I’m trying to make friends with someone at the moment and it’s not going too well. We both like each other. We have similar interests. We spend plenty of time together. But there’s something missing. And I think I know what it is.
It can be tough to figure out exactly how we get into good friendships. It seems to happen rather mysteriously: we talk of somewhat randomly “clicking” with people. Trying to plan for it sounds like cheating. But there is something at the heart of many friendships that seems important to identify and – in a way – to get good at: vulnerability. And this is what’s missing from the relationship with my ‘would-be friend’. He’s like a closed book. He’s struggling to get vulnerable.
It can be easy to assume that what makes us likeable are our strengths, our accomplishments, the things we’re proud of. Certainly this can be impressive, but it generally isn’t what draws others to us. We get close to someone the more they – and we – find ourselves able gracefully to depart from the official story of what human beings are meant to be like and can start to show the awkward truths which underlie the cheerful facade.
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and we honour the spiritual connection that grows from offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something we nurture and grow. A connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them. We can only love others as much as we love ourselves.” Brene Brown
Another friend commented recently on the fact that she can be open with me, and it’s not a way she normally is with most people. I responded that it must be in her or we wouldn’t be such good friends. She insisted it must be me and that’s when I realised what it was I did. One of our first decent conversations, I put a piece of my heart on the table, it was a painful piece, a piece that forever changed who I was. A few hours later she did the same, put a painful piece of her own down next to mine, a piece that changed her life too. Our friendship changed after that, those two pieces laid bare fundamentally altered how we could interact. No longer did we have concerns over whether we could trust each other, whether we would judge each other or treat each other with disrespect. The things that changed us lay bare on that table and we each accepted them just as they were.
Vulnerability is the driving force of connection. It’s brave. It’s tender. It’s impossible to connect without it.
Somewhere though, we’ve tried to make ourselves ‘strong’. We’ve toughened up, hardened up and protected ourselves from being hurt. We’ve protected ourselves from vulnerability and disallowed the surrender. And here lies the problem. When we close down our vulnerability we are shielded from hurt, but we are also shielded from love, intimacy and connection. They come to us through the same door. When we close it to one, we close it to all.
Without vulnerability, relationships struggle. Vulnerability is, ‘Here I am – my frayed edges, my secrets, my fears, my affection. Be careful – they’re precious.’ In return, it invites, ‘Oh, I see you there. It’s okay, you’re safe. And here – here’s me.’ It builds trust, closeness and a sense of belonging. Relationships won’t thrive without it.
Vulnerability is openness to experiences, people and uncertainty. It’s terrifying at times, and brave always.
Occasionally we will get hurt. Relationship pain is an unavoidable part of being human. When it happens it can steal you. I know. But we can see this for what it is – a mismatch of people, a redirection, a learning, a happening – or we can take it as a warning and protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt again. In this case, we make the decision to not be vulnerable. We shut it down. By shutting down to the risks of being vulnerable, we also shut down to the possibilities – the possibility of joy, intimacy, closeness, gratitude and connection.
We can look at friendship as the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgement that one has offered something very valuable to someone: not a fancy present, but something even more precious, the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity. It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world – when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that are what makes us endearing to others, and can transform strangers into friends.