At an event I attended, a storyteller described the level of human connection that can be created through sharing our stories, and the still deeper connection that can be created when we “remove our masks” with another person, revealing all of our true selves to each other, seeing all of the other person’s true self. “I take off my mask, you take off your mask, and we see each other, all of each other,” he said. There are few things more powerful in human connection than being able to say “I see you” or “see me”. The beautiful connection he described is what happens when we are fully vulnerable and fully take in someone else’s vulnerability, when we share our whole selves and our whole stories.
In the years since, the point has stayed with me, along with the beautiful imagery.
Vulnerability—it makes us giggle uncomfortably, it makes us put up barriers and shields to avoid feeling it, it makes us act brashly, and sometimes against our own interests, to resolve the discomfort when we do feel it, the fear of it hurts connections, the fear of it makes us not take chances that we should, and bad experiences of when we were vulnerable and not treated well can haunt us and linger.
Vulnerability is also powerful. In vulnerability we gain a better understanding of ourselves, we form meaningful connections with other people, we make it possible for other people to see us and meet our needs, we take risks that can generate great rewards, we magnify and uplift each other in ways that we simply cannot in its absence, we gain a better understanding of our shared humanity.
Moments where people are vulnerable or recognize the vulnerability of another person are full of magic, and the potential for magic.
There are certain people who I’ve bonded with over the years through very limited interactions, where deep and meaningful friendships have emerged despite continued limited interactions—meeting at a conference, knowing each other only tangentially and then moving to separate cities, etc. When I think of what formed the basis of those bonds, I think it was, even more than commonality, a willingness to be vulnerable. We connected and formed deep connections instantly because our masks were off in at least some of the time that we spent together.
A friend was just passing through town a few months ago and he swung by my apartment to catch up. When he did, he ended up confiding that he was in a rough spot emotionally—the concerns and fears he was dealing with tumbled out. He was open and vulnerable. He took off his mask and didn’t bother with the easy veneer of “everything is great”, hiding his pain and struggles. We talked about what he was dealing with; I gave him support and love. I checked in on him later to ask how everything was going. More recently, when I was having a rough moment, I admitted it in a text exchange when he asked how I was and we chatted about it. He offered me support and love and made me laugh.
We shared each other’s burdens, and in doing so lightened the load, at least a bit. But, it is much more than that—we let the person who was sharing talk things through and learn about himself/herself and we let the person who was sharing be authentically himself/herself and authentically human (fears, irrational thoughts, etc.) and be heard and seen, without shame. Both things build that person’s capacity to know and stay true to themselves in more situations in the future, both things help them to continue to grow into themselves, both things help them to figure out life. And the person who shared let the other person know him/her better, an offer of a deeper friendship, greater intimacy, and a more meaningful (and magical) connection.
The way people respond to their partners’ bids for affection is the biggest predictor of successful romantic relationships. Relatedly, the way we respond to another’s vulnerability, when offered, matters. It is relationship altering and can have a profound impact on the other person. It is something to be mindful of. Do you recognize when someone else is vulnerable? What do you do in response?
How often are you brave enough to be vulnerable? Could you do it in more situations? With the right people, there is ultimately more safety (and reward) in being vulnerable than in holding back, even though it may seem counterintuitive and feel risky.
Practice and affirmation are just as important in developing the skill of being vulnerable as they are when developing other skills. If we want to bring a little bit more magic into our lives and the world more broadly, vulnerability is a good place to start—taking off our masks more often and doing a better job of being supportive when others take off theirs.