Do You Have A Fear Of Vulnerability? How To Learn To Be Open With Others

Updated August 15, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

We Understand Being Vulnerable Can Be Scary

Being vulnerable with someone else can be intimidating. For some, the fear of vulnerability goes beyond  the general social anxiety many people experience. For those who had a difficult upbringing – especially if affection was rare and judgment, criticism, or even violence was common – it can be especially hard to open up. But many people who had relatively mild childhoods may also find that trusting others can be painful. In this article, we'll discuss why vulnerability is a good thing, how to spot it, where it comes from, and most importantly, how to start changing our thinking so we can move past it.

What Is The Fear Of Vulnerability?

Fear of vulnerability occurs on a broad scale, meaning it can range anywhere from mild social anxiety to the complete inability to relate to others. At its core, the fear of vulnerability means that a person is afraid of opening up to or getting close to other people. They are uncomfortable with intimate moments, and often have defense mechanisms that stop relationships before they intensify. There is often some component of low self-esteem that motivates maintaining some distance.

While there are specific phobias that relate to this –  such as the fear of love (philophobia) and the fear of being touched (haphephobia) – this article is focusing on a more  general fear of people knowing you on a level that makes you uncomfortable. 

How Does A Fear Of Vulnerability Develop?

Most people are naturally uncomfortable with vulnerability to some degree. For example, think about how it's simultaneously exciting and terrifying to meet someone that you are attracted to. What if they reject you or even react with contempt? What if things go well but then fall apart later? What if they like you at first but then don't like you when they really start to know you?

There are a lot of potential emotions involved in growing any relationship. This becomes more complicated when you have a difficult past or an unhealthy understanding of what intimacy means. Most people can recognize that while intimacy is intimidating, there are benefits to having loved ones who know us well. But if you had a home life that punished talking about feelings or a romantic partner who used your secrets to hurt you, then you may be wary of opening up again. Below are some of the hallmarks of a home or romantic life that may lead to a fear of vulnerability. 

Lack Of Predictability/Stability

Home lives can be chaotic, especially when one or more persons in the house experience their own emotional or psychological issues. Minor difficulties can cause explosions of emotional turmoil, which can be a primary driver for the fear of vulnerability. Children in these situations often learn from an early age that emotional attachments are not dependable. Rather than learn to rely on others, they learn that the only one they can count on is themselves.

Lack Of Attention

Some parents do a fine job of providing a safe and stable home life – making sure there’s food on the table, a roof over everyone's head, etc. – but they remain distant and disengaged. If there is no emotional support at home, children may grow up thinking that's the norm. A lack of attention is often more seditious than a lack of predictability. Children may grow up thinking that there's no need for intimacy and genuine engagement, and they learn they can survive comfortably even though they don't have that emotional richness.

Fear Of Abandonment Or Rejection

People are naturally afraid of being left behind or ignored. For people who have seen that fear play out by being ignored or abandoned by a loved one, however, it is often a constant in their minds. For some, this turns into a need to be deeply engaged with everyone they meet, and they may become anxious or even angry when someone pulls back or shows signs of dishonesty. However, many people also learn from rejection that it's safer not to care. If you assume that everyone will leave, it may seem easier not to make an effort to get to know them.

What Does A Fear Of Vulnerability Look Like?

There is no definitive tool for identifying the fear of vulnerability because it can play out several ways. Someone who fears vulnerability may be timid and pull back or withdraw from every conversation. However, they may also seem comfortable with social interactions and come across as friendly and engaged. They can do this because they have figured a basic persona to display and interact with others. Who they are is still closely guarded.

It is important to watch out for indicators that take a longer time to spot.

  • Tendency To Escalate: People who fear vulnerability may have learned that when things start to get tense, it's better for you to get extremely upset before the other person does. This leads them to escalate emotionally much faster than seemingly necessary.

  • Tendency To Drift: Have you ever connected with co-worker or friend then suddenly, the conversations seemed to decrease, and eventually, you realized you hadn't heard from that person in a while. People do get busy, but for people who fear intimacy, this is a common strategy.

  • Lash Out: Our culture is full of stories of romantic partners who suddenly turn cold or even angry. Small problems quickly escalate to huge issues, and the ability to compromise has all but evaporated. People who fear vulnerability will deploy this behavior without thought. Once they start to feel that they are becoming close to someone, they start to feel anxious and they lash out to shut it down.

