If you ask most people what terrifies them the most, it’s not skydiving. Or even snakes. Or a plane crash. Nope, it’s much more intimate than those scary things: being alone forever and ever. Or being heartbroken. Suffering through the intense recovery of letting go of a love that was — even one that was unrequited. This is why so many singles struggle with being vulnerable once they’re in a new relationship. Not only are you learning the fine art of compromising and building a joint life, but you’re putting your heart out on the line, hoping this other person will handle it with care.
No matter how difficult it is to develop trust and to put yourself out there, for a happy, successful and fulfilling relationship, vulnerability is a requirement. Here, psychologists provide insight on how to take a deep breath… and dig in:
What is vulnerability?
Crystal Bradshaw, a licensed professional counsellor specializing in relationships defines vulnerability as the courage necessary for connection. While most people associate this investment in a romantic sense, a healthy way to look at vulnerability is within your friendships. In the best-of-the-best, you can come as you are, confess your craziest thoughts and deepest insecurities, and you’ll be treasured and treated just the same. In a healthy, intimate couplehood, the same is true.
Bradshaw explains vulnerability isn’t a weakness, but rather, a relational strength that will reinforce the bond of your relationships. “Vulnerability is giving of yourself without expectations or having an ulterior motive. It’s something we do with those in our inner circle and for those we want to be closer to,” she explains. “You don’t open up to every one, only a select few, and those few have earned your vulnerability. You have to be attuned to when someone needs your vulnerability.”
Why is vulnerability hard?
While many times romantic comedies miss the mark on many aspects of dating and tend to set unrealistic expectations, when it comes to vulnerability, many get it right. Just think of John Cusack in Say Anything, holding up a boombox to win her heart. Or in Friends With Benefits when Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis attempt to have a no-strings-attached situation, and end up sharing personal, intimate details with one another beyond sex. In every instance, vulnerability is portrayed as this scary proclamation of love, and even if you aren’t saying it out loud to your could-be soulmate, you’ll feeling it deep in your bones. How come? Bradshaw says there is an inherent rejection attached to vulnerability, as well as judgment. If you open yourself up and the affection isn’t returned to you — what does that mean? Many people believe you come across as silly, naive, hopeless or even desperate.
In reaction, many people pretend they don’t feel what they do, and end up hurt in the long run. “Our fear of vulnerability has gotten in the way of our need for connectedness. We prioritized our need to protect ourselves from rejection over our need for connection. As a result we have made avoidance of our emotions a strength and the owning of emotions of weakness,” she explains. “Being vulnerable requires us to let go of what people think and suspend our fear of judgment. We have to be smart with whom is privy to our vulnerability. With the right people, vulnerability grows beautiful relationships. Humans are pack animals, we are social beings and we thrive socially when paired with kindred spirits. Those are the humans you want to be vulnerable with.”
How can we become more vulnerable?
Or rather, how can we lean into that anxiety and step far out of comfort zone to find love? Or perhaps more importantly: the love who allows us to be our most authentic self? This process will take some trail and error, as well as the patience of a partner who understands overcoming dating PTSD doesn’t happen overnight. Not only does it take an immense investment in your personal self-worth, but it challenges you to be braver than you’ve ever been before, without knowing — with certainty — the reward will be waiting for you on the other end. Take a deep breath, and try these tactics for opening up that tired, hesitant heart:
Let go of what other people think.
Here’s the blatant truth you may not want to accept: if someone is going to leave, they are. If someone is going to love you for every little nook-and-cranny of your personality and being, they will. Most of the time, there is no in between, and more importantly, no way to predict someone else’s choices or reactions. Step one, according to Bradshaw is letting go of what other people may think in an effort to focus on your needs. You want to tell your partner that when she doesn’t’ respond to a text message for eight hours, it makes you feel nervous she’s ghosting you, as so many have before her. Instead of fretting over what she may think when you confess this — dig in and really push yourself to understand if this is a reassurance you need. Most of the time, the key is to not try to go around it, over it or under it — but straight to the gut of the issue. “You can explore the origins of this avoidance so you come to a place of understanding of why you might want to avoid. Through the power of understanding you can then make different choices from a place of enlightenment,” Bradshaw shares.
Admit when you’re wrong.
Who you? Yep, you. Sometimes, we hate to break it to you, but you’re wrong. And sometimes, you don’t always respond in the right way. How come? You’re protecting yourself when something a partner does or says triggers your fear of rejection. As love and relationship psychologist Dr. Sarah Schewitz explains, many of us are guilty of being defensive, lashing out or clamming up when anything threatens our sense of security. It can be as simple as ‘I think we can make that work’ when you ask them about dinner tonight. The mere use of ‘I think’ instead of ‘Yes, see you later!’ — can be enough to send you off the ledge. Dr. Schewitz suggesting a ‘redo’ and apologizing when this happens, and then working on your communication skills.
“Try to express the emotion that is underneath anger or frustration. Anger is a secondary emotion and it’s usually a response to something that triggers a vulnerable feeling such as feeling unloved, inadequate, or hurt. Before you express anger, ask yourself, ‘what else am I feeling besides anger’? Then try expressing that more vulnerable emotion instead,” she continues. “You’ll find your partner is much more likely to listen and to be collaborative when you come from a place of vulnerability.”
Focus on your self-worth.
When you are fighting tooth-and-nail to allow someone to love you, chances are high it has little to do with them — and a lot to do with you. As Bradshaw explains, many people worry about being ‘good enough’ or doubt why someone would choose them, when seemingly, they could have someone better, smarter, more attractive — and so on. The more time you spend working up your self-esteem, the more prepared you will be in a relationship, no matter the outcome. Sometimes this means professional assistance in talk therapy. “You can work on cultivating shame resilience and self-worth, which is key in overcoming fear of judgment and rejection,” she explains. “Sometimes self-defeating beliefs get in our way. Therapy can help you identify these and learn how to change that reaction.”
Share yourself slowly.
Love at first sight is a lovely thought but in practice, it isn’t exactly sustainable. While you may be initially attracted to a person and be stunned by how magical your initial dates are, taking your emotions day by day will help you open up more naturally. Psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, PhD says to share parts of yourself — emotionally, physically and so on — slowly. And acknowledge that it isn’t easy for you to divulge. “Preface the vulnerable thing you are about to share by directly informing the person that what you are about to tell him or her is not easy for you to say, but that it is your way of letting yourself be more fully known and real to deepen the relationship. By doing this, you are clearly letting the other person know that you are to be taken seriously in what you are about to share with him or her and that you are trying to add even more substance to your relationship together,” she explains.
Practice gratitude and empathy.
When someone is complimentary, confesses their feelings to you or illustrates how important you are in his or her life, you may have a tendency to shake ‘em off or change the topic. The more you can, force yourself to sit pretty and really soak it in, without doubting it. “Don’t rush to flee from it when someone is opening up to you. Practice getting comfortable with vulnerability by being present with someone who is in their vulnerability and let your curiosity fuel your connection,” she explains. “By being present for someone else you will learn how to absorb vulnerability while at the same time experiencing how to be vulnerable.”