About two years ago, I remember a friend once called me apathetic. This hit me hard, because it pointed out something about myself that I was very unhappy with. I was actually expressive in many ways– I told lots of jokes, I was outgoing, and I care about people a lot, but I was also really closed off. I essentially saw people as porcupines. I was always afraid of getting close to people because I thought they would hurt me, that if they got too close I’d find myself with a face full of quills.
This started me on a very long journey toward overcoming my own fear of vulnerability. It was only in the last year or so that I saw incredible results from this process. I found myself with a new circle of friends. Initially, we were like any group of people. We enjoyed each other’s company, but any intimacy was relatively minor. In time we became comfortable hugging, cuddling, and sharing more of our deeper selves. Eventually, we really stopped being friends and became family.
I feel like this is a struggle many people go through. We’re raised in a world that almost seems to encourage us to keep others at arm’s length. Human beings seem wired to seek and want intimacy, yet you rarely see friends comfortable with hugging let alone cuddling or sharing anything truly intimate about themselves, and even without that pressure to be “independent” and “capable”, vulnerability is hard. The very word vulnerable describes a scary state. Nobody likes the idea of being in a position where you can be easily hurt.
Going through my own journey taught me a lot about vulnerability. It was a very frustrating and stressful process for me. It challenged me in many ways. In the end, it was also incredibly rewarding. My hope in writing this is that maybe I can make somebody else’s journey easier. So here are things that I learned that helped me. Be aware that everybody is different and that the answers I got on my journey may not be the answers for your own path.
Becoming open is a marathon not a race
When I first tried to opening up, I really tried to force it to happen. I tried to hug, cuddle, and share a lot more than I was naturally comfortable with. The result was a bit catastrophic. Instead of opening up more, I actually became more closed off. It confused me at first, but I realized that the part of me scared of intimacy basically went off like an alarm activating lock-down mode. Instead of talking more, I talked less. My friends actually became concerned as I isolated myself more, and the end result was not success but frustration.
Eventually what I figured out was that I had to open up very slowly. I had to respect my comfort zone. If I wanted to cuddle, hug, or talk more I had to increase the amount by maybe 10% instead of a 100%. I only opened up more when it seemed natural to and also reasonable comfortable to. If opening up felt scary and I could feel myself closing off from people I slowed down. This naturally was very frustrating. It took me two years to be as open as I wanted, but I also found the results worth it when they finally came.
When in doubt verbalize your feelings and intentions.
During my process of opening up, I befriended somebody else who acted closed off. When I interacted with her she always seemed on guard and defensive. In particular, she was very uncomfortable around men. She was very attractive and often had guys swooning for her, and it seemed that her experience with men was that they generally wanted her body and rarely respected her as a person. To some extent, I didn’t blame those men, because I really wanted to flirt with her too.
Whenever I interacted with this girl, I felt a little bit of tension in me. I wanted to give into my natural impulses to flirt with her, but I also respected her and had no desire to add to the crap she had already gotten from men. Eventually, I just decided to actually say that, word for word. I told her ” I have been really tempted to flirt with you, but I can tell you already get a lot of crap from men, and I want to respect our friendship.”
A funny thing happened the next day. That same girl started cuddling me. She was suddenly way more open. By stating that I didn’t want to flirt with her out of respect she realized that I had no ulterior motives. She told me that when I did that, I had went from a guy she was keeping at arms length to somebody on the same level as a close platonic friend she had known for years.
This whole occurrence encouraged me to keep verbalizing my feelings. At times it was challenging, but it seemed to do wonders for me. People respond positively when you respect them and tell them what you are feeling. Especially when you say your exact concerns about a relationship. Whenever I think to, I try to share what’s going on with me internally. Initially this started small. I would say small off-hand comments like I like to flirt or to cuddle, sometimes I wish I was emotionally more open with people, etc. As I got more comfortable I would say things more directly like I would like to cuddle or flirt with you, I would like it if I could open up more to you, I want to know more about you. This seemed to work because people knew where they stood with me and exactly what I wanted or didn’t want from them. It was valuable because it created a lot more emotional security in my relationships which allowed for more opening up to happen.
When verbalizing, it’s important to accept that you can’t be perfect.
One thing that was tricky about sharing my feelings was that it’s really easy to obsess over words and timing. After a few tries I came to realize that conversation is very fluid. You can’t predict how people will interpret what you say and you just have to accept that you may blunder with your words and it’s more important to say your words clumsily than to not say them at all. I’ve also found it can very hard to find a chance to share what you want to say in a conversation. If your friends are laughing and merry it can be hard to share something depressing like that you are afraid of losing them as friends. It took some time, but eventually I learned that if something seems important to share, sometimes you just have to give up on timing and blurt it out. It’s disruptive, it’s chaotic, but it means your feelings get addressed and people know where you stand with them.
Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself.
One of the fastest ways to close yourself off is to worry about what others think. Often when I am meeting new people I unfortunately allow myself to get caught up in appearances. Don’t fall into this trap. It’s great if you can make a good impression on somebody, but if you never let somebody get past that first impression, you’ll never get close.
This led me to realize that one of the best ways to make close friends is to have a good sense of whimsy. Don’t be afraid to be very silly, talk in odd voices, or make an inappropriate joke. Every time you let yourself be silly, you tell others that it’s okay to be you. It’s okay if you are awkward, or weird, or strange, just be you.
Opening up is a personal journey and a group process.
In my experience, you can’t really open up as a person if you don’t have somebody to open up to– opening up is also a two way street. Rarely will people want to deal with all your touchy-feelies unless they feel you can do the same for them. For me, it was a group of us who learned to open up together.
A lot of it was we all seemed to value the idea of having more intimacy in our lives and we started trying to facilitate that in our group. Generally, this equated to creating a safe space. Everybody tried to push for people to open up more while at the same time respecting where people were at in terms of comfort zone. If we pushed for somebody to open up and they seemed too uncomfortable we would back off. In many ways it was a dance of encouraging intimacy but not pushing it on people.
You also need the right kind of people to open up.
There have been many times in the past where I tried to open up and it simply just failed. Usually it was because the person I was opening up to wasn’t somebody in a position to facilitate that intimacy. I learned that if you really want to open up you need to find people who are going to really support you in that endeavor. Depending on your personal circumstances these kind of people can be incredibly rare. Sometimes you have to grow a lot as a person to allow such supportive people in your life.
Here’s some traits in my friends that really helped me open up more. Ideally you want to also foster these traits within yourself. The more of these traits you have, the more you are going to be able to work with others to foster that intimacy. This is also an ideal list, you will almost never find somebody with all of these traits:
1. Speaks nice of others and does not think ill of them for whatever struggles they might be facing in life.
2. Good listening skills. Anybody who is considered the “therapist” of their friend group is really good. My circle of friends has like 4 or 5 of people who play therapist in other groups.
3. A strong desire to have a relationship with a healthy balance of give and take. No one-sidedness where only one of you shares their problems or gives help.
4. A willingness and desire to talk about very personal things such as relationships, feelings, personal struggles, etc.
5. Values physical intimacy. Things like hugs, pats on the shoulder, cuddling, etc. are considered really good and desirable in a relationship instead of weird and uncomfortable. More cuddling is perceived as a sign of a relationship moving in healthy direction and is prized.
6. Shares a desire to also open up to other people and demonstrates interest in walking that journey with you.
7. Authentic, doesn’t wear masks or at least takes off their mask when interacting with you.
8. Brutally honest, but also tactful. This can be a tricky combination to find, but it’s a lot easier to share with somebody who you know will be straight up with you while also caring for your feelings.
9. Demonstrates commitment. Tries to be proactive about spending time with you and others in your friend group. Has motivation to keep fostering intimacy with others.
10. Willing to jump out of their comfort zone. It’s hard to get out of your own comfort zone if the person you are talking to will never leave their own.
11. Good at gauging the comfort zones of others. Some of the people who really help me were people who could see my comfort zone and just slightly nudge me out of it. This meant I was learning to be more comfortable in intimate situations without ever being very overwhelmed.
12. Interconnected. There are two ways to be friends in a group. One is that you are friends with the whole group as a group. The other (interconnected) is that you are friends with with each individual within the group. When a group is very interconnected, individuals are very comfortable hanging out one on one. When a group is not interconnected, the group will more seem like a single entity. Interconnected groups promote intimacy by having each member of the group comfortable with each other.
Depending on where you are in you life, it may be hard to find people with a lot of these traits. As I said earlier opening up seems to be more of a marathon. Part of the reason it took me several years to open up was that I had to slowly move to a place emotionally where I could have people like this in my life. My advice is to seek out people who have slightly more of these traits than the people you currently spend most of your time with. It’s all about finding more intimacy than what you currently have, even if a little more is still not enough.
Images provided by Henner Zeller and Docoverachiever.