“Two vulnerable people will find a way to connect.”
This is a quote from Harrison Ford’s character in the show Shrinking. In the context of the show, he is predicting that two characters who recently experienced trauma will end up drawn to one another. Simultaneously, he makes a much larger statement on human relationships, with this quote serving as a recommendation to all those searching for connection.
Much has been written and discussed regarding vulnerability. Google “Brene Brown” and you will discover a treasure trove of books, videos, and podcasts on the subject. Vulnerability is difficult, in large part, because we perceive it as a massive risk.
What sorts of things might some subject themselves to if they allow themselves to be vulnerable?
Perhaps rejection. Maybe ridicule. People fear judgment and shame. Or the possibility of love and care being withdrawn. Whether in reaction to vulnerability or as a way to prevent feeling it, many folks engage in different behaviors that allow them to avoid experiencing it.
How do most cope with vulnerability?
Many people numb themselves from vulnerability through alcohol/substance use, shopping, eating, or distraction via innumerable sources of entertainment media. In efforts to avoid potentially vulnerable situations, some may isolate themselves. People numb in order not to feel negative emotions like grief, fear, and shame. The problem with that, however, is that you cannot selectively numb emotion, so we end up inadvertently numbing positive emotions like joy, appreciation, and contentment.
In the examples listed above, each coping skill serves to place a protective barrier between an individual and others. In essence, due to fears of disconnection from others, many people keep themselves disconnected from others. This can become a terrifying negative cycle that leaves people in isolation. What can those who long for connection do to break this cycle?
Create an environment that encourages vulnerability
Just as disconnection and isolation can beget further disconnection and isolation, risking vulnerability leads to connection can become its own positive cycle. This can be accomplished in several ways.
Building your resiliency to uncomfortable emotions and anxiety.
When people allow themselves to experience negative emotions, they often discover that the feeling does not last forever. Many are motivated to numb these emotions out of the fear that they won’t stop feeling depressed, grief, rejected, etc. Once you find out that you can sit with any emotion, you will develop a confidence that enables you to risk being vulnerable more often.
Accepting your imperfections and acknowledging that being imperfect is a defining element of being human.
You don’t have to have the same imperfections as the person you are trying to connect with, but tacit knowledge that we are all imperfect in some way can be a bridge to connection.
The act of risking vulnerability with another person can function to grant the permission they need to be vulnerable with you.
In other words, you are each saying, “Let’s put these shields down and be open with one another.”
When someone is expressing vulnerability with you make sure your response is one that will produce continued vulnerability.
Avoid criticism, judgment, problem-solving, minimizing, and platitudes. Oftentimes, these responses come from people’s own feelings of inadequacy when they cannot either sit with another’s intense emotion or provide a solution.
Tune into emotional cues and validate.
Most people only want to feel seen, understood, and validated in their experience. Once the emotion is processed, there may be space to find solutions to a problem, but if your goal is a connection, then the focus needs to be on the emotions expressed.
From a self-protection perspective, it makes sense that people will, in general, avoid being vulnerable. The downside is that our self-protection behaviors can leave many of us isolated and disconnected from others. Through the risk of vulnerability, people can begin to bridge the gaps and create connections with one another.