Millennial women have tackled the subject of vulnerability in relationships with the same level of neurosis many of us developed over Marie Kondo’s book, The Life‑Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The frenzy around Kondo’s methodology on tidiness gripped our hearts with a desire to be as uncluttered as possible; similarly, Brené Brown’s TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” has many of us wondering if we have difficulty opening up, if we need to overhaul our lives in pursuit of openness.
Thanks to social media, our lives are saturated with the personal information of others. Whether through photos or blogs, we have an insider’s look into the lives of friends and strangers alike. But all this sharing can lead a person who tends to be more private to wonder whether she is closed off or has too many walls up.
So to save you from unnecessary worry, here are five signs that you’re actually using vulnerability wisely by setting good boundaries.
01. You don’t dig in to your personal life on social media.
Sure, there’s nothing wrong with posting I-woke-up-like-this selfies or the occasional gushing, emotional post about your loved ones. But keeping your personal life, well, personal, is actually a good thing. There’s a big difference between being authentic—who you really are—and just baring it all. One study from Computers and Human Behavior found that people who feel more like themselves online, rather than offline, are more likely to post emotional, drama-heavy content. But if you have a strong sense of your identity offline, and you wouldn’t share something with everyone IRL, not sharing is authentic. So don’t sweat it!
02. When someone opens up to you, you don’t automatically reciprocate.
Just because someone else has opened up to you doesn’t require an in-kind response. If, before you speak, you consider the impact that opening up will have—not just on you but also the person you’re sharing with—you’re on the right track. We’ve probably all been in the awkward situation when a new acquaintance is sharing her entire dating history or family drama, and then she finishes and looks up expectantly. But sharing is not always caring; you don’t have to reciprocate if you don’t want to. Trust your intuition when it comes to knowing when to speak and when to stay silent.
In an interview on boundaries, Brown says in more than a decade of studying people, she found that those with the strongest boundaries were also the most compassionate. People with a firm sense of what’s OK and what’s not set lines and stick to them. Guarding your personal boundaries doesn’t make you cold-hearted and standoffish; it shows that you respect yourself, and in turn, you respect others.
Though you may come across as slow to warm up, you’re not timid—you’re most likely being prudent. If you feel uncomfortable sharing certain information, listen to your gut. Maybe it’s too soon, or this isn’t the right person to talk to. It’s healthy to know what you’re comfortable with and to respect yourself enough to listen.
03. You don’t use vulnerability to meet emotional needs.
When you do open up to someone, you’re not sharing to seek attention, find an audience, or develop premature intimacy. Instead, you analyze your intentions before you speak. If opening up to someone makes sense, then you do so, letting the emotional connection follow naturally—and that’s a good thing. In Brown’s book Daring Greatly, she explains the difference between using vulnerability and actually being vulnerable. Vulnerability as a desperate attempt at emotional connection can alienate the very people the sharer seeks to be close to. Although being vulnerable with a close friend is an essential part of developing intimacy, it’s not the only part. So continue to be confident that you’re worthy of attention and affection—and that you don’t have to overshare to get either.
04. You choose your audience carefully.
You’re not an open book, and you cautiously choose who can flip through your pages. You know who should see all of you and who should not, and you’re confident enough to maintain a little mystery. Although you open up to those you trust, you don’t share with people who will bring you down or offer bad advice.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown warns not to share big life mistakes with those who will handle the information poorly. Unempathetic listeners might pass judgment (“You should be ashamed”), respond with a sympathetic “Bless your heart” rather than an empathetic “I understand,” belittle the mistake by saying “It’s not that bad,” or try to one-up you (“Listen to what happened to me!”). She says to seek those who will love you because of your story, not in spite of it. “You share with people who’ve earned the right to hear your story,” she explains in an interview with Oprah.
You may feel guilty that only a few close friends know you well, but Brown says that’s healthy. These kinds of deep relationships are rare, she says—only one or two people can really fill that space.
05. You don’t mistake vulnerability for authenticity.
Being real is not the same as wearing your heart on your sleeve. Through an intricate combination of genuine and guarded, you can let others know that you’re going through a rough time or allude to parts of your story without sharing the whole thing—or sounding like you’re using the conversational equivalent of clickbait. (“You’d be shocked to hear about all the drama I have to go through!")
The balance lies in the distinction between transparency and vulnerability: You can be real without becoming exposed. Transparency is a form of honesty, which is always appropriate. To be transparent is to be open, to offer no clickbait, to have nothing to hide.
But vulnerability entails sharing your heart. Being vulnerable is not an achievement in and of itself; alone, vulnerability is neither good nor bad, Brown says in Daring Greatly. Its value or its danger come from using it well or using it poorly. And because boundaries are a key component of healthy vulnerability, an understanding of appropriate levels of sharing doesn’t make you a phony, it demonstrates a healthy and effective use of vulnerability.
We know that being real with one another is the essential foundation to any meaningful interaction. But it’s encouraging to remember that we can be ourselves without baring all. We don’t have to let our panic to become sufficiently vulnerable catapult us into a fear of missing out on all meaningful connection, as if any type of guardedness turns us into unapproachable ice queens.
Yes, vulnerability is essential to connection, but only when it’s used the right way. When we’re neither too afraid to open up to others nor too eager to share everything, we have the courage to be imperfect, and that’s something we can all do well to practice.
Photo Credit: Island Moon Photography