Not too long ago, I wrote a short series regarding the importance of vulnerability in our relationships heavily based on my takeaways from the work of Brene’ Brown. However, like most material that centers on the subject of vulnerability, it mainly honed in on the act of being vulnerable. The act of letting other people in.
The more I look into it, the more I find that while there are plenty of resources encouraging us to be vulnerable and even giving us methods on how to begin that process, there aren’t nearly as many that show us how to handle being the receiver of someone else’s vulnerable moments.
“Many of us have constructed elaborate facades because we are convinced that if people ever saw us as we see ourselves, the sight would repel them.”Alan Loy Mcginnis ‘The Friendship Factor’
Vulnerability is the first thing we want people to show to us, but the last thing we want to show others. However, I have found that once people finally get that person to open up to them: they have no idea what to do. It’s hard enough to get ourselves to open up to someone, but how do we deal with someone opening up to us?
Understand the Privilege
Becoming vulnerable with someone is not an easy thing to do. When we become vulnerable with others, we are definitely taking a few risks. We risk being misunderstood, being judged, and maybe even shamed. With that being said, the first thing we have to understand is that when someone opens up to us it truly says something about how they feel about their relationship with you. Out of all of the people they could have brought this to, they chose you. I’ve stated previously the importance of having a small circle of people who can serve the purpose of being your safe space and judgment-free zone. If someone is being vulnerable with you, it means that they’ve made you a part of that circle! We must consider it a privilege that someone is trusting us with their feelings.
I bring this up because we are all human. And while none of us like to admit it, one part of human nature is passing judgment on to others. This could be because of our own personal self-image and the desire to feel superior to someone else. Or it could be to keep certain social norms intact. Either way, when someone decides to be vulnerable with us and the very first step we take is one of judgment, we are abusing our privilege.
In Daring Greatly, Brene’ Brown takes time to discuss how men feel about vulnerability. This portion of her work focused on the hard truth that it is very difficult for men to openly show and discuss their tough emotions such as sadness, embarrassment, jealousy, etc. While this is undoubtedly a result of centuries of toxic masculinity heavily enforced within our society, these fears around vulnerability aren’t just coming from the men but also the women in their lives. While they make up a minority, there are plenty of women who have internalized misogynistic views and make it a point to shame men for expressing their emotions and being vulnerable. Women did not invent misogyny and toxic masculinity, but we are still very capable of reinforcing those skewed values. This may seem like a tangent, but I am mentioning this because it is a prime example of how leading with judgment will only affirm the person’s belief of: “I shouldn’t have said anything, I should have kept this to myself, I shouldn’t have let someone in. I don’t want to do that ever again”.
Understand that this person could be anyone. Your best friend, your spouse, your nephew, your parent, your co-worker–they made a huge step in being honest about how they’re feeling about a matter. They didn’t have to say anything to you, they made a conscious decision to do so. There are but so many things that one person can control in this world, but one of the few things in which we are in full control is who or what we let into our hearts and minds. Some people spend the majority of their lives keeping their true thoughts and feelings shut inside themselves, forcing themselves to live in a reality in which they are not their authentic selves.
Again, it is a privilege to even be the person on the receiving end of someone’s vulnerable state. Don’t abuse that privilege by moving straight into judgment and defense.
Vulnerability isn’t Always What We Imagine
Before looking more into it, I had a fairly narrow view of what it means to be vulnerable with someone. In my mind, the only real vulnerable situations I could think of were scenarios like admitting your own body insecurities or opening up about your mental health challenges. On the contrary, vulnerability can be about actions just as much as it can be about words.
For researcher Brene’ Brown, the study of vulnerability and shame has gone on for decades, with too many interviews and surveys to count. Vulnerability shows up in a variety of ways and Brown does not shy away from sharing examples given to her through those interviews. Vulnerability is:
- Telling your spouse that you’ve been sexually unsatisfied for years.
- Voicing an unpopular opinion.
- The first date after a breakup.
- Attempting to get pregnant again after a miscarriage.
- Asking for a small loan.
- Showing your best friend your art work for the very first time.
- Starting your own business despite not having much experience.
- Starting a blog or a Youtube channel.
- Saying no to people so that you don’t overwork yourself.
- Admitting that you need someone’s help.
- Admitting when you’re wrong.
