What does it mean to be "vulnerable" ?
September 29, 2012 3:15 PM   Subscribe

"You have to let yourself be vulnerable" is too vague to be helpful. Tell me what it means?

So I'm single and lonely, etc., and I've read a bunch of the relationship questions, and they had great insightful advice, which is great, but I need specifics.

This advice keeps coming up: that it's important to let yourself be vulnerable, to be open, to have space in your life for a potential partner. I have no idea what that looks like or how it plays out in real life. I don't have a background that included a lot of people being vulnerable in any way other than to be manipulative. I don't have an example to emulate.

It sounds like really good advice- it sounds exactly like the advice that I should be following; I definitely have a lot of walls, especially when it comes to romance. I know that I keep potential close friends and romantic partners at a distance, but I can't pinpoint what specific behaviours have that effect. I do know that the more I care about or want to be close to someone, the stronger my drive to push them away/ stay inside myself can sometimes become. But again, I don't know what actually makes them remain distanced, unless it's just my internal resistance somehow being apparent. It's not like I start being mean to these people (except jokingly).

I don't know how people who don't have these walls behave. I need practical, concrete examples and descriptions of what "letting yourself be vulnerable" etc., entails. If there are examples in tv. shows or movies or books that I can watch and learn from (while understanding that fiction is fiction, etc), of people who are open, vulnerable, whatever, that's great. Or if you can give me some comparisons of open behaviour vs. closed behaviour, that's great too.

I'm not looking for advice about finding love or on being single or figuring out what happened in my life to make me how I am or about getting therapy, in a general way (I'm already in therapy; this is something that my therapist can't help me with). I need an explaination of a concept, this concept of vulnerability, and how that plays out, because I really can't identify it, unless it's totally artificial, at which point it becomes repellant.

(note that I've seen the threads on steps to take to open up to people and, while helpful, they don't really help me flesh out this idea in my mind; they're coming from the wrong angle to answer this question.)
posted by windykites to Human Relations (24 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
- Emotional honesty. This means letting the other person know when you're hurt, or lonely, or sad, and also letting them know that you're happy to see them, that you enjoy their company, or that you feel better when they're around. This can be hard, if you're not in the habit, because you sometimes have to be pretty explicit about it - expecting your partner to "just know" does not actually work. Media tends to be a negative example of this - romance in the movies/books/tv shows tends to elide the actual bones of communication because it's not sexy or perfect.

- Asking for what you want - which means opening yourself up to the possibility of rejection. I'm not sure what kind of walls you have, but this is a really common thing. Expecting the other person to intuit what you want and give it to you also tends not to happen in the real world.

- The "making space in your life" thing means, to me, being willing to make compromises and change your schedule/habits/preferences to accommodate the other person. This is a balancing act for sure, but if you aren't willing to open up your routine to spend time with the other person on a schedule that isn't necessarily the one you'd pick for yourself, you're not going to be able to reach that balance.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:32 PM on September 29, 2012 [35 favorites]

For starters, stop being mean "jokingly". Much of the time, "jokes" are thinly veiled serious statements. So start with finding another tactic to replace that, possibly as simple as saying "I kind of want to say X, which is kind of a not nice joke. That tells me I am feeling vulnerable (or "nervous") and I don't know what else to do. It is a bad habit I am trying to break." See if that gets better reception than your current model. Then try to improve on it.

My general rule of thumb is to give someone I would like to get closer to enough rope to hang themselves but make sure it is a "loss" I can afford if they turn out to be untrustworthy jerks. That gives me clues to their character without putting me in serious danger.

Example: At work, most people did not know of my life threatening genetic disorder. I mostly kept that to myself. A few actual friends knew and I divulged it a few times for other reasons. I kept it to myself not out of shame or because it was illegal, etc, but solely to reduce social drama. So while there would have been consequences if it came out, they would have been on the order of hassle and inconvenience, not catastrophic firing.
posted by Michele in California at 3:34 PM on September 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think a big part of it is revealing what you really think and feel. For example, when you meet someone, and you like them, and you'd like to become friends or to date, how comfortable are you with showing them that you like them? Do you feel embarrassed and think, "I don't want them to know I like them, because what if they don't like me?" Or do you act as you feel, even knowing that it's possible that (a) they'll realize you like them and (b) they'll reject you.

