Dear Alistair

Dear Alistair,

My partner says that I have a vulnerability problem. He feels that I almost never make myself vulnerable within our relationship, and that this prevents us from really connecting with each other and stops our relationship from developing further. He has recently said that our relationship is going to die eventually because of this! I don’t like to feel vulnerable because I fear rejection. What can I do?

As your husband points out, vulnerability is directly related to connecting with others at a deep level. If two people within a relationship want to really connect with each other at a deep or meaningful level, they have to be vulnerable with each other. In fact, vulnerability within an intimate relationship is crucial for the long-term health of that relationship, especially if it is something that one of the individuals desires and/or needs. This appears to be the case in your relationship.

You may be partly, or largely, correct in interpreting your avoidance of vulnerability as being the result of a fear of being rejected, but there is usually more to it, as I will try to explain below.

Firstly, research suggests that connecting with other people is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. And connection, the ability to feel connected to others, is neurobiological, i.e. this is how we are wired as a species.

So, what is it that prevents a person from connecting with others? I think that shame plays an important role because shame can be understood as the inherent fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know or see, I won’t be worthy of connection? Shame appears to be universal; almost everyone experiences it. Shame means “I’m not good enough, thin enough, rich enough, etc… for anyone to want to connect with” The thing that underpins this appears to be excruciating vulnerability, the idea that, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be fully seen and/or known.

Shame, it seems, is linked to a sense of worthiness. People feel worthy when they have a sense of worthiness, that is they have a strong sense of love and belonging. People who struggle for this sense of worthiness are always wondering if they’re good enough. People who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. They believe they’re worthy of connecting with. The fear that we’re not worthy of connection keeps us out of connecting.

And so people who are able to be vulnerable have, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They have the compassion to be kind to themselves and, thus, to let go of who they think they should be in order to be who they are, which you have to do for deep and meaningful connection.

People who are able to be vulnerable are able to say, “I love you” first, when there are no guarantees. They’re willing to invest completely in a relationship that may or may not work out.