In the exciting but sometimes disastrous world of dating, I often ask myself why it’s so hard to be vulnerable in a relationship. I imagine most of you have asked yourself this same question too.
Sharing our vulnerabilities isn’t always easy to do, especially at the point when you and your partner decide to take casual dating to the next level. This stems largely out of fear. Fear that if we share the most authentic versions of ourselves - those things we keep hidden like our insecurities or the guilt, denial, and shame we may hold about what we’ve done to someone or what they did to us - then we will be rejected, judged, labeled, even misunderstood.
Out of this fear we tend to portray only the perfect parts of ourselves - the parts that make us fun, lively, and enjoyable to be around. But to truly be vulnerable means to reveal those parts of ourselves we keep hidden. Why don’t we do that?
Well, I imagine all of us can think back to a time in our past relationships when we bared our soul to someone we thought would protect our vulnerabilities and they didn’t. When we love with reckless abandon and fall into those wrong sorts of people quickly and relentlessly they mess with those vulnerabilities. They find ways to abuse them and sometimes in the most cruel of ways. We realize that rabid dogs can take human form.
In order to protect our hearts from future hurt we build walls so high that they are impenetrable. We wear a suit of armor as if our lives depended on it. We suppress the scary, beautiful, tender side of our love because the idea of letting someone else in - even for the right sort of person - seems impossible.
But despite how scary it is to open ourselves up to someone we still yearn for connection and intimacy. Intuitively, we all know that true emotional intimacy requires vulnerability and that to be vulnerable requires strength and courage and authenticity. It requires us to be brave. It requires us to stop suppressing our deepest vulnerabilities because without letting your guard down, it’s likely your relationship will fizzle.
In reality, sharing our deepest vulnerabilities is easier said than done. After all, our first instincts when we feel shame, hurt, indignation, or disappointment towards ourselves or our partner is to mask those feelings, likely because we fear that expressing any sort of negative emotion makes us weak.
We may even fear how our partners will react. Maybe they’ll think I’m needy. Maybe they won’t want to date me anymore. And if they don’t want to date me because of these vulnerabilities, then who will?
In all honesty (and for the sake of being vulnerable with my audience), I will tell you these things may very well happen.
Being vulnerable in a relationship will not always mean your significant other will share the same sentiments. If you open your heart to them and they view it as a weakness or they belittle your feelings or they refuse to show you their heart in return, you are with the wrong person.
In fact, run. Because despite our fantasies of being the rescuer - the one that finally changes them - they will not change. Even knowing this we may very well find ourselves staying, which probably stems from our fears. In return we become trapped in emotional turmoil. We become the source of destructive habits. Our happiness wanes and we unnecessarily suffer.
The truth is that the only people we can truly change is ourselves. We can choose to be someone who expresses their love. We can choose not to close ourselves off. We can choose to love ourselves despite our faults. We can choose to walk away from someone who abuses our vulnerabilities.
In that same regard, be kind and walk away if your partner shares their heart with you and exposes their deepest vulnerabilities yet you deny them the same sort of consideration. Do not exploit their vulnerabilities or make them feel small or judge them for sharing who they truly are. Because if you do, then you are not the right person for them.
Despite the rationality of this advice, I will admit that I am no expert in actually being vulnerable. In fact, I am more likely to sabotage a relationship than I am to be the one that puts myself out there. Certainly this stems from three years of emotional abuse from someone I loved - someone who I desperately wanted to love me back. It also stems from my fear of rejection and the stigma I hold about having a mental illness (although I hate admitting that because I am also an advocate for mental health). Yet in the last year I have been determined to practice being vulnerable despite how damaged I feel. And there are endless opportunities to do so.
The obvious question then is if I see an opportunity to be vulnerable, how do I do it? Although I admitted to not being an expert, I will share what I’ve learned and what has worked for me since taking those opportunities. I hope these tips will help you too.
Love all of you
I am very open to sharing my personal journey of dealing with bipolar disorder to strangers, friends, and family, although I sometimes find myself attempting to hide that part of my life to someone I like or want to date. Inevitably, though, it is a part of who I am and until I was diagnosed, I educated myself about bipolar disorder, and I started attending support groups. I didn’t understand why I acted the way I did. I couldn’t help but be angry and irritable a lot of the time. I spent more time depressed and crying than I did being happy. There were moments when I was reckless and did things that were destructive to my life.
It was difficult to accept my illness at first and I drowned myself in denial, guilt, and shame, but when I resolved to sharing my story it helped me realize I was not alone - that many people had similar experiences and what I felt wasn’t abnormal.
After publishing my stories, many people reached out to me sharing their own. They talked about how sharing mine inspired them to be open about their own struggles. They realized they too could be a vehicle for change, fighting the stigma associated with having a mental illness. Despite how absolutely terrifying it was to be brutally honest about my breakdown and time spent in a psychiatric ward, I am stronger because of it. Seeing these strangers and my family and friends love me unconditionally and offer compassion allowed me to begin creating a space where I accepted that part of me. I am actually grateful to have gone through such tumultuous and traumatizing events leading up to my diagnosis because those experiences finally revealed my true self, and I love my true self.
By creating space for self-love in my life it meant there was less space for fear. When we stand in that space of love, we reach self-acceptance. This is where the true power of vulnerability lies because when we accept ourselves - faults and all - we pave a path to finding true happiness.
Be willing to try, even if you fail
Those suits of armor we wear are hard to take off. While there is no magical pill for the hurt and pain we - or others - may feel or have felt, we inevitably survive it. Our lives do go on. By practicing vulnerability, we open ourselves up to finding the right sort of person (even if you come across rabid dogs along the way). Although we may ultimately fail in our attempt at being vulnerable we can recognize where we were successful and where we made mistakes. We can carry those lessons with us into future relationships and ultimately become better versions of ourselves. Really, the only important thing is that you try because that in and of itself is the very definition of being vulnerable. Maybe you didn’t shred your suit of armor to pieces but I bet that just trying resulted in a helmet or glove coming off. Baby steps, my friends.
Vulnerability isn’t just about you
When we suffer we turn to those we care about, seeking comfort and understanding. We expect them to be there for us. But ask yourself this: are you willing to be with someone who is suffering? Are you willing to be compassionate and kind and understanding towards them despite how uncomfortable it may make you feel? When someone exposes their vulnerabilities to you, you can practice being vulnerable just by sharing their emotional space. You can listen to them, feel their emotions without judgement, and offer up compassion whether you can relate to the situation or not. By doing all that you help them create their own space for love and self-acceptance. It is humbling and inspiring to witness that kind of transformation.
Say what you really feel
In my last relationship I learned quickly not to share any of my feelings because what came afterwards was blame, yelling, and the threat of “well maybe we shouldn’t be together.” I became afraid of speaking my mind because I was afraid I would say the wrong thing. I valued how he felt and what his needs were so much that I stopped considering my own.
I imagine many of us have, at some point in our lives, fallen into this trap and that we’ve let it impact how we communicate in the relationships that followed. When hiding what you really feel becomes a habit, it can be difficult to break. But being vulnerable means being truthful. It means honoring what you feel, what the other person feels, and being brave enough to address those circumstances together. If you’re scared, say so. If you’re hurt or angry because you felt they were inconsiderate, say so. Don’t hide your emotions. You have every right to feel what you are feeling.
I myself have struggled with doing this and I’ve ruined some relationships along the way, which I deeply regret. But I’ve made significant strides and now I’m so much more open about how I feel that people probably want me to stop sharing. Don’t stop sharing.
Vulnerability has so much to offer and although it opens us up to rejection and pain and hurt it will be worth it (maybe not right away, but eventually) because without vulnerability we cannot distinguish the wrong person from the right person, just like we would never know good until we’ve known bad.
I don’t believe there is any right way to be vulnerable and what works for me may not work for you. But I do have faith you will succeed in however you approach your journey and I wish you all the joy and happiness that comes with taking such a giant leap of faith because you definitely deserve it.