Being vulnerable means letting people see whatever is inside: your good parts, your unpleasant parts, your strange/quirky/one-of-a-kind parts. And it's doing so knowing that not everyone will like what you reveal. But that's ok, because some will, and those are the ones you want in your life.

I should note: more is not always better here. It's possible to reveal too much, or to share things at inappropriate times or in inappropriate contexts. The best way is when you're getting to know someone as a friend or a date, and gradually: you reveal a little, hopefully they reveal a little, and as you know each other better and build trust, you can share more and deeper things.

Also, it's not the same as talking about yourself a lot. Sometimes a lot of chatter is actually a way people deflect attention from their real vulnerabilities (i.e. the parts of themselves they're embarrassed about or afraid to reveal).

If you want to get better at being vulnerable, first, listen to others. Be aware when they open up, when they share something personal. And treat that sharing as a real gift--it means they trust you. Live up to that trust: don't turn it into a joke. And when you have a thought or feeling that you're a little uncomfortable sharing, try to push yourself to share it and see how they react.
posted by pompelmo at 3:34 PM on September 29, 2012 [13 favorites]

Rejection sucks, but without risking rejection it is hard to get what you want. If you don't approach people online or in person, you can't get a date, though you'll never be stood-up. If you don't tell someone that you like them and would love to see them again, you can't get a second date, though they won't have a chance to reject you. If you keep secrets about yourself, you can't learn to trust people, though no one will call you weird.
posted by Garm at 3:35 PM on September 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

In real life, whenever anyone asks me about my favorite whatever, I usually give a non-answer about how little time I have for cinema or how I'm "happy to listen to anything." I should be able to just talk about whatever I'm reading, listening to, or watching. But my mental energy is spent calculating how much of a pretentious snob or crass swine I'll come off as and what kind of confused or negative reaction I'll draw. I wish I could just talk about myself without reservation.

The next time someone asks me, though, I'll just say I'm a big fan of Alex Harvey. YOLO, etc.
posted by Nomyte at 3:36 PM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Part of being vulnerable, in dating, just means taking the first step of getting out there. Every time you meet someone new, you are making yourself vulnerable to rejection, or disappointment, or awkwardness, etc. People who safely make themselves vulnerable this way -- and have the bravery to get out there a lot -- are probably going to end up less lonely.
posted by kellybird at 3:37 PM on September 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

A good first step to increasing your vulnerability is looking at how you react to being asked out, and how often you ask other people out. I don't just mean the hyped-up "Asking the Head Cheerleader to the prom," but also in more casual ways, including with platonic friends. Rejection is a hugely painful thing, and avoiding it walls you off from other people. So being vulnerable also means that you (all examples based on heterosexual male; adapt as necessary if you're otherwise) call up Friend Guy and say, "Hey, that new Jason Statham movie looks awesome -- want to go?" And sometimes your friends will have other stuff to do, and that sucks, but it doesn't mean you don't go see the movie yourself, or call someone else, or just do something besides mope because your friend already had plans.
posted by Etrigan at 3:38 PM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

If there are examples in tv. shows or movies or books that I can watch and learn from (while understanding that fiction is fiction, etc), of people who are open, vulnerable, whatever, that's great.

OK, do you watch The Office (U.S.)? If so, you could think about it; if not, you might want to watch some of the old episodes on DVD or Hulu. Of course, it is a sitcom, so the examples are often simplistic or unrealistic, but there are also a lot of insightful moments with some application to real life.

Jim and Pam are vulnerable, in a healthy, appropriate way.

Dwight and Angela are the opposite of vulnerable.

Michael and Jan are vulnerable in an unhealthy, unequal way. Kelly and Ryan are sometimes vulnerable and sometimes not, but they're always dysfunctional.

Andy and Angela don't work because only Andy is vulnerable in the slightest.

Andy is much more vulnerable than Gabe, making Andy a better partner for Erin.

And so on.

Check out the book One to One by Theodore Isaac Rubin. Lots of specific, fictionalized anecdotes drawn from the author's experience as a psychiatrist.
posted by John Cohen at 3:41 PM on September 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's not like I start being mean to these people (except jokingly).

