Three Ways to Deal With Feeling Vulnerable

When are you most likely to feel vulnerable? To feel scared of being revealed or anxious that others will see you as flawed?

Labelled early on as ‘too sensitive,’ I learned to hide my feelings out of fear that I would be further criticised. I buried them deep so that on the surface I was pleasant and easy to get along with. Underneath I was a roiling mess.

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be liked. It more that I didn’t want to be seen. I was scared to be seen because I knew there was something wrong with me, I just didn’t know what.

Fast forward to one of my first sessions in therapy when my therapist asked, “Where’s your emotional life?” I had no clue what she meant. I went home and drew a picture of the dessert, a lone tumbleweed blowing across a vast emptiness. I had so successfully buried my feelings that my emotional range was probably a finger’s width apart.

Digging down to find my emotional life opened me wide-open. I felt stripped of my skin, and vulnerable beyond what felt tolerable.

Vulnerability is a funny emotion because it’s not about one thing: it’s about rejection, lack of reciprocity, attack, betrayal, or the loss of our autonomy. It’s about the shame of being found out as being something other than what you’ve presented. It’s about someone seeing your flaws.

These are also the reasons that we can feel vulnerable when we’re becoming intimate with someone, romantically or platonically. We fear that our flaws will be magnified and then we’ll be rejected or left.

We imprint our relationship styles early on with our care-givers/parents. Having consistent, loving, and stable relationships with our parents, friends, and teachers as we grew up usually means the fewer fears we have around letting others in.

However, if we were deprived of adequate and consistent attention, abandoned in our early years, or given mixed messages, we expect the same treatment from everyone else in the world — especially those we fall in love with (who in fact may have been unconsciously chosen for those very reasons).

Think about your earliest relationships. Do you see a resemblance to how you were parented? In my case, I never let myself get too close to a potential romantic partner. The one who finally broke through was also the one that most resembled my parents. So I was once again ‘too sensitive’ and ‘making too much of an issue.’

Don’t fear: The good news is that you can learn to tolerate feeling vulnerable. You can learn to be intimate with others. And you can change your style of relating.

Work on your self-awareness. After being in any relationship for a while, it’s easy to start assuming you know how the other person feels. Stop making those assumptions and ask. Get curious about them again and get curious about your emotional responses.

It’s all too easy to numb ourselves out with working too much, using alcohol or food, or other mindless activities. Pay attention to when you’re checking out.

Talk about it. Yes, this will make you feel vulnerable but this is part of learning to tolerate your vulnerability. Share your insights about what’s happening. Allowing yourself to talk about it helps you develop confidence in yourself.

If talking about it scares you, start by telling the other person what you need from the conversation. Sometimes, it helps us deal better with our vulnerability if we state at the beginning, “I just need you to listen and give me encouragement.”

Ask. Ask your friend or partner if your perceptions are accurate. Sometimes we may be reacting to something because we’ve made up a story about why the other person said or did something. That made-up story usually justifies our sense that we’re not safe or about to be rejected.

By asking the other person, you get a reality check. You also once again increase your tolerance for feeling vulnerable.

I know how scary taking these steps can be. I used to literally shake when disclosing something that made me feel vulnerable. I’d steel myself against what I thought would be the inevitable criticism. And, when it didn’t come, I could feel myself relax into the joy of letting someone in.

Being vulnerable is about being real. Being real with who you are and sharing yourself. One of the greatest joys of any relationship is knowing that you are loved — imperfections and all.
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