The Vulnerability Paradox
Have you ever felt comfortable telling something intimate to your hair stylist or bartender or ride-share driver, and then finding yourself feeling warm toward them, and perhaps inclined to tip more? Have you ever developed strong feelings for someone you were dating in a low-stakes context, like someone you knew you didn’t want to be with long-term? Then you are likely familiar with what I’ve deemed “the vulnerability paradox.” According to the vulnerability paradox, a pattern I’ve noticed in myself and others, it’s often easier to open up to those we are not relatively close to, yet, the very act of opening up brings us closer.
Let’s look at that first part: that it’s often easier to open up to those we don’t feel that close to, or people where the stakes otherwise feel low. Vulnerability usually brings with it the risk that someone will judge you in a way you would rather not be judged. So if I’m vulnerable with someone I already know well, there is always at least a slight chance that they will judge me in a way that might compromise our relationship. If I cry in front of my boyfriend, he might judge me as “too emotional,” and he might break up with me. If I talk about my problems to my friend, she might judge me as “too self-centered,” and she might hang out with me less often.
(Did your heart rate go up at all reading that? If it did, that’s understandable; this fear can be incredibly potent, even if the chances of that fear coming true are very low-- we have evolved to be social creatures, and we’re therefore highly attuned to anything that might threaten social ties, even if they’re not particularly likely to harm those social ties.)
So, it makes sense that if you had the option to be vulnerable with someone close to you and potentially destroy your relationship, or to be vulnerable with a stranger who you don’t have much emotional investment in yet, you might be tempted to choose the latter.
This may all feel fairly intuitive. But let’s talk about that second part: that opening up often brings you closer to others. Vulnerability breeds connection. If you tell something vulnerable to your hairdresser instead of your friend or significant other, you are giving up an opportunity to feel connected to someone important in your life. Yes, there is a (likely significantly smaller than you think) risk that someone close to you will make a judgment about you if you open up to them. Yes, there is a (likely significantly smaller than you think) risk that someone close to you changes the nature of your relationship if you start sharing honestly with them. But more likely, you will feel closer to them. And even if they do end up judging you and deciding that they want less of a relationship with you, you may be better off letting go of them and investing more time in people who are comfortable with your vulnerability.
Even if you haven’t yet found people who can listen to you being vulnerable without being judgmental, I promise they exist. I know because a bunch of them keep showing up to my events. My intent here isn’t just to plug Skip the Small Talks; even if you never come to one, there are other spaces that attract people who are comfortable with vulnerability, or who are working to become comfortable with vulnerability; meditation centers are another great place to start, if you’re looking for more connection in your life.
So the next time you’re looking for someone to be vulnerable with, whether it’s telling them something emotional or asking for help, try to make it someone you want to get closer to. It may feel risky and scary, but the potential payoff is bigger than you might imagine.