Based on the research on happiness, having close relationships is associated with life satisfaction. At the same time, connecting with others in a meaningful way requires allowing yourself be vulnerable. To connect meaningfully is to shed pretense, to take off whatever mask you wear and allow the authentic you to be present. Brene Brown has excellent TED talks and books that discuss her research on vulnerability.
Emotionally sensitive people tend to both overshare and undershare information about themselves; sometimes they tell very personal information to people they don’t know well and whithold information from close friends. There can be undesirable results for both actions.
Before you reveal intimate information to someone, consider the relationship you have with the person. Do you know the person well enough to share details that are deeply personal? Have you already shared personal information that is less intimate? Based on the person’s actions with others and yourself, is the person safe, someone who doesn’t judge or shame or gossip? Has the other person shared personal information with you?
In my work I’ve observed three basic levels of vulnerability. Level 1 is Embarrassingly Human Vulnerability.When you are vulnerable at this level you share stories that are embarrassing but have minimal risk. Walking out of the restroom with the back of your skirt tucked into your underwear, meeting a special woman for coffee with spinach on your teeth, walking into the men’s restroom by mistake, and wearing casual jeans to what turned out to be a dressy event would all be examples. When you share these stories you laugh together about the ups and downs of being human.
Vulnerability seems to have two sides: The vulnerability required of listeners and the vulnerability risked by speakers. Vulnerability experienced at level 1 is limited for both speakers and listeners. This is the level you are likely to have with casual friends.
Level 2 is Uncomfortably Human Vulnerability. When you share at a level that makes your stomach tight and you feel anxious, that’s Level 2. It’s scary to be vulnerable. This level is when you risk sharing incidents that go beyond embarrassment and you are likely to fear being judged by the other person. Though it varies from person to person, Level 2 might be revealing that you have a family member in jail, your think your spouse is having an affair, you lost your temper with your child, or your credit cards are maxed out.
When sharing at a Level 2 works well, the relationship is strengthened. But Level 2 may be uncomfortable for the listener as well as the speaker. While the speaker is choosing to share, the listener may not be ready. Knowing what to say to someone who is being open about an obviously sensitive issue can be a challenge. Because of their discomfort, listeners may attempt to move back to Level 1 Vulnerability or even leave the relationship.
Level 3 is Open Heart Vulnerability. When you share your deepest thoughts and feelings, that’s Open Heart Vulnerability. When you think about sharing at this level, you are likely to fear rejection, loss of relationships, gossip and being shunned by others. For some people the issues that would fit in this category could be sharing about a mental health diagnosis, doubts about love for your spouse, or a past trauma such as a rape. It might mean sharing a dream that you have for your future that you fear others might find unrealistic or surprising. When you share the shame that you are feeling, you are in Open Heart Vulnerability.
Sharing at this level feels risky for both the speaker and the listener. Listening to people who are being this vulnerable may arouse strong feelings in the listener. If the listener is willing, then a deeply meaningful connection may be created.
Sometimes the listener wants to be supportive and safe, but doesn’t know how to respond. Validation – communicating that the person’s experience is understandable and acceptable – will help you respond effectively when others are taking emotional risks.
You can connect at any or all three levels of vulnerability with the same people at different times. Before you share a Level 3 part of yourself, consider checking out the safety of the relationship with Levels 1 and 2. The rare times when we have an instant connection and can openly and safely share our deepest feelings is a gift.
I’ve given some examples for each level, but what you experience may be different. What might be an Open Heart Vulnerability for you could be a Level 2 for someone else. Only you know what makes you feel vulnerable.
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Last reviewed: 18 Sep 2012