As I shared in my article last week, one of the most dangerous things we can do is reveal our mess to the people around us. It’s extremely tempting to construct a fortress around our mess and lock it up like Fort Knox in an attempt to prevent anyone from getting even the smallest glance of it. If they see our mess, they might reject us.
I’ve certainly experienced rejection as a result of being vulnerable. Or at least I associated the rejection with my vulnerability. We face a risk when we choose to be vulnerable. It’s possible that our vulnerability may cause us to lose friends and distance ourselves from family members. It’s possible that our vulnerability may cause us to lose our jobs, our homes, our cars, and all the other stuff we’ve spent years acquiring. It’s possible our vulnerability may destroy our marriage. It’s even possible our vulnerability may put us in jail. With such high costs associated with being vulnerable, I can appreciate our desire to construct a fortress around our mess.
Weighing this cost is certainly important. But if we stop here, we’ll fail to see that there’s another opportunity cost we’ve failed to consider; maybe being vulnerable is worth the risk because it has the potential to get us something which may be just as great, if not greater than what we’re currently getting because we’re hiding our mess behind our fortress walls.
The Advantage of Vulnerability
Every single one of us fears rejection. Have we ever asked why? What is it about being rejected that causes us to cringe every time we experience it? When we get rejected, we feel disconnection. When I was teased by some of my classmates in elementary school, I felt rejected and therefore disconnected from them. When you ask someone out on a date and you get turned down, you feel rejected and therefore disconnected from that person. When you share part of your mess with someone and then the person doesn’t talk to you for a month, you feel rejected and therefore disconnected from that person.
When I first started digging into this topic a few years ago, I took a journey down memory lane to evaluate how the shame I felt from my childhood experiences was impacting me today. During that process, I made a discovery which left me absolutely dumbfounded: the memories which were most vivid in my mind involved a feeling of disconnection. I remembered a time when I got spanked by someone I didn’t even know because I wouldn’t stop crying. I remembered a time when I got teased by some of the kids on my baseball team when I couldn’t hold back the tears from flowing after I struck out. And of course I remembered the time I got made fun of for my skinny arms.
The commonality amongst all these stories, other than disconnection, is a feeling that my vulnerability somehow contributed to my rejection. The time I got spanked, I was being vulnerable by expressing my emotions in the form of crying. My parents had left me with a seminarian while they went to a wedding for another seminarian and I didn’t want them to leave me there, so I expressed my displeasure by crying. When I stuck out in baseball, I cried because I felt like I had let the team down. I was being vulnerable, albeit involuntarily, by showing my emotions. The day I got made fun of for my skinny arms, I happened to be wearing a tank top as opposed to a normal t-shirt. I was being vulnerable by showing off more of my body than normal. Based on these stories, it’s no wonder we tend to draw a connection between being vulnerable and being rejected; the two seem to go hand in hand.
Connection, at the core, can only happen when we get to know another person. I’m not talking about simply knowing about another person; I’m talking about really knowing another person. The best word I can think of to describe this type of knowledge is the word intimate. I recognize this word is commonly associated with sex, and for good reason, but that’s far from its only use. To have an intimate relationship with another person means to know that person deeply. Sitting around B.S.-ing about the weather, football, and politics may teach us a little about someone, but it’s certainly not going to allow us to get to know another person on a deep, personal, intimate level.
I think most people deeply long for connection with other people. But what very few of us realize is that in order to experience the deep connection we long for, we’re going to have to be vulnerable; we’re going to have to show other people who we really are. This can be very scary. What if they don’t like what they see? Will they reject me? They might. And when they do, it’s going to hurt. But taking this risk by putting ourselves out there is the only way we’re going to be able to experience deep levels of connection with other people. Because most people are terrified of being vulnerable, you’re most likely going to have to take the first step in being vulnerable if you want to enter into a deep, intimate relationship with another person.
Tying It All Together
Now I want to circle back around to where I started. There are both risks and rewards associated with being invulnerable. The reward for being invulnerable is that we get a chance to hide our mess from other people and the potential rejection and disconnection associated with it. However, the risk of being invulnerable is that we miss out on the opportunity to experience deep connection with other people. Which one is more important to you? Protecting your dignity or having deep, intimate connection with other people.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have the rewards of both without the associated risks? Some people try to find both. Two of the most obvious ways this is manifested in our culture is through the internet and sex. How much easier is it to listen to someone else be vulnerable than it is for you to be vulnerable? No wonder so many people watch YouTube videos listening to other people be vulnerable and spend hours reading their social media news feeds. We think we can find connection with other people simply by listening to them be vulnerable without having to personally be vulnerable. But I’ve found that the only way we can truly experience intimate connection with other people is when both parties come to the table being open and honest with each other about who they truly are.
The other obvious way I see people in our culture trying to achieve the rewards of both is through things in the sexual realm including pornography, gentlemen’s clubs (who came up with that name anyway?), and sex with another human. Similar to the way we can be emotionally vulnerable, we can also be physically vulnerable. There’s something about the appearance of a human body with its various shapes and curves which is absolutely beautiful to the eye. And fashion designers are extremely skilled in designing clothing which accentuates these features, making them appear thinner, smoother, or bigger (you know what I’m talking about) than they truly are. The most physically vulnerable position we can place ourselves is to be completely naked in the presence of another person without all those perfectly designed clothes to cover up our imperfections. When we view pornography or go to a strip club, we get a chance to observe other people being physically vulnerable without having to be vulnerable in return, similar to the way we listen to other people be vulnerable on social media without having to be vulnerable in return. When we try random hookups, we get to experience physical vulnerability, but since the emotional vulnerability isn’t there to support it, we walk away feeling empty because the deepest level of personal connection can’t exist apart from emotional vulnerability. We can’t have the rewards of both without the associated risks.
If you want to experience true connection with another human being, you’re going to have to be vulnerable. There’s no shortcut around it or easy way out. Your vulnerability may cost you everything, but then again, it may open the door to experiencing the best relationships of your life.
Why do you think you’re afraid of showing people who you really are? Who is one person with whom you can share a piece of who you are this week?
 I owe the research behind this content to Brené Brown. Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TED, YouTube, January 3, 2011, accessed August 23, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o.