Recovering From the Fear of Vulnerability

Lonely woman looking out from her balcony.

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Vulnerability is a state of emotional exposure that comes with a certain degree of uncertainty. It involves a person's willingness to accept the emotional risk that comes from being open and willing to love and be loved.

The fear of vulnerability is a very common fear. Once you understand this central emotional challenge, you can learn how to be vulnerable—and why it's rewarding.

Why Vulnerability Is Important

Professor and author Brené Brown suggests that vulnerability is an important measure of courage and that it allows people to be seen and understood by the people who are important in their life. Being vulnerable also serves as an important way to foster authenticity, belongingness, and love. 

When you can accept vulnerability, you may find that you experience important emotional benefits.

  • Greater strength: Putting yourself into situations where you feel vulnerable can be a way to gain confidence and belief in your ability to handle challenging situations. This can help make you more resilient in the face of life's difficulties.
  • Stronger relationships: Being vulnerable with others is a way to foster intimacy. It can deep your compassion, empathy, and connection to others in your life.
  • Improved self-acceptance: Being vulnerable allows you to accept and embrace different aspects of yourself. This can foster great confidence and authenticity.

So why do people often fear vulnerability if it is a good thing? Vulnerability is associated with a number of other challenging emotional states. For example, it often plays a part in difficult emotions such as disappointment, shame, fear, and grief. The fear of vulnerability is also often related to a fear of rejection or abandonment.

Examples of Vulnerability

  • Taking chances that might lead to rejection
  • Talking about mistakes you have made
  • Sharing personal information that you normally keep private
  • Feeling difficult emotions such as shame, grief, or fear
  • Reconnecting with someone you have fallen out with
  • Being honest about what you need in a relationship, including your boundaries and expectations

How You Become Closed Off

As a small child, you were likely open and free, sharing all of yourself with others. As you grew and matured, however, you may have learned that the world can be a very painful place. You learned that not everyone is on your side, and not all situations are going to go your way.

Over time, then, you may have also learned to protect yourself. This might mean that you've built walls around your heart, convinced yourself that you never really loved the person who hurt you anyway, and became practiced in the art of denial.

Even worse, you may have begun to believe and internalize negative thoughts and feelings about yourself. As you search for answers to life's hurts, you may even begin to believe that you were responsible for them.

The Impact of Isolation

Although these steps are normal and natural, they are also self-defeating. It is important to learn from past mistakes and to strive for personal growth.

However, it is equally important to learn to forgive your own lapses. How often are you quick to forgive someone else's mistake, or even truly bad behavior, while continuing to beat yourself up for a mistake that you made?

Likewise, building walls creates a safe space into which you can quickly retreat, but it also blocks the flow of energy and love in both directions. It is easy to become trapped behind your own emotional defenses, unable to give or receive positive emotions as well as negative ones. This leaves many people feeling isolated and alone.

The fear of vulnerability often leads people to inadvertently cause pain to others.

People with this fear often become "distancers," using well-honed methods to keep others at arm's length. Some become intentionally buried in work, school, or other activities. Some simply disappear at the first sign that a relationship is becoming intimate.

Still others perform an elaborate dance of push and pull, drawing in a potential partner only to pull away emotionally when the other person gets too close, then drawing that person back in once distance has been reestablished.

Embrace Your Authentic Self

One way to reduce self-isolation and the fear of vulnerability is to embrace your authentic self. You have been hurt before, so you seek to minimize the risk of being hurt again. However, the best way to minimize the potential damage is not to build walls or try to act according to some self-created checklist.

To combat the fear of vulnerability, you must first learn to love and accept your whole, authentic self.

Loving yourself is one of the toughest lessons you will ever face. Everyone has flaws, imperfections, embarrassing stories, and past mistakes they wish they could forget. People are insecure, awkward, and desperately wishing they could change certain things. That's human nature.

The trick is to realize that everyone feels this way. No matter how successful, how beautiful, how perfect someone appears, they all have the same awkwardness, insecurity, and self-doubt.

Aim for Excellence, Not Perfection

Think of the most dynamic, capable person you know: The one who always knows just what to say or do, has the perfect outfit for every occasion, and can simultaneously juggle a baby and a briefcase while standing on the subway.

What if this person said something foolish? Would you hold a grudge? What if that person snapped at you? Would you find that unforgivable? Of course not.

You understand that others are imperfect, that they have good days and bad days, that they have flaws and blind spots and moments of weakness. That's not what you remember them for. You remember their triumphs and shining moments and love and light.

Why treat yourself any differently? Why beat yourself up for the things that you easily and quickly forgive in others? Why do you automatically assume that others will judge you more harshly than you judge them?

One way to improve your ability to accept yourself fully is to treat yourself in the same way that you would treat a friend or loved one. Show yourself the empathy and compassion that you would show to others in the same situation.

How to Love Yourself

To learn to love yourself, begin by acknowledging yourself as a whole human being—flaws, imperfections, and all. Own and embrace your past mistakes, but realize that they don't define your present or your future.

Apologize to anyone you feel you have significantly wronged, and then move on. Forgive yourself. While this is often easier said than done, moving forward, try to live by a few simple truths.

  • You are important. Like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," the simple fact that you exist has a ripple effect beyond your imagination. You may never truly know whose lives you have touched, and what the repercussions were, but they are there.
  • Embrace your mistakes. Not only do your mistakes make you human, but they give you a wealth of experiences to draw on when helping others. Using your past for good is one of the strongest ways to connect with your entire self.
  • Stop trying to prove your value. Humans, especially those with a fear of vulnerability, are always trying to show how worthwhile we are. We worry that if we don't somehow earn our keep, people will stop caring for us. Invariably, we get exactly what we are unconsciously asking for: a string of people interested in what we can give instead of who we are.
  • Remember that you can't be everything to everyone. Offer the most precious gift of all—yourself—rather than trying to be all things to all people. That doesn't mean you should stop performing kindnesses for others, but make offerings based in love rather than fear or self-judgment.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you be more vulnerable in relationships?

You can be more vulnerable with your partner by getting to know yourself, sharing important things in the moment, talking about your fears, and being honest about the things that you need,

A Word From Verywell

As you truly learn to accept and love yourself, you will find it easier and easier to show true vulnerability. If your sense of self-worth is strong, then you will no longer need others to define it or prop it up for you. You will be able to walk away from those who treat you with disrespect and attract those who treat you well.

However, getting from here to there is never easy. Professional assistance is often required, particularly if your fear is deep-seated and long-lasting. Many people seek the advice of a respected mental health professional, while others find solace in spiritual counseling.

Whatever path you choose, finding freedom from the fear of vulnerability is a truly life-changing experience.

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