I’m Afraid of being Vulnerable

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Reader’s Question

I have a real problem with getting ‘personal’ with people. The best way I can describe it is that I’m afraid of making myself vulnerable.

I am very distant from even my best friends who I’ve had for years. It’s unbearable to show interest in any way, even if it’s just “how are you”.

Hanging out with someone one-on-one is out of the question (even my best friends) because I fear that person knowing that I like them enough to do so. I am called secretive by everyone I know.

I really have no idea what’s going on with me. Everyone I meet likes me and a lot of them try to befriend me. The only time I go anywhere is when people invite me. I avoid calling people up and telling them I want to see them, even if I’m starving for social attention.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m afraid of people seeing ‘the real me’ or what. I just know that I’m scared as hell of getting close to people, so I pull off the reserved/secretive thing. I’m 23, and this has been going on for as long as I can remember.

Psychologist’s Reply

Many people find it difficult to be vulnerable to others because of the fear of getting hurt. Quite honestly, this fear is valid, because the truth is that people will betray you, let you down and hurt your feelings. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s all worth it. Relationships are indeed the spice of life, so to avoid engaging with others because of fear is to miss out on great joy.

It doesn’t sound like you have difficulty with people wanting to be with you and it seems like you want to be around others, so the question then becomes: what happened in your life to make you so afraid of vulnerability? When young people struggle with emotional intimacy, it is frequently due to a rupture in the relationship they had with their parents or caregivers. Perhaps someone who should have been dependable and nurturing was not, and the fact that you needed them to be was difficult to manage. Another reason for such a fear is when children grow up in families that are emotionally disconnected, and thus they don’t know how to be close to others. This is particularly true in families that deal with addiction, because the illness fosters secrecy. Children are encouraged never to confide in others lest they destroy the family.

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Insight is often helpful, but it isn’t the only method of resolving concerns. One way of dealing with fear is to face it head-on and manage the anxiety. Expect that the first few times you confront the situation, it will be extremely uncomfortable for you. Figure out ways to manage the anxiety. Common strategies for this include deep breathing, distraction and positive self-talk. Once you have a plan, put it into action. In your situation, this could mean calling the friend you trust the most and asking to get together. You may want to do something that wouldn’t require a lot of talking, like going to a play or a movie. If that is not possible, then perhaps limiting the time spent at first may be helpful. Keep in mind that confronting anxiety is the only way to move beyond it, because anxiety only feeds on itself. Seeing that you will survive is essential.

While you may not yet be ready for it, eventually you may want to consider going to counseling to help you resolve this situation. Counseling can be very intense and personal, but knowing that your counselor cannot be your friend could be liberating. Some people find that revealing themselves to an objective third party is easier than talking with someone whom they know well and will see in social situations.

Regardless of whether you seek counseling, I do hope that you work on feeling more comfortable sharing yourself with others. Friendships are among the most rewarding of relationships and they offer a lot of benefits. Friends are people with whom you can laugh, share common interests, vent frustrations and lift you up when you are down. They are people who help you grow and figure out what you want from life. As someone once said, “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” For that kind of a relationship, it is worth ignoring the fear of vulnerability and heartbreak because of the joy that it brings. I hope you don’t deny yourself that.

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