I think that good starting point is to give up any kind of belittling humour. While a sharp wit can earn you points within certain group dynamics, it'll work against you if you're trying to get to know someone better.

That said, all you can do is try to be emotionally honest and hope that eventually someone you feel drawn will reciprocate.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:44 PM on September 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

How she got to measuring and studying the messy topic of shame and vulnerability by asking people about connection and love.

actually I can't watch these again and summarize them.

So, here's another one addressing vulnerability.

And a third

But the basic answer seems to be, fight against shame, feel more joy and gratitude. Be kind to yourself, you are not perfect and that is ok as long as you are being you. She looked at the people who are connected and living "whole hearted" lives to figure this out. It's interesting.

You can tell I'm feeling vulnerable when I have links to three Brene Brown videos on hand. Lucky you.
posted by bilabial at 4:01 PM on September 29, 2012 [22 favorites]

I had to work on similar lowering of walls in the past - more walling myself in than pushing people away, but what you wrote resonates nonetheless. I completely agree with you about this being a vague piece of advice - though perhaps it's more that it's just counter-productive to the way some people rationalise emotional baggage.

"Letting yourself be vulnerable" boils down to being conscious of your fears and weaknesses, but still exposing yourself to them. The way of thinking that allowed me to get to this place was to treat my emotional anxiety like physical anxiety; get in conscious control of the triggers, and the rest should follow.

Those triggers boiled down to fear of lack of control (being in situations where my emotions were "dictated" by others), and fear of exposure (being in situations where I'd feel obliged to tell people more personal stuff than I felt comfortable with). Once I'd identified those, I became better able to anticipate situations and avoid clamming up so much, or at least analyse those situations after the event and judge the extent to which I'd been winding myself up. Over time the body of evidence built up that actually 98% of social and emotional interaction was a whole lot less loaded than I worried it might be.

2 practical things that were also a great help; meeting people through shared interests (some building blocks of closer interaction come ready provided), and mindfulness meditation (accepting lack of control and generally straightening my self-view out).
posted by protorp at 4:21 PM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

My brother once told me something his friend's mom told him that was very powerful : Love is greater than Fear. Whenever you feel fearful of rejection or being stood up, just remember that love is great than fear.

I have this taped to my bedroom mirror because it is so hard to forget in the moment that if I see it everyday it slowly will become part of my subconscious.

I really like the rest of the advice given so far.
posted by eq21 at 7:19 PM on September 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

A few months ago I was seeing a guy I really, really liked. We had been on a couple of dates. I sent him a flirty email and his response was not in tune with mine. So I got snarky. Mistake 1.

The next time we met in person, he brought it up. He was puzzled by my response. The truth was that I had wanted to convey my excitement to him, and he had responded in a more ... data oriented way, and I had felt that my romantic overture was rejected. Turned out that he was just more of a facts guy and didn't get it. But when he asked me about it, I said I was annoyed. Mistake 2.

It was all downhill from there. He was right - if I had been truly annoyed by something so basic to his personality, so early in the game, that would have been a terrible sign for a relationship.

I didn't have the courage to be vulnerable, and say "I was trying to say I really like you and I'm excited to see you again, and when you responded like that I wasn't sure that you felt the same way."

And just wait to see whether he said "yes, I do" or "no, I don't."

I think that's what's meant by the importance of vulnerability in a romantic relationship.
posted by bunderful at 7:52 PM on September 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

This is a great discussion of vulnerability. You probably don't have this girl's issue specifically, but she makes some great points.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:19 PM on September 29, 2012

This book is arguably what you're looking for. They describe three attachment styles: Avoidant, Anxious and Secure. Whether you buy into those categories or not, what you're describing is exactly what they call avoidant (this also matches me, for that matter.) They then have specific, concrete examples of how each of those styles play out and how to change one's own behavior to be more conducive to healthy relationships.
posted by pahalial at 10:45 PM on September 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I will also point out: the couple of people who have ~ever~ accused me of not being open and vulnerable enough were semi-abusive assholes. I was not super open and vulnerable with those people because my spidey sense said they were dangerous, and my spidey sense was right.

You don't have any obligation to force yourself to be open and vulnerable and share your secrets with people, or e.g. do things sexually you aren't comfortable with.

