Vulnerability makes you stronger

A dear friend and I have an ongoing conversation about vulnerability, which is a word that usually invokes images of touchy-feely self-help stuff and psychotherapy sessions. That’s certainly a quick and easy way to dismiss it. In North America, where we value (the image of) independence above most other things, vulnerability is mostly looked down upon. We men especially dislike displaying vulnerability because we confuse it with weakness. We are socially conditioned to act tough and strong and stoic, and that “toughness” often turns into emotional withdrawal. We often hide our emotions because we view emotions as weakness, and we sometimes bury our emotions so deep that we don’t even know how to feel them ourselves, much less show them to others. This isn’t unique to men, of course, but we are the de facto experts on this.

There’s so much confusion on this stuff, and I’m still sorting out how it all works in my own life. In order to talk about vulnerability, we first have to talk about connection. To me, connection is not about talking, although talking can help you be connected. Connection is not being physically present with or touching someone, although that is an important part of building your connection. Connection is not feeling romantic feelings towards someone, although those feelings have a sort of magnetic pull that often helps you become connected. To me, connection is the sensation that someone else knows you and really sees you, warts and all – and accepts you anyway. Connection requires honesty, and connection requires vulnerability. You cannot be truly seen if you are not truly known.

No, You’re Not Just Fine on Your Own

Social isolation is an increasingly well-researched topic that underscores the fact that humans are very social animals. Our ancient human hardwiring expects that we’ll have a small tribe of other humans that support us, protect us, and share resources with us. If we have something other than that in our lives, our subconscious brain perceives instability and danger, since a solitary human is in a precarious position in a world full of dangerous weather, illness, predators, and potential food shortages. This matters in the modern world because being socially isolated drives up your stress response. Interestingly, there’s solid research that shows that perceived social support is actually more important than actual received support, essentially meaning that your perception is reality. If you believe that you have a supportive tribe who will take care of you if things get hard, your brain behaves as if that’s the case – even if you never have to test that out. Similarly, if you don’t think that anyone cares about you, you’re absolutely right (as far as your brain is concerned). This is why negative self-talk and low self-esteem can damage your social support networks: you literally create a new reality for yourself where you are alone, unsupported, and massively stressed out. Your brain believes the story you tell it. 

Your brain believes the story you tell it.

Just as feeling loved, accepted, and supported is a powerful way to reduce stress even in profoundly stressful times (such as the loss of a job or the illness of a loved one), feeling lonely and isolated can massively amplify your stress response and directly contribute to that systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation, as you may know, is a direct risk factor for virtually all lifestyle disease: cardiovascular disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, some types of cancer, and autoimmunity. This is why I’m focusing much of my work on social connections these days – because reprioritizing the meaningful human relationships in our lives literally makes us healthier, happier humans. Having Our People around us makes us live longer, better lives. And that’s not an overstatement. Just ask the folks who live in the Blue Zones.

Reprioritizing the meaningful human relationships in our lives literally makes us healthier, happier humans.

Having a fully portable, virtual “map” of our tribe in our brains is a powerful mediator of stress, and it’s both durable and malleable, and can significantly improve the quality of our lives. However, in order for your subconscious brain to perceive that your tribe has your back if and when it matters, you have to be pretty damn genuine and vulnerable with those people. Showing your friends and family only the parts of your life where you have it all together is like letting those people look at a book’s cover or maybe flip through it, but not letting them actually read the book… and then wondering why they don’t understand the story line. We are all too good at keeping a distance between us and others. We hide the ugly parts, the sorrows the fears. Especially the fears. We wear “emotional armor” in an attempt to protect ourselves from being hurt if someone rejects or hurts us. We keep our vulnerability to a minimum in order to prevent others from hurting us, but in doing so, we maintain an extra space between us and them. Again: we keep extra space between us and the people most able to make our lives happier, healthier, and longer. That seems a bit nearsighted when I look at it that way.

Rationally, wearing that armor kind of makes sense if you believe that most people are scary and that they have the power to hurt you. (That’s a meaty topic for another day.) Just for a minute though, pretend that you are absolutely invincible, and that no one can hurt you. The armor you’re wearing then becomes a burden that makes your movement through life slower, heavier, and a lot more awkward. Similarly, the distance we keep from each other and the masks we wear keep us separate from each other – and in doing so, they make us more alone. Your armor makes you more alone, and being alone is not safer. That armor – that refusal to be vulnerable – prevents someone from truly seeing and knowing us, and as such, it just makes us more alone. And as I mentioned earlier, a human alone is a human with a legitimate reason to be stressed. 

Your armor makes you more alone, and being alone is not safer. That armor – that refusal to be vulnerable – prevents someone from truly seeing and knowing us, and as such, it just makes us more alone.

So the flipside of this is that not wearing the armor leaves us feeling very exposed. It’s rationally terrifying to let people see our imperfections and to acknowledge our fears. In a former life as a physical therapist, I did a lot of wound care in the acute care unit of the hospital, and some types of wounds needed to “breathe”. If you completely sealed them up to “protect” them, they ended up healing more slowly (or not at all). The exposure to fresh air – letting them “air out” – was critical to the healing process. To recovery. To strength and pliability and restored resilience.  Emotional wounds can be similar: letting them breathe and see the light of day often helps them heal. Burying the hurt rarely makes things better, and sharing it with someone else often makes the healing process move forward in a way that cannot occur in isolation.

A Brief History of Connection

So yes, social connection has a large and generally underappreciated influence on our health and happiness, and vulnerability is a huge piece of that. Go a few centuries or millennia back in human history, and virtually all of us lived in some variation of a tribe, a village, a clan. We had multiple generations of relatives living and working with us, and we knew the strengths, weaknesses, and idiosycracies of virtually everyone in the village, because it was more or less impossible to hide things very well when living in such close proximity. People talk. So we knew who the village fool was, the drunk, the whore, the lazy farmer, the dishonest banker. We knew and accepted them (even if we disliked their behaviours), because we saw them for who and what they were. That sense of community, of having tribal connections, of having roots, directly contributes to our sense of wellbeing, even when things are not actually going so well. I think we actually notice the presence or absence of those roots especially when things are not going so well (or when we really feel the fear of things going wrong). That’s why the combination of anxiety and social isolation is so damaging to our mental and physical health. But in the days of having a village, even big challenges could be met and conquered together; “it takes a village.”

Fast forward to today, where so much of our personal identity is created and carefully refined online, creating immense potential for distortions small and large. We are chronically and inexplicably busy, and we live fiercely independent and modularized lives where we leave the sanctity of our homes to work, shop, or be entertained, but scurry home behind our garage doors to binge watch television or drink too much wine or mainline porn or whatever other thing we’re not terribly proud of. It’s easy to hide your stuff in this culture, and most of us do so as much as possible.

Our culture is one that fosters and facilitates inauthenticity. We hide our fears, and shame drives us to hide the behaviors that society’s moralistic judgments deem unacceptable. (Dishonesty, as Sam Harris writes, is “the lifeblood of addiction.”) We choose not to tell our siblings about the drinking problem or the marital strife. We breeze over our insecurities in conversations with friends. We idolize strong, independent leaders with no apparent chinks in their armour, and we are really intolerant to imperfections in those leaders and celebrities. When we compare ourselves to those caricatures online and on TV, it’s no wonder we always come up short: they’re not real people. They’re holograms of real people, sanitized versions of someone who has fears and insecurities and ugly habits just like the rest of us.

So while it’s completely understandable to want to maintain your hard exterior because it feels somehow safer, I’d like to propose that it doesn’t work the way you want it to. Social connections are potent stabilizers of the stress response, and vulnerability with others is a required component of true, meaningful social connections. I’ll go even further and say that the true value of social connection is vulnerability. Taking off your armour to let others really see you is a powerful, terrifying and paradoxically freeing feeling.

In my earlier life, I was pretty sure that if I was strong and stoic, then no one could reject or judge me. The net effect of that behaviour was that I ended up busy but overstimulated, successful but unhappy, and married but absolutely alone. I chose distance over vulnerability. I confused strength with a lack of vulnerability. I chose wearing my armour over being truly seen. And it was a dismal failure in terms of letting me connect meaningfully with people. Hear this: vulnerability is not weakness. Choosing vulnerability demonstrates strength and insight. It’s hard—really hard—but this might be a new growth opportunity for you.

Put Down Your Sword and Shield

Having a “connection” does not mean finding one other person and standing back-to-back, doing battle together against the world. I sometimes hear couples talk about “us against the world.” That idea, while perhaps feeling more secure than being alone, is still based on fear of “other” and the idea that you need to protect yourselves against all those scary other people. My therapist once said to me, “Being defensive is the first act of war”, and she’s right. If you believe that you need to do battle with the world, you’ll always be right.

We can’t be truly seen beneath our armor and behind our shield. If the value of connection is vulnerability, then we can’t really connect if we’re keeping up our shield to protect ourselves from other people. Said another way, vulnerability is required to connect, and connection is critical to health and happiness. 

Vulnerability is required to connect, and connection is critical to health and happiness.

If you don’t believe me, or you’re perfectly content beneath your armour, or if you hate the idea of being profoundly vulnerable (dudes, I’m looking at you), that’s okay. I’m speaking from personal experience and from supporting scientific research, but I’m not prescribing the way you should live. I am not a guru, and I’ve learned a lot by screwing up almost everything (and learning how to correct some of the problems that I created). If you’re not happy with how things in your life are now, I’d like to offer an opportunity to do it a different way. It starts with letting someone see more of you. Yeah, it scares the hell out of me, too. So let’s do this together.

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