- Admitting that you’re afraid.
Brown’s personal definition of vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”. There are many other examples, but the point to understand here is that when someone is being vulnerable, they are taking a risk that could (possibly) jeopardize their image of themselves or someone’s perceived image of them. The sad thing is when someone is vulnerable with us in a way that’s indirect, we don’t always realize it. And as a result, we sometimes end up affirming that person’s initial confirmation bias.
A friend of mine was in financial trouble after being laid off from her job. Knowing that her boyfriend made a substantial amount of money with his own line of work, she was determined not to ask him for his help. Unfortunately, this uneasiness came from a previous experience with an ex. Instead of simply saying “no” or “I can’t help with this” he immediately started questioning her character. Mind you, this was a small amount of money that she had every intention of paying back, but this ex-boyfriend would make it sound like she was a gold-digger looking for an opportunity to take advantage of him. She didn’t like what that did to her self-image and she wanted to avoid a repeat of that scenario. However, it wasn’t long before the current boyfriend found out about her financial trouble and helped. But it was after he expressed his anger and disappointment that she didn’t trust him with this type of sensitive issue in the first place.
Rejection hurts no matter what capacity we experience it. The ex-boyfriend made her believe that asking for help or a small loan is pathetic, that it means she is incompetent and incapable of “figuring it out” on her own. As a result, it made being vulnerable with her current significant other twice as difficult.
I don’t give this as an example to say that the minute someone needs a loan you should give it to them so you don’t hurt their feelings. Rather, we have to be mindful about how we react to this type of vulnerability. What are ways we can uplift and reassure this person? How can we avoid shaming and character questioning? Is there a way to help this person even if it is a more indirect approach? How can we lead with honesty without subjecting this person to cruelty? These are questions we have to ask ourselves before shutting someone down, before scrolling past that link to their YouTube video, before accusing them of having “overpriced” products for their business.
What If We Can’t Handle It?
It is clear that holding the position of confidant is very important. It calls for us to remember that someone views us as a safe space or, at the very least, they have enough courage to make an emotional risk with us.
However, it is inevitable that we can be caught in a situation where we question our ability to handle being that safe space for someone else. As much as we would like to have the honor of being that confidant, we can’t forget that boundaries are still necessary. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. But sometimes we have to understand that we’re not going to be able to help with everything. We’re not going to be able to listen to everything while still keeping our own emotional and mental health in check.
When we find ourselves unable to serve as that safe space, the best thing we can do is let that person know. That might sound intimidating and it may even sound like you’re “rejecting” them (which could make them feel worse).
One of my closest friends from college and I work at the same company. There was a point in time where I was extremely disappointed and stressed with the team I was working under. I found myself ranting every single day to this friend: “You won’t believe what he did this time”…..”I swear these people drive me crazy”…”Why is he so…?” And so on. But then there came a day where my friend has to call me out on it.
“Raven, you’re my friend and I love you. But every time you text me it’s about this; it’s draining and I can’t do it.”
Obviously, it would have been easy for me to get defensive; but when we get defensive about things it’s because we’re making the situation about ourselves without seeing the bigger picture. I immediately felt ashamed because she was right. When I messaged her I only cared about how I was feeling, how annoyed I was, how stressed I was–I didn’t even think about how she felt. Furthermore, I reduced our friendship to complaining about work rather than talking about literally anything else in our lives. I must have sounded extremely ungrateful seeing how in these times of a global pandemic, I’m blessed to even still have a job in the first place (in fact, she’s the one who referred me to the position)! I immediately apologized and fortunately we were able to move on from it. Yes, I felt shame but she was not in any way shaming me.
This is the type of transparency we owe to our loved ones when we either don’t have the knowledge or don’t have the capacity to bear the weight of their story. And it is completely possible to deliver this transparency without being cruel. Assuming that you go about it correctly, the person will likely be thankful that you told them. No one wants to feel like a burden for other people to carry.
To reiterate what was already discussed in my Vulnerability Series, vulnerability is neither a good nor bad thing. It is, however, something that we all need in order to have a valuable connection with each other. Being able to allow ourselves to be vulnerable–especially after situations in which we have been hurt or betrayed–is a huge deal. However, we should also be thinking about how we can make sure we’re approachable and open so that others can feel that they can be vulnerable with us too.