Vulnerability can be terrifying. Especially if you grew up with criticism, control, judgment, sarcasm, shame, unrealistic expectations, abuse, abandonment, etc.
The opening line to Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel Anna Karenina speaks to the heart of the matter: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
There are innumerable ways to learn that it’s not safe to be yourself. And consequently, many people have toolboxes full of vulnerability avoidance tactics to avert the deep, existential pain of rejection.
Only Dating People Who Like You First
This is a subtle but extremely common vulnerability avoidance tactic. Regardless of gender, tons of people live and die, having never pursued someone they were attracted to. They literally just wait until someone else expresses interest in them and then decide whether or not they’re willing to settle for whoever shows up.
That’s like hanging out in a restaurant looking hungry AF with money in your hand and just waiting for someone to offer you food. Spaghetti? Baloney sandwich? Mac n cheese? Knowing damn well you want some Pad Thai, but eventually, that baloney and mac starts looking like it could do the trick.
And that’s how we end up in “good enough” relationships.
The Upper Hand
I once had a client tell me, “I only date people who have some kind of baggage that they’re aware of and feel less than because of. They gotta be divorced or unemployed or some shit. I just gotta have the upper hand.”
These are real words that came out of an actual person’s mouth.
So many people have appalling operational belief systems like this that they are completely oblivious to until I dig up in those guts in a coaching session. And once they see the problem with their own eyes, they can never unsee it.
You can’t put the shit back in the horse.
Not Looking For Anything Serious
This is my favorite. You’re just trying to meet your most fundamental human need for love and connection… but nothing serious? Hahaha.
Tell me you’re terrified of vulnerability without telling me you’re terrified of vulnerability.
Narcissists get a bad rap. There is a whole #NarcAbuse movement warning us of the many torturous evils narcissists are secretly conspiring to inflict upon us all. While I understand it’s good to educate yourself about what narcissism looks like, please don’t confuse that with understanding their motives.
Narcissists, perfectionists, and other types of self-centered people are — surprise — just as wounded and scared as everyone else. They just have very “successful” looking vulnerability avoidance tactics, so it’s easy to imagine they victimized you.
If they can polish their life up to a glossy enough shine, others will be compelled to love and connect with them, even if they’re emotional degenerates. They can use charm, charisma, and material success as substitutes for vulnerability, authenticity, and intimacy.
It’s quite an elaborate and impressive vulnerability avoidance tactic. Good job.
Perhaps the most effective way to ensure you are not rejected by others is by rejecting yourself. This is called “beating shame to the punch.”
Why stand around risking emotional exposure when you can curb-stomp your own self-esteem and make damn sure that nobody hurts you any more than you’ve already hurt yourself?
Self-hatred is a brilliant vulnerability avoidance tactic. It not only protects you from being hurt by others, but it can also garner sympathy and attract some codependents. Cha-ching! Human connection with no vulnerability invested.
Like emotional pan-handling.
Similar to those who hate themselves, others go full-nuclear and decide to just hate everything. When you transform your whole persona into one big, salty-ass barnacle, you never have to worry about getting too close to anyone. Ever.
Anger feels empowering. Self-righteous indignation. A curious blend of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. Oh, what a delightful cocktail of invulnerable, emotional self-destruction!
It’s not pretty, but it works, goddamnit.
All These And More
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. There are a million ways to avoid being vulnerable, but none of them produce healthy relationships. The reason is simple, and it’s something I repeat often:
It’s the gateway to trust, connection, and intimacy. A relationship without mutual vulnerability might look like a business arrangement, a hostage crisis, or a charity case. But it’ll never look like a healthy, loving, sustainable, long-term partnership.
What’s So Bad About Vulnerability?
When we were children — at our most vulnerable — maybe we were not loved, nurtured, or protected the way we should have been. Perhaps we were hurt very deeply. Know that this was not vulnerability’s fault.
If I was hurt in a car accident as a child, the proper way to heal from that isn’t to never get in a car ever again. It wasn’t the car’s fault. Do you see?
There are safe ways to drive a car, and there are safe ways to be vulnerable in relationships.
You’re an adult now. You can do this.