Fear of Vulnerability and Learning to Trust Again

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The fear of vulnerability is arguably one of the most common fears. Here are some of the ways that you can come to understand this central emotional challenge.

From Openness to Closing Yourself Off

As small children, we are open and free, sharing all of ourselves with others. As we grow and mature, however, we learn that the world can be a very painful place. We learn that not everyone is on our side, and not all situations are going to go our way.

Over time, then, we also learn to protect ourselves. We build walls around our hearts, we convince ourselves that we never really loved that person who hurt us anyway, and we become practiced in the art of denial.

Even worse, we begin to believe and internalize negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves. As we search for answers to life's hurts, we often begin to believe that we were responsible for them.

Protecting Yourself With Destructive Behavior

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

From Protecting to Forgiving Yourself

The fear of vulnerability is ultimately a fear of rejection or abandonment. 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. Instead, the solution is counter-intuitive.

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

Loving ourselves is one of the toughest lessons we will ever face. We all have flaws, imperfections, embarrassing stories, and past mistakes we wish we could forget. We are insecure, awkward, and desperately wishing we 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, we all have the same awkwardness, insecurity, and self-doubt.

Embracing Imperfection

Think of the most dynamic person you know. The one who always knows just what to say or do, who 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 dumb? 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?

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. 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 dark side. 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.

Battling Fear of Vulnerability

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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