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Vulnerability in friendships can be hard.
How often do you answer the question “how are you” with an automatic “fine, thanks, you?” Why is that? Recently, I have been challenging myself; trying to dig deeper into what it looks like to be vulnerable in our friendships.
There are times, of course, when you actually are ‘fine.’ There are also times when you are not, but the relational dynamics or the situation means openly expressing yourself is not appropriate.
However, those of us struggling with mental health problems, more than most, can find ourselves unable to be real with people in the circumstances which would mean we could deepen trust in relationships.
There are two useful, yet hard, aspects to answering the seemingly simple ‘how are you?’ honestly.
We need to be able to actually connect with our emotions and state of mind, and also feel safe enough or brave enough to express that to the other person.
Here are some ways to be more vulnerable with your friends:
1. Connecting with emotions
Blocking out feelings, however, we may do it, is a common coping mechanism.
Sometimes it can be a habit carried through from difficult times; the avoidance of experiencing emotion for a period of time can mean it then becomes completely overwhelming to connect again. Numbness can also be a symptom of many illnesses, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.
A useful way to increase your tolerance for experiencing emotion is to build up the time you ‘sit with the feeling,’ before distracting yourself.
Even if you begin with 5 seconds, it can be a brilliant tool.
2. Expressing emotions
I have always found expressing my emotions difficult.
My therapist has always asked me how I feel at the beginning and end of every session, and it remains the time in our meetings she tells me I seem the most uncomfortable! Therapy is a situation in which being real and vulnerable is not only appropriate but an important part of making progress.
Of course, it wouldn’t be helpful or sensible to share our deepest dreams and difficulties with everyone. But it is so healthy to have a select few close friends or family members with whom you can be open and honest.
It might be easier to write a letter, text or email to begin with. Almost always, the first vulnerable conversation is the hardest.
For me, this was usually “I have anorexia/anxiety/depression,” which then opened up opportunities for more discussion at later points. It also means you are able to ‘test the water’ and see if the person is able to relate to what you are struggling with.
So often, this vulnerability opens doors and creates opportunities for others to share the aspects of their lives they have also been keeping in the shadows.
For them, even being able to say “me too” could be the first step in huge positive change being made in their life.
We need to use the painful parts of our lives to cultivate real, vulnerable exchanges — bringing something powerfully good out of our struggles. We need to be real in order to allow others to be real.
3. Building honest connection
What is holding us back? The answer to this will be personal to each of us, but it’s likely that many of the reasons are rooted in fear.
To share honestly and openly is taking a risk.
Letting someone in means they have a greater role in your life and heart, and therefore, they matter.
Their actions can hurt us more, they know the parts of us we are most ashamed of. I can often slip into the mindset of being afraid to be vulnerable with people because I know if they reject the ‘real me,’ it will be painful.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but, if someone rejects you because of your struggles, they weren’t someone who is open-minded or accepting enough to foster a deep friendship with anyways. No-one has to be an expert in your specific problems.
Friends who are vulnerable together just need to be able to make each other feel safe, whatever that looks like.
There is no shortcut to intimate, vulnerable friendships.
It is likely to be messy and difficult along the way, but being able to build and maintain it is a huge part of recovery from any mental health difficulty.
Ultimately, seeking vulnerability is about making a decision.
Would I rather live a solitary life, keeping everyone at arms length so they can’t reject or abandon me? Or would I rather take the risk in order to have meaningful relationships, invest in people around me, allow them to invest in me, and feel connected and supported?
Let me challenge all of us to consider this question today.
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