How Do You Learn To Be Open With Others?

A fear of vulnerability is likely something you have been carrying around for a long time. But just because you have learned to keep your distance from others doesn't mean you can't change your ways now. Small behavior changes and consistent work with others can help you overcome this fear of vulnerability.

Start With Patience And New Objectives

First, recognize this change will take patience and practice. Don't listen to anyone who tells you to just open up and talk more. It’s not that simple, and it’s unsustainable. You are looking for deep, long-term change, not more surface-level behaviors that help others think you are ok. This is about getting to a place where YOU know and feel that you are ok.

Second, you may need to adjust your expectations. Your goal is genuine connections, not connections with everyone. You can't please and impress everyone, and it may end up that most of your interactions with people will be just kind of…fine. But fine is better than fake, and the people who truly click with the personality you show off will make all the chit-chat and false starts worth the wait.

Take Time To Reflect

Sitting with your emotions and identifying the problematic states is a great skill to develop. You may have been living with these negative feelings and what they drive you to do for so long that you don't even realize what you are doing anymore. You don't consciously think, "Oh, I'm scared we're getting too close; I'd better lash out now." By the time your body and mind recognize the feeling of deepening connection, your temper is already up and you are finding something to be angry about.

Spotting these negative feelings, working to understand their source and motivation, and finding constructive alternatives is what self-improvement is all about. This can happen during or after a difficult moment. It can be hard to slow down and be present with our feelings, especially when prone to react to stress. Taking some time after social interactions and thinking about what went well, what didn't, and things you can try next time can be helpful in gradually improving.

A quick note here: be careful and be kind when doing this sort of reflection. People with low self-esteem can quickly turn self-reflection into guilt or shame. Be deliberate about identifying what went well and establish that you are doing this work to find ways to improve, not punish yourself.

Communicate Clearly And Directly 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
We Understand Being Vulnerable Can Be Scary

Being clear and direct is key. If you don't tell your partner/friend/co-worker what's you’re experiencing, they can't be empathetic and help you through it. Furthermore, if they truly want to connect with you, they'll be patient, and they'll appreciate that you told them what's going on!

Clear communication is also crucial for setting expectations. Ask for the words and actions that will encourage you to keep going. If you want to text each other more, you can ask for that. If you would like your partner to show more physical affection, that's ok too. Your responsibility is to express your expectations. If your partner doesn't want to do it, they can communicate that and you can reach a compromise.

Whether you are working to overcome anxiety or working with someone to make that change, understanding and appreciation can go a long way. If your partner is trying to be more vulnerable, remind them that you appreciate their efforts. If your partner is working with you to overcome your anxiety, let them know that their patience and understanding are valued. We all like to be thanked!

Vulnerability Brings Freedom

If you are facing a fear of vulnerability, you may already be experiencing discomfort and loneliness and are probably looking for a change. Even if you think you might be holding yourself back from other people, it is worth exploring the ideas around vulnerability and how increasing your comfort with it can lead to improvements.

Being vulnerable is naturally going to involve some risk. One of those risks is trusting your partner/friend to support your efforts. But the benefits far outweigh the potential risks. By learning to be vulnerable, you can achieve a longer, happier life filled with rich experiences with friends and loved ones.

For whatever reason, you have learned to be wary or even scared of connecting with others. It will take time to understand where that anxiety comes from, how it manifests, and how to develop routines to overcome it. 

Friends and family can help you on this journey, but professional support can be a life changer. Counselors like the ones at Regain can help you navigate your way to a better life.

One of the most popular forms of therapy is called cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and has been proven to help with a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety such as the fear of vulnerability. CBT can be used to help you identify the root of your anxiety, as well as to identify false beliefs and thinking patterns, then reframe those thoughts into healthier patterns. CBT has been found to provide sustained improvement for anxiety. One study even found through neuroimaging that CBT can change dysfunctions of the nervous system.

Today, with online counseling, such as through Regain, it’s easier than ever to get help. Studies have found that online counseling is just as effective as in-person therapy, but offers advantages like being able to meet with a counselor from the comfort of your home and at a time that’s moe convenient for you. 

Takeaway

Showing vulnerability can be scary, but there is also great freedom in learning to open and be yourself with people who care about you. You don’t have to find the strength to put yourself out there alone. Working with a professional Regain therapist can make your journey easier and more successful. 

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