3 Ways to Overcome the Fear of Vulnerability
“What’s your biggest fear?,” my boyfriend asked when we first started dating. My reply was quick, as if rehearsed. “Mediocrity,” I responded. Aside from driving next to big trucks on the highway and snakes, this was true. As a career-oriented individual since the seventh grade, I never wanted to be average or normal. Normal… what does that word even mean?
But there was something I was even more afraid of, something I did not want to admit — even to myself: My biggest fear was (and is) vulnerability. This might surprise some people, as I’ve been known to move to cities by myself, take big risks in my career, and start conversations with strangers. Yet, the idea of opening up my full self to others—the good, the bad, and the ugly—seemed crippling. It started to affect my romantic relationships, and even the relationship I had with myself. And thus began my recent journey of self-exploration on how to overcome the fear of vulnerability.
According to Merriam-Webster, the term “vulnerable” is defined as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.”
My first conscious realization of this fear of vulnerability smacked me in the face one night a couple of years ago while living in Miami. The person I was dating at the time called me out on my lack of affection. At first I was defensive, a common initial reaction when you feel like someone is attacking you. But in an “aha” moment not long after, I realized that this fear of letting others in had, up to that point, been a common denominator in all of my more serious relationships.
Turns out, I’m not alone. Many people mistake vulnerability as a weakness rather than a strength. But vulnerability is actually extremely rewarding. When we fear vulnerability, we fear failure, and you can’t truly know success in any capacity without failure.
In the past few years especially, the topic of vulnerability has been brought to light in many public conversations. The researcher and storyteller Brené Brown gave a TEDx talk called “The Power of Vulnerability” in 2010, which went viral, and several media outlets have published countless articles on the subject.
Why Vulnerability Is So Uncomfortable
It’s easy to understand the mentality of someone who suffers from the fear of vulnerability. In an effort to avoid hurt or failure, we shut down and close ourselves off. After all, being vulnerable allows other people to judge our true selves, and diminishes our control of how others see us. All of our imperfections, flaws, and weaknesses are in the hands of others to be projected and magnified. Sounds scary, right?
And when it comes to relationships—whether romantic or platonic—when we do open up our whole selves, we mistakenly attach our ego to the idea that, if someone leaves or rejects us, it’s personal. Therefore, we begin to doubt our own worth and question ourselves rather than the situation at hand.
But lack of vulnerability blocks out all raw emotions in relationships — not just the bad, but the good. And that’s the quickest way for a relationship to end. If you think about it, not being vulnerable is self-destructive.
Social media has only played into our fear of vulnerability. In an age of “likes” and “follows,” social platforms have allowed us to filter and edit ourselves into the people in which we want to be seen, faking our “best selves.” In a superficial desire to uphold this facade—this ego-based image of ourselves—we limit others from getting too close to us.
Reality check: Our best self actually comes from being our realest, truest self, even the not-so-sexy parts. And that, in itself, is sexy.
3 Ways to Overcome the Fear of Vulnerability
No matter what, overcoming a fear as personal as vulnerability is going to be a slow-moving process for many of us.
Below are three ways to help you overcome the fear of vulnerability, by building up your confidence:
- Travel alone (at least once). Two months after my high school graduation, I moved to New York City for college. I’d always dreamed of living there but had only been once — for my college orientation. While I ended up transferring after only one semester, it made me more confident knowing that I went after something I wanted, and managed to do it alone. After graduating from a local university four years after that, I moved to Miami on a whim. Throwing myself out of my comfort zone has pushed my limits and made me realize that I’m capable of completely relying on myself. You don’t need to actually move somewhere to experience this. Travel to a place you’ve never been before but have always wanted to go. Truly explore. Being alone, especially in a new place, simplifies your truest desires and better connects you to yourself.
- Surround yourself with new people. No, I’m not saying get rid of your friends, but it’s important to constantly be open to meeting new people from all different walks of life. This will help you to see the world differently. It will force you to embrace things outside of your comfort zone, and it will be a rewarding experience because you will have survived it. Sometimes we must visualize other people’s braveness in order to believe we are capable of it, too. Take my boyfriend, for example. We are completely different. He is, by nature, very outwardly passionate and expressive. He opens up his heart to everyone he meets. I admire him for these traits. He is far from naive and has been through a lot in life, but still remains open. Witnessing this firsthand proves that being vulnerable will not kill you. In fact, it welcomes opportunity and growth.
- Try new things. Oftentimes, fear of letting others in stems from lack of confidence in who we are. And usually, that insecurity is bred from not even knowing who we are. Experimenting with new hobbies or interests allows us, first and foremost, to understand what we love and don’t love, and it also garners opportunities to find out what we’re truly great at. Having passion and knowing where our talents lie builds confidence and further cements the belief that we don’t need anyone else to make us complete. So, if a relationship, business venture, or other risk does turn sour, you can be grateful for the experience without fully attaching it to your self-worth or sole identity. (For more advice like this, check out my post on "5 Things I've Learned in My 20's: Business Tips and Life Lessons.")
Love Versus Fear
There are two ways to live: out of love and out of fear. By living out of fear, we’re constantly focusing on the outcome (end) and not the process (present). By living out of fear, we are closing ourselves off and limiting opportunities for growth, love, and life.
Think about the root of your fear. What exactly are you so afraid of? And is that thing more scary than the idea of not living to your fullest potential?
In Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech, he said, “Remembering I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap that you have something to lose. You are already naked; there is no reason not to follow your heart.”
No matter where you’re at in life, know this: You are capable. You are capable of being loved, of being seen, and of being your truest, best self. You are capable of worthiness and wholeness, and you deserve finding a love that will affirm these beliefs. And at the end of your search, if you genuinely invest in the process, you will almost always find that the love you’ve been seeking has been with you all along, looking back at you in the mirror, holding all the power you’ve ever needed for greatness.
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