Facilitating Vulnerability- Part 1

Being vulnerable, that is revealing inner or deeper feelings may be something that an individual- particularly a teenager may be somewhere from highly comfortable and familiar to completely distressing and foreign. Keeping secrets or being secretive seems to be the normal operating process for many teenagers! Many boys or men, in particular being vulnerable violates their fundamental “man codes” of self-denial and stoicism. Or, on the other hand there may be girls or women for whom silent suffering is expected, while overt expression may have been punished. A teenager can pick up these values and behaviors from experiences and modeling from family dynamics. This could include having lived in an alcoholic family system to various conscious and unconscious cultural models- as well as religious values. Not to be discounted are media influences on how to be “tough” or “cool” that emphasize not expressing feelings to others. On the other hand, some teenagers may be very willing and ready to be vulnerable with others.

Early or quick willingness to share vulnerabilities may be indicative of a relatively open and secure relational style. Early vulnerability often helps develop quick rapport with a new person. Sometimes, in a new relationship one can overtly ask the other of his or her expectations of expressed vulnerability, including how another’s vulnerability affects him or her. Or, it may be very subtly expressed- often, non-verbally in actions and body language and tone.

There can be differences that appear early that are later fairly observable between men and women in four aspects of relationship quality: Intimacy, Agreement, Independence, and Sexuality. Women score higher than men on the intimacy factor. They tend do more intimate self-disclosure than men. Women also enact more intimacy behaviors such providing emotional support. This difference can be noticeable often be seen in young girls and teenagers. Despite gender differences in behaviors, for both men and women there is similar strong belief in the importance on intimacy in the relationship. Men tend to find maintaining harmony as more critical to the relationship than women. Not surprisingly, they also tend to be more conflict-avoidant. A study found that the following features seemed most valuable for the relationship: taking time for each other, talking with each other, empathy, listening to each other, taking interest in the partner, consideration, and so forth. Improvement in these features can then also be interpreted as improving relationship. These features and improvement would be applicable to relationships between a teenager and a parent or adult.

 Who Can Hurt You

Intimacy reinforces the relationship between people by sharing and responding supportively vulnerable behavior and expression, but it also increases personal vulnerability. Teenagers can become uniquely sensitive and develop increased potential to being hurt by someone close to them. Often insecure in this developmental stage, teenagers can be more sensitive to being hurt while being highly vigilant about getting hurt. With challenges in a relationship, purposeful and accidental injuries can be frequent and emotionally challenging. No one can hurt you as much as the person you love or really care about. That could be a teenager’s girlfriend or boyfriend, BFF, or parent… or important adult authority figure such as a coach, minister, or teacher. No one else is allowed to be as close to you, to know you as well, or to have the opportunity or more opportunities to clumsily or purposely hurt you as that close person. Someone can have a dream where a close person is cold or mean, and one will wake up depressed and upset! When close to another, how often or how badly vulnerability is violated depends on each teenager’s makeup.

A teenager’s or anyone’s responses also depend on earlier experiences. Negative experiences can include or result in poor emotional skills, interpersonal hurt is enacted as retaliation, withdrawal, defensiveness, hostility, or avoidance, diminishing intimacy, and poor overall relationship health. On the other hand, positive relationship are more predicted with adequate emotional skills, interpersonal hurt is enacted as self–disclosure, confident emotional communication, repair seeking, positive approach, appropriate self–care, forgiveness, relationship–enhancing attributions, and assertive communication, maintaining intimacy and enhancing relationship health. Of course, emotionally healthy and secure teenagers (and others) are less likely to hurt their close personal intimates in the first place.

As relationships (especially early developmentally formative relationships) affect emotional skills, emotional skills affect subsequent relationships. The emotional skill level of a teenager affects trust and vulnerability, which are highly linked and essential to intimacy. Trust allows for a teenager to make personal disclosures or engage in behaviors that expose one or more vulnerabilities. An exposed vulnerability puts the individual at risk, hopefully with someone who will honor the trust. Hopefully, that someone (another teenager!?) has the emotional skills to honor the vulnerability and trust. When another person including an adult offers vulnerability, trust, and intimacy, it creates a sanction- an expectation of reciprocity from the recipient. A message has been sent, there is an anticipated experience by the recipient, and a response… specifically, and a response-in-kind is expected. The recipient of a self-disclosure sees the intimacy level of the disclosure as indicating the sender’s trust and liking. The recipient feels socially rewarded and, as a consequence, likes the person who self-disclosed. With some adult interactions with a difficult teenager, the adult does not get what he or she anticipated. Instead of being rewarded, he or she may feel punished. The reciprocal process has not worked as it should have.

 How It Works

  • “If I show my vulnerabilities to you… if I open my heart and reveal my anxieties, fears, hopes, joys, needs, dreams, injuries, and traumas to you, I honor you. I honor you by revealing my vulnerabilities, implicitly saying I think and have hope that you are a kind, sensitive, and caring person who will honor my vulnerabilities… that you will hold them gently and respond with respect and care.
  •  If I don’t show my vulnerabilities to you… if I hide my heart and feelings, I dishonor you. I dishonor you by hiding myself, implicitly saying I think that you are unkind, insensitive, and uncaring unworthy of sharing my vulnerabilities with.

Then there are two types of responses from you. First, if you hold my vulnerabilities with sensitivity and caring… great! You show me that you are a kind person and worthy of my taking a risk in investing a bit of trust in you.

On the other hand, if you abuse my vulnerabilities… if you doubt, question, or insult my anxieties, fears, hopes, joys, needs, dreams, injuries, and traumas, you dishonor me… you betray my hope that you are a kind, sensitive, and caring person. The beginnings of mistrust color my sense of you.”

This is only the beginning of the process however. The first person (teenager or adult) has risked trusting the other person, and if he or she came through, all is going well. If the other person did not come through, mistrust has begun to build. If the response was positive, sharing vulnerability appears to work to build trust, intimacy, and the relationship. However, does it… will it work the other direction? Will it be reciprocated? This may be between a teenager and a friend, or between two partners, or any two persons.

  •  “And, now it’s your turn. If you show your vulnerabilities to the other person, to me for example… if you open your heart and reveal your anxieties, fears, hopes, joys, needs, dreams, injuries, and traumas to me as well, you honor me. You honor me and further confirm my (or the other person) first risking revealing vulnerabilities. Your sharing shows that you return the trust. You hold me as a kind, sensitive, and caring person that you are willing to trust with your vulnerabilities. You have reciprocated my investment and trust in you.

However, if you don’t show your vulnerabilities to me… if you hide your emotions, you disappoint and betray me. Your withholding makes me feel you think I am unworthy, unkind, insensitive, and uncaring. The relationship becomes unequal with my sharing and you keeping secrets.”

This might be already consistent with a teenager’s relational value system and practice. In that case, then communication and the relationship with the teenager would tend to be a positive one.


On the other hand, revealing or honoring vulnerability may be alien because of cultural models and/or family dynamics. There may be a mismatch between a teenager and another such as the adult. If this mismatch is unