading in a shitload of personal and work related problems, and the difference between before was that I sought help from those I trusted, but also those who I wanted to let know that they could trust me in return...the hard part of course was overcoming the: "is that not too huge of a burden to put on a friend?"/"will they think I'm completely incapable? etc." thoughts. But if I'm right, if that kind of thought process is inherent at the onset, we tend to magnify the potential impacts of opening up to these issues to friends. (Madamina's response comes to mind here)

I found that when we're receptive toward receiving help when we are overwhelmed, we are increasingly aware of the gratitude we feel in the process. That gratitude snowballs into a lot of interesting, often surprising has to be aware of them though!

Thanks again you guys, I'm glad to have asked this question, it's made a big difference for me to read all of your responses. Perhaps you'll share some of your insights with me here or MeMail.
posted by wallawallasweet at 7:46 AM on May 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

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