Imagine you have a magical, invisible suit of armor. It has two effects:
First, so long as you wear it, no one’s opinions of you can drastically drop. Your friends all stay your friends, your coworkers still respect you, etc. Sounds great, right? Most people would wear it all the time.
But the second effect is, there are some people who you could be much closer to, a lifelong friend, a true love, a deep connection… and as long as you wear it, your relationships all stop short of those.
This is how I tended to describe vulnerability to clients or friends who struggle with it. It can make sense to wear the armor sometimes, and it can make sense to be afraid of taking it off in others. But if you want more real connections in life, you have to be willing to risk it.
And in general, before this past year, I would have said I’d sidestepped any issues or hangups with “being vulnerable” entirely. Since I was young, I’ve always felt like a fairly open book; someone could ask me what I think or feel about basically anything, and I’d be happy to tell them honestly, and not feel any sort of shame or worry about it. I don’t change who I am by social context, I don’t pretend to like people I don’t like, and if I love someone they’re quick to know it.
But I had a Season of Vulnerability this past year that was important to expanding my understanding of “real vulnerability.” If it was some straightforward irony of me saying something but not following it, this season wouldn’t have been necessary. It would have been easy to spot, and easy to correct.
But for one thing, “not hiding who you are ” is not the same as “offering what you feel and think,” and there weren’t any obvious red flags that something was missing. For example, that analogy doesn’t mention that if you’re not willing to be vulnerable with others, they often aren’t as willing to be vulnerable with you. It’s pretty obvious, right? But throughout my life people have tended to be vulnerable with me, sometimes within a day of meeting me.
For another, so long as you wear that armor, you tend to not feel truly “seen” by others if you’re not willing to be vulnerable with them… but I often didn’t feel seen even when I shared my thoughts/feelings.
More specifically, the other person’s experience, even if they were comfortable being vulnerable around me, still wasn’t ideal. Instead what I realized, thanks to some circling and conversations with friends, was that there was a sense of connection that often felt missing.
When I started talking about this publicly, someone I’ve worked with in fairly stressful situations messaged me with this:
This mirrored the way I’ve always heard this sort of thing before: “It’s hard sometimes to feel [close] to you because you’re always doing well and helping me, but never seem to be in need of being helped.”
To which my response has always been a feeling of… helpless sadness? If I just take for granted that being self-sufficient reduces feelings of connection and closeness from others, I wasn’t sure what I could do about it. It’s not like I could make myself need others more, and faking it would feel patronizing.
I realized though that there are in fact two different things being pointed at here:
- People feel more connection when the relationship feels more equal, and one of the ways that equality is measured is how much both people mutually support each other rather than how one-sided that feels.
- People feel more connection when they have a sense of what the other person’s inner life and experience is like. This is most often revealed when someone needs help…
…but it doesn’t have to be.
Noticing this distinction was important, because it primed me to realize that there were in fact some circumstances where I’d think to share how I was feeling with others, but not do so.
There were a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I experienced a lot of people over-updating on how bad I must feel about something bad that happens to me.
As an example, if most people’s mood on a daily basis fluctuates between a 4/10 and a 6/10, and then something bad happens that brings them down to a 3/10 for a week, my experience of that same thing is more like I’ve been brought from my average of 8/10 down to a 7/10 for a few hours per day for a few days. Maybe even just that one day.
But that seemed hard for most people to get, and I faced a lot of skepticism when I’d say that even if something sad or frustrating happened, I’m actually fine. Which felt even more isolating than not sharing the bad thing that happened in the first place.
(A self-perpetuating problem here, of course, in that the less I talked about bad things, the more mentioning one would seem to others like it must be really bad if I talked about it…)
So I talked less often about bad things that happened in my life, partly because they didn’t really affect me enough that I felt much desire to talk about them with others, and partly because, without realizing it, trusting people to trust me to be okay became hard. It just became easier to let people know I was fine by just… being fine, acting fine, giving off fine-vibes, and not sending mixed signals.
And that trust is part of what I needed to work on for my Season, because vulnerability is not just hard for people who want to avoid being seen as weak. For people like myself, it can be hard if the vulnerable thing you’re revealing is that you’re not like others, and being vulnerable makes you less seen at all.
What people are used to is feeling close to someone due to not just positive experiences, but an exchange of vulnerability or emotional support. Not just because those things are specifically what they want, but because it’s how most people are used to getting the “raw” beliefs, values, perspectives, desires, etc, that make someone uniquely “them.”
That’s what I was missing, in general, when talking and thinking about vulnerability. To treat it simply as being about difficult or painful things is to miss the ways being too self-sufficient can also preclude being more raw.
To learn more about why vulnerability felt distinct from the thing I was struggling with, feel free to check out my second Seasons of Growth post.