The kind of vulnerability that's best, I think, is to do be vulnerable enough to get out and date and socialize with a lot of people. Then, after that, to clearly share your thoughts, feelings, and ideas... but only with people who have earned your trust. You don't have to be open and vulnerable with everyone. It is just as good an act of vulnerability to honestly say, "I can't make it tonight, I'm busy with thing x that really makes me happy," as it is to share your secrets with someone.

Openness and vulnerability are not the same as making yourself weak or dependent on someone. I've been accused of not making enough space in my life for a person. The reason was that this person wasn't worth spending less time at work, and instead of being more trustworthy or awesome, he just put me down and berated me for my reluctance. It's good to get a little outside your comfort zone especially if your good and trusted friends suggest it. But, if you find yourself way outside your comfort zone or responding to someone's demands, it's good to step back and watch your safety.
posted by kellybird at 10:46 PM on September 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

And lastly (yes I have a lot of opinions here!) --

I find that one good way to get comfortable with sharing more thoughts, positive and negative, is to find ways to say the negative stuff so that it is not a confrontation or argument.

Like you, I didn't have good openness/vulnerability role models because my parents fight like screaming banshees. Somewhere along the way, I learned a superpower which is that it's possible to communicate pretty much anything, even difficult stuff, in a somewhat positive manner. It's sort of formulaic. Some sort of reasonable opening, say things positively, listen, ask for clarification, end things positively, no name calling, regulate your anger, etc.

Once you learn to do this, the openness and vulnerability potential goes way up. Because you can take more risks with the content of what you're saying, when you're pretty sure that the conversation itself won't scare anyone away.

There are books out there on how to have difficult conversations. It takes practice but can be learned.

Once you are at the point where, if you have a thought 1000 times you almost always share it, instead of keeping it to yourself, then you're being pretty vulnerable. If you get skilled at having difficult conversations on any topic, it's easier to get to that point.
posted by kellybird at 11:07 PM on September 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

You should watch Alias, seasons 1-3, with Jennifer Garner. One of reasons why Jennifer Garner is so good in that show is because her character is a major badass who also has a talent for vulnerability. Officially, the show is about spies, but personally I think it's a long treatise on who you trust, and how you decided to trust them, when the stakes are very high.

If you want another show, you should watch Farscape. In that show, Aeryn Sun is also a complete badass, but she starts out wanting to be invulnerable (a somewhat familiar position for some of us) and eventually learns to let people in. In contrast, John Crichton starts out on that show basically being good at two things: being emotionally vulnerable and running away. It's also a show about space and there are muppets who talk about farting sometimes. Just fair warning.
posted by colfax at 2:42 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Part of what might be holding you back from being vulnerable is overvaluing the opinion of others. If you care too much what random strangers think of you one way or the other, how can you ever hope to be comfortable with who you really are, much less express it?

It's far easier to be vulnerable, empathic, open and honest when you don't feel you have so much to lose by revealing your true self. "This is who I am, flaws and all" is a much healthier basis for a solid relationship than an illusion shored up by nothing but secrets, half-truths, shame and guilt.

Find yourself feeling insecure around someone? Own it, laugh it off, and move on. Covering it up with "I'm so above it all" snark just leaves you lonely and miserable: reframe to something more positive and actually be the kind of person people want to know. Put your own passions first, and if you aren't a good fit with someone you'll know upfront and everyone can move on sooner.
posted by doreur at 5:02 AM on September 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here's a great passage from Charles Bukowski you might find helpful:

“I've never been lonely. I've been in a room -- I've felt suicidal. I've been depressed. I've felt awful -- awful beyond all -- but I never felt that one other person could enter that room and cure what was bothering me...or that any number of people could enter that room.

In other words, loneliness is something I've never been bothered with because I've always had this terrible itch for solitude. It's being at a party, or at a stadium full of people cheering for something, that I might feel loneliness. I'll quote Ibsen, "The strongest men are the most alone." I've never thought, "Well, some beautiful blonde will come in here and give me a fuck-job, rub my balls, and I'll feel good." No, that won't help.

You know the typical crowd, "Wow, it's Friday night, what are you going to do? Just sit there?" Well, yeah. Because there's nothing out there. It's stupidity. Stupid people mingling with stupid people. Let them stupidify themselves. I've never been bothered with the need to rush out into the night. I hid in bars, because I didn't want to hide in factories. That's all. Sorry for all the millions, but I've never been lonely. I like myself. I'm the best form of entertainment I have. Let's drink more wine!”
posted by doreur at 5:06 AM on September 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

I honestly believe that this book will provide you with the answers that you are looking for. It has just made #1 on the NYT bestseller list this week. Watch these TED talks first to get an impression of the work that the author, Brené Brown, is doing.
I also had difficulties to understand the concept of vulnerability. I mean, what does it mean? I have since learned that vulnerability is the feeling of emotional exposure, risk, and uncertainty that we feel whenever we let ourselves be seen and fear that the people around us may not accept us. I learned from Brené how our fear of not being worthy of love and belonging results in us trying to avoid vulnerability, and how this prevents us from finding exactly what we are struggling for: a true sense of being accepted and loved for who we are.
posted by Okapi at 6:16 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would suggest taking a look at anything by Pema Chodron She's a Buddhist nun, so she has that point of view, but I learned a lot from her about being vulnerable and comfortable with uncertainty (that's the name of one of her books, actually). She's written a ton, I'm sure your local library has or can get something by her for you.
posted by Calicatt at 8:40 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The part you wrote about being jokingly mean seems to be the key. You could begin to figure out how "vulnerability" might help you by determining the things that inspire you to be jokingly mean. I'm guessing that this situation happens within a rather narrow range of circumstances.

This behavior of course is a "pushing away" tactic. You want to distance yourself from that situation. It might be that the events at that time are such that you feel like someone is encroaching upon you. What's the threat? Probably several issues are involved. Anyhow, being vulnerable by definition means that certain aspects are exposed, or out of your ability to control: a literal example is if you let a person tie your hands and feet to bedposts. Another example might be if you told someone something about your personal life that you didn't want anybody to know about. This is vulnerability.

What people usually are trying to say, though, is that you should have the courage to like someone without the expectation that they will like you back; or to tell someone you love them without knowing whether they will reject you. This is sort of a clumsy way to describe trust issues. Many folks invest trust as a form of wishful thinking, hoping that the other person will act a certain way--in this form, trust is a burden invested upon the unwilling. In reality, trust ought to be the result of knowing well how another person will act in any of several situations. You don't trust a snake to not bite you, is the short version of that sort of wisdom.

Anyhow, if you take the general thrust of my argument, then you might have a productive conversation with your counselor about identifying the issues that are involved when you act mean in a joking sort of way toward someone. Let the vulnerability notion fit where it may. It may well be that you don't really need any more vulnerability in your life than already exists.
posted by mule98J at 11:18 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

To me, there's a sense that this is made out to be a little more complicated than it needs to be.

I also take issue with describing this as "vulnerability," because that implies some kind of weakness, or flaw. To my mind people who don't have insecurities or walls like this are actually less vulnerable because they have people they can count on and are not very easily discouraged. Such people know their flaws. They know they're not perfect and they're quite aware of their failings. They don't pretend to love or be loved by everybody else...just people who matter to them.

Just be honest with people. Speak what's on your mind. Answer any question they would ask you, and be available. How do you be available? You talk about things that actually matter. You work through your issues with other people and say, "Hey, that's not cool," when it isn't. You're not too cool for anything, but you don't love everything either. You help other people out with their stuff, big and small, and you let them help you too. You share your petty dislikes and insecurities, and people learn your secrets (if you keep secrets), or they become aware of who you really are. You spend a lot of time with them, not necessarily focusing on this kind of thing, but it comes out. If you can manage to be sociable on them, I've found that long road trips (5+ hours) cause people to learn a lot about each other. There's nothing to do but talk.

You don't need to be vulnerable. You need to be available, and you need to start investing in other people as much or more than they invest in you. If you want to be available for a partner, you need to invest in people.

Finally, to clear the palate, a quote from Red Meat.

"It's true what they say. No man is an island. But if you tie a bunch of their bodies together, they make a pretty decent raft."
posted by Strudel at 11:26 AM on September 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

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