Talking to Strangers and Other Terrifying People

I had a really powerful experience last year. At the gym one morning, a man about my age approached me and introduced himself. He knew who I was from my work on health and nutrition, and he thanked me for my books. We started talking, and within less than five minutes, he confided in me that he had “started drinking again.” We talked a few more minutes, exchanged phone numbers, and parted ways. We kept in contact over the coming months, and he has now been sober for over 6 months. I’m so proud of him for taking a big step to reach out and to ask for help.

I’ve thought a lot about that experience, and asked myself, “Why me? Why would he confide a very personal struggle in a complete stranger?” It occurred to me that, paradoxically, it felt “safer” for him to tell a stranger about his addiction than to tell someone very close to him. He was willing to be vulnerable with a complete stranger. Compared to being painfully authentic with people who are actually part of your life, talking to strangers is easy.

I asked myself, “Why me? Why would he confide a very personal struggle in a complete stranger?”

Our fear of vulnerability is all about managing our perceived risk, and those decisions we make in managing risk are often heavily influenced by our fear. No one likes to admit they’re fearful, but so many of our choices are governed by fear of judgement, fear of rejection, fear of loss, fear of failure. We are afraid, so we want to make things “safer” for ourselves, so we do what we think is the right thing to protect ourselves, and that usually involves some backing away and disengaging from other people, especially those closest to us. We put on armour. We hide our flaws and our fears.

Paradoxically, the people closest to us (parents, siblings, best friends, and significant others) are the ones that we’re usually the most afraid of. A stranger on the street could say something terrible to you, and while it might feel awful, it’s probably not going to hurt you as much as if your spouse or best friend said it to you. We often choose to be the least vulnerable about our fears and flaws with those people that have the most ability to love and accept us including our fears and flaws.

We’re all pretty scared to be vulnerable, to let people see the “real” us. We’re excellent at hiding our warts and pretty good at diverting our gaze from others’ flaws and scars and idiosyncrasies, too. Here’s the concern, though: in not letting ourselves be vulnerable, we lose the chance to be truly seen, and it is in that being seen that true connection flourishes.

In not letting ourselves be vulnerable, we lose the chance to be truly seen, and it is in that being seen that true connection flourishes.

One way to experiment with vulnerability is to look up from your phone and engage directly with the people around you. Instead of responding to “how are you?” with the standard “good,” tell the truth, or at least respond with something a little more meaningful than the flippant responses that most of usually give. You don’t have to air your dirty laundry, but engaging with some degree of authenticity is important.

Talking to strangers is a surprisingly easy way to take baby steps towards being more vulnerable in your personal life. Yes, talking to a therapist (essentially a “stranger” because they have no direct bearing on your personal life) is good, too, but talking to a therapist or a stranger is like training wheels for your bike. Telling a relative stranger a closely-held thing about you or writing online about something difficult in your past can be powerful and cathartic way of dabbling in vulnerability, but really tearing down the walls and being truly vulnerable requires that you do that with Your People, too. Yeah, it’s scary, but it opens doors to connections that are deeper and even more meaningful.

Want to learn to ride a bike? Great! Use training wheels, but don’t keep the training wheels on forever because of your fear. The real joy of cycling is the unfettered freedom of being present in the moment, and that’s true of being vulnerable, too. Ride fast, ride free.

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Dallas Hartwig is the co-creator of Whole9Life and the Whole30 program. New York Times bestselling author. Free-range human.