Vulnerability: Mutual and Consensual
*Originally published April 2, 2019*
There are some people who have pretty much no problem when it comes to making the decision to be vulnerable. However, what people may or may not realize is that there is a right and wrong way to go about it. We have to be very selective about the people with whom we choose to be vulnerable, as well as how we’re going about that.
Who Can I Run To?
For a lot of people, the biggest concern isn’t about letting themselves be seen, but who is allowed to see me in my most vulnerable moments? Of course, it is completely up to the individual when it comes to who he/she wants to open up to. Are you able to find someone with whom you feel safe? Someone that can create a judgment-free zone? I would say it’s very important that you be selective and only have a very small circle of people who can serve this purpose. One big mistake some people make is relying on one single person to go to with all of their worries and problems. Sometimes it’s their spouse, their best friend, a relative, etc. It really doesn’t matter who it is, rather, it matters that you are putting all of the pressure on that one person. What you’re essentially doing is making that person into an “emotional dumpster” so to speak.
Vulnerability is sharing your experiences and feeling with a small number of people who have earned the right to hear them.
Chances are that one person is not a psychologist or therapist, meaning that not only are they less likely to be well-equipped to help you, but also you are creating heavy pressure on that person. I remember being in a situation like that with a guy friend of mine. He seemed to always have something going on emotionally and somehow I was expected to always answer his texts, always answer his calls, always be willing to hang out, etc. This made me experience a number of emotions; for one, I felt burdened because I was literally the only person in his friend circle willing to speak with him about these things. I felt guilty whenever I wasn’t available to talk to him because I thought I was contributing to his feelings of inadequacy. But I also felt angry and resentful because even when I did supply advice that he so adamantly asked for, it was never to his liking and he would go back to complaining about whatever was going on.
And then one day I realized that I really didn’t have to do all this in order to be a good friend. The best thing that I could do for him was, to be honest about how he was acting, and sincerely advise him to talk with a professional. Was he hurt about it? More than likely. But having me be his emotional dumpster was not helping him at all and eventually, he would have to come to understand that.
Understand that your friends, family, and spouse care about you deeply. They want you to be well, but leaning on one person to dump those types of thoughts can be draining for them. Instead, select that very small few who you know you can be seen without judgment.
Non-Consensual Vulnerability and Oversharing
There is definitely such a thing as oversharing or sharing too much information with the wrong people. And in the age in which social media is thriving, I believe we all know at least a couple of people who have a tendency to share entirely too much with the wrong people (aka everyone on their friend list). Ironically, when people do respond to those posts with comments that call out this behavior, they immediately go on the defensive.
When I encountered this with an acquaintance I used to follow on Facebook, she was asked in her comments section about why she chooses to vent such personal stuff to her public feed. She claimed that it was how she relieved stress. This reasoning really shocked me. Not only because there are other more healthy and productive ways to relieve stress, but the way she was going about it was actually just going to bring in more stress. She was posting every worry, complaint, and woe-is-me rant on her wall on a daily basis, and what that did was leave her vulnerable to criticism. But this isn’t criticism or feedback coming from an approved, consensual support system. It’s coming from anyone who has an opinion on what she was doing. Knowing that this particular friend is already easily discouraged and carries a very low self-image, would only make matters worse for her mentally and emotionally. Whether those people were right about her just whining, complaining, not making the most of her situation, etc wasn’t necessarily the point. It’s the fact that she put herself in a position to take all those bullets by not practicing vulnerability in a healthy way.
We can’t expect to project our vulnerability for the entire world to see and come out of that unscathed. The problem with going on rants and ‘venting’ on social media in such a detailed, personal way is that 1) It breeds negativity and 2) You force others into a non-consensual vulnerability relationship. Seeing her posts like that every day (and I mean every single day) was uncomfortable, irritating, and usually brought my energy down as well so I decided to unfollow her for a while.
This is an example of it on a general scale, but some people have a tendency to do this within a 1 on 1 relationship as well. If you have chosen that small group of people to be vulnerable, you’ll need to seek their approval of this. Never assume that someone is mentally or emotionally prepared to listen and discuss your troubles with you. Also be sure to clarify which ally you will go to for which type of problem; figure out what type of information would be suited to share with them and what might be considered inappropriate or oversharing.
Boundaries are Still Necessary
One of the things that turn people off about vulnerability is this false idea that it’s about being open and putting every part of yourself out there for everyone to see. But as Brene Brown expressed in her book Daring Greatly, vulnerability should be about “sharing our feelings and experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them”. Not supplying social media dumps, not making one single person bear the weight of all your stories, not oversharing with anyone who is willing to listen to it. There is a huge difference between being vulnerable and using vulnerability to get attention or deal with unmet needs of your own. As harsh as it sounds, it’s a very selfish way to practice vulnerability.
Having healthy boundaries (rather than walls) in our relationships allows us to develop true trust and connection.
When your vulnerability doesn’t have boundaries, you’re going to make yourself more susceptible to encountering disengagement and distrust. When you share appropriately, with the proper boundaries in place, then the opposite takes place. You’ll have a mutually respected vulnerability that builds trust and a true connection with others. Finding that safe circle likely won’t happen instantaneously. There does have to be some effort put in on our part when it comes to choosing the people who 1) have earned the right to hear our feelings, 2) are able to bear the weight of our story, and 3) can ensure we will not be judged. It’s perfectly fine to be careful in our choosing, but the last thing we want to do is keep everything to ourselves and never let ourselves be seen by anyone at all.