Vulnerability: The Key to Better Relationships

Maybe you’re one of those people who cringes when they hear the world “vulnerability.” Maybe the very thought of being more vulnerable nauseates you, conjuring up images of holding hands around the campfire while you cry over how your best friend doesn’t love you like you love him, or whatever. 

Well, I’m here to tell you that vulnerability is far simpler, more mundane, and yet way more powerful than all of the preconceived, wishy-washy notions you might have.

Humor me for a moment—read through this list and tell me if any of it applies to you:

  • You consistently fall into boring conversation topics because they’re “safe” and shallow and you don’t have to risk offending or inciting anyone with them.
  • You’re stuck in a job or lifestyle you don’t truly enjoy, because other people always told you that it was a good idea and you didn’t want to upset or disappoint others. 
  • You haven’t exercised or groomed yourself to the extent that you could because you didn’t want to stand out too much. 
  • Dressing extremely well makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Smiling at strangers makes you feel creepy.
  • The idea of asking someone out openly scares you because of the possible rejection.

All of these are symptoms of a root problem: an inability to make yourself vulnerable.

Many of us weren’t taught how to express our emotions freely. For whatever reason—maybe our home situation, maybe childhood trauma, maybe our parents didn’t ever express their emotions either—we’ve grown up with habits embedded deeply into us to keep us stifled and bottled up. 

Don’t be controversial. Don’t be unique. Don’t do anything “crazy” or “stupid” or “selfish.”

I was the same way. My entire young life I was terrified of anyone not liking me. The mere thought of someone hating me, girl or guy, would literally keep me up at night. As a result, every aspect of my life revolved around people-pleasing, hiding my faults, covering my tracks, blaming others. 

This all may sound hokey and new-agey. Trust me, it’s not. 

Connecting with others in this way by being vulnerable—as opposed to overcompensating and trying to get everyone to like you—will result in some of the best interactions and relationships of your life.

Power in Vulnerability Cover Image

Vulnerability is a cornerstone concept in pretty much all of my writing, from dating and relationships, to finding a career you enjoy, to connecting with the world around you—all of it. 

It’s also probably one of the most misunderstood concepts I write about. So I’m here to try to fix that. 

Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you sit around the campfire with me and sing songs about how great we all are deep down inside…although, it might be just as uncomfortable at times. 

But I promise you this: it’s worth it in the end. Trust me.

What Vulnerability Really Is

A lot of people—especially those who’ve spent their entire lives covering up their emotions—have a hard time knowing exactly what vulnerability is. 

It’s understandable. A lot of behaviors that might look like displays of vulnerability on the surface are actually incredibly manipulative and/or needy; i.e., the opposite of being vulnerable. 

We’ll get to those soon, but first, I want to be clear about what genuine vulnerability is:

Vulnerability is consciously choosing to NOT hide your emotions or desires from others. 

That’s it. You just freely express your thoughts, feelings, desires, and opinions regardless of what others might think of you. 

This can be as simple as complimenting someone on how good they look, approaching an attractive stranger you don’t know, establishing clear and strong boundaries, or expressing your undying love to someone.

It can mean putting yourself in a position where you can be rejected, saying a joke that might not be funny, asserting an opinion that may offend others, joining a table of people you don’t know, telling someone you’re attracted to them. 

Practicing vulnerability really is as simple as just doing these things. But while being more vulnerable is simple, it’s not always easy.

That’s because all of these things require you to stick your neck out emotionally in some way. It’s risky and there are often real consequences to being vulnerable.

But the key to true vulnerability is that you are willing to accept the consequences no matter what.

Silhouette of woman in field

You will offend some people. You will turn some people off. You might lose a friend or a client or a romantic partner. 

But vulnerability is the path to true human connection. As Robert Glover said in No More Mr. Nice Guy, “Humans are attracted to each other’s rough edges.” 

Show your rough edges. Stop trying to be perfect. Expose your true self and share yourself without inhibition. Take the rejections and lumps and move on because you’re the bigger, stronger person. 

Examples of Genuine Vulnerability

I really want to hammer on what true vulnerability looks like, so I’ll give some more concrete examples here. Hopefully, this will help you see the subtleties—and the beauty—of being more vulnerable in your life.

Admitting you suck at something – Think about it: if someone is obviously bad at something—whether it’s their golf swing or high-stakes business negotiations—there’s probably nothing more cringe-worthy than when they openly brag about how good they are at it.

On the other hand, when someone openly admits they really suck at something, you’ll probably end up respecting them more for it (as long as they’re not too desperate about it, of course). 

If you suck at dating, tell a friend about it and ask for feedback on what you can do about it.

If you’re not good at connecting with people at work and you think it’s affecting your job performance, tell some of your coworkers you’re having a hard time and see if they have any advice for you.

The point is that you’re not trying to be something that you’re not. You accept who you are, faults and all. People will see this as incredibly confident behavior and respond in kind.

Taking responsibility instead of blaming others – We all know someone who always seems to blame someone else (or everyone else) for their problems:

  • The man who blames his “lying shitbag of an ex” for all of his current relationship problems. He’d be alot better off if he’d just acknowledge that things didn’t work out and that he was a bad partner at times and then work to address that. 
  • The coworker who constantly falls short of their performance goals and blames the culture in the office, or the economy, or basically anything but their incompetence. Just admit when you need help with something and find someone who can help you get better.
  • The woman who blames all men—not just one man, but all men—for her terrible dating life. As a general rule, if you’re trying to figure out if it’s between half of the population all having the exact same problem or if it’s, perhaps, just you—well, I have some bad news: I did the math and it’s extremely likely that it’s you. So start there. 

The reason taking responsibility for your problems is so powerful is because it puts you in control of the solution. When you blame others, you’re handing over control to everyone and everything around you and—SPOILER ALERT—you can’t control everyone and everyone around you. 

You may not be to blame for your current shitty situation, but stepping up and saying that you’re going to take care of it is a fucking power move. A power move. 

It shows you’re not fazed by external pressures to look, act, or feel a certain way—that instead you accept reality for what it is and set out to work with what you have. 

And it’s a shining example of vulnerability because you’re saying “I have a problem. I’m not perfect, but that’s okay. I can deal with it.”

Power in Vulnerability

Telling someone they’re being hurtful/insensitive – This one might seem like an obvious example of vulnerability to some people, but it’s actually not as common as you might think. A lot of us try to put on a thick skin and just grin and bear it when people needle at our sore spots or are just being pricks. 

It might be as simple as someone who makes an off-handed comment or joke about you or someone around you that went a little too far. Or maybe it’s how insensitive your partner is sometimes (who might not know they’re being insensitive, by the way). Or it could be the sexist/racist asshole at the end of the bar who won’t shut up. 

Calling them out when they truly cross the line makes you vulnerable. You’re making your feelings and opinion about the other person known. This is risky. Things could escalate. Some will take it more personally than others. And some people might be annoyed that you’re “rocking the boat” or whatever. 

But if you know what you stand for and you stand up for it, then that’s a powerful form of vulnerability.

Note, however, that there’s a difference between calling someone out for being cruel or harmful, and calling someone out because you disagree with them. The latter is bullshit and makes things worse, not better. 

Telling someone you appreciate/admire/respect/love them – This might be the ultimate form of vulnerability, and it’s probably the easiest one to mess up as well (more on that soon). 

This goes for simply telling another person you think they’re cute, to letting your friend know you really admire who they are as a person, to expressing respect and love to your parents, and yes, even confessing your undying, never-ending love for someone. 

All of these require you to be vulnerable because you never really know exactly how someone else feels about you, which could mean their feelings might not match yours, which could create an imbalance in the relationship, which could change the dynamics of the relationship, and on and on and on. 

But before you rush out and start confessing your undying love to the next hot stranger you see, we need to talk about the fine line between vulnerability and emotional psychopathy. 

What Vulnerability Is Not

So, again, a lot of people will read this and still not have a good grasp on what vulnerability truly is. Typically, the confusion manifests itself in one of two forms: 1) using vulnerability as another “tactic” to get people to like you/find you attractive/sleep with you/give you money/etc., or 2) using emotional vomit as a way to be vulnerable. 

Let’s tackle each of these. 

Vulnerability Is Not a “Tactic”

A very common problem people run into is that they see vulnerability as another tactic they can “use” on other people to get them to view them in a certain way.

They think, “Oh, OK, Mark says I just need to tell someone some stuff I don’t normally tell people and then they’ll like me/give me a raise/want to sleep with me/have children with me/etc.”

Wrong.

If you’re telling someone about how you felt when your dog died, or your strained relationship with your dad, or how you really bonded with your friend when you hiked through the mountains of Peru together…but you’re doing it all just to get them to like you more—well, that’s not vulnerability. It’s manipulation. 

The problem here is that it’s not genuine, and therefore it’s not vulnerable. Not only are you continuing to be fake and inauthentic, but you’re now whoring out some of your most cherished life memories to try to get someone to like you or even to sleep with you. 

Congratulations. You are officially desperate.

Genuine vulnerability is not about what you do, it’s all about why you’re doing it. It’s the intention behind your behavior that makes it truly vulnerable (or not). 

Are you making a joke because you think it’s funny (that’s being vulnerable), or because you want other people to laugh and think you’re funny (that’s being needy)?

Are you telling someone you’re attracted to about your nerdy hobbies to simply share yourself with them (that’s being vulnerable), or are you doing it to show them your “sensitive side” (that’s being manipulative)?

Are you starting your own business because you’re sick of your day job and you found something you really want to try out (that’s being vulnerable), or because you read a book that told you the only way to be successful is to own a business and you want to impress people (that’s just fucking sad, man)?

The goal of real vulnerability is not to look more vulnerable, it’s simply to express yourself as genuinely as possible.  

Emotional Vomit And Vulnerability

The other issue people run into is using emotional vomit as a way to be vulnerable. 

Emotional vomit is when you suddenly unload an inappropriate amount of emotions and personal history onto a conversation, usually to the utter horror of the person listening.

Emotional vomit is difficult because on the one hand, it is genuinely vulnerable, but on the other hand, it’s repellant and unattractive. In effect, you’re being open and authentic about how needy and pathetic you are. And whether hidden or apparent, neediness is never attractive.

So I get a lot of emails saying, “I was vulnerable, I went on and on about how much I loved my ex, and it turned them off. What gives?”

The difficulty with emotional vomit is that if you’re harboring a lot of neediness, then it needs to come out somehow, in some way, for you to ever resolve it. This is what I refer to as the pain period. 

Vulnerable man with head in hands

I’ve emotionally vomited about an ex I had a few times to a few different people, and in most cases, it was met with pity and in the case of women, turned them off completely.

The mistake people make with emotional vomit is that they expect the simple act of vomiting it out to suddenly fix their issues. But the point of emotional vomit is to make you aware of your issues, so you can fix them

When I went on and on about what a lying stupid whore my ex was, all of that anger didn’t fix my neediness. What it did was got me to see how angry and loathsome I had become without me even knowing it

When we’re isolated in the padded walls of our minds, it’s easy to believe we’re justified in everything we think or feel. It’s when we expose those thoughts and feelings to the light that we realize how far off track we’ve become and it allows us to readjust in the future.

And that’s what I noticed. I noticed that for how angry I was, I certainly wasn’t nearly as “over her” as I thought I was. It was around this time that I got into therapy, which helped me realize that my anger at my ex went even deeper and was also related to issues with my family.

Eventually, after more reflection and calming down a bit, I was able to realize that actually, I had placed an inordinate amount of expectations on my ex and I hadn’t been such a great boyfriend either. This effectively resolved much of the issue for me, much of the anger for her and for women in general. But it was hard and painful to get there.

The emotional vomit gave me the awareness to do my healing, but it wasn’t the healing by itself. Eventually, you have to become accountable for your own thoughts and feelings and work them out. If not, then you’re just going to continue to be angry and frustrated, turning off everyone you come across.

Power In Vulnerability

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ve noticed that real, genuine vulnerability represents a form of power—a deep and subtle form of power. 

Brene Brown talks about this in her book, Daring Greatly. A person who can make themselves vulnerable, exposing their weaknesses without any regard to what others will think, is saying to the world, “I don’t care what you think of me; this is who I am, and I refuse to be anyone else.” 

It’s the backwards law in action: in order to become more resilient, more formidable, you must first bare your flaws and weaknesses for the world to see. In doing so, they lose their power over you, allowing you to live your life with more honesty and intention. 

Opening oneself up to vulnerability, training oneself to become comfortable with your emotions, with your faults, and with expressing oneself without inhibitions doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. A grueling one at times.

But I can assure you, if you put in the work—if you have the difficult conversations; if you express yourself honestly even when it’s risky to do so; if you tell the world “this is who I am and I refuse to be anything else”—you’ll find new depth in your relationships. All of your relationships. 

And you’ll come out the other side unashamed of your flaws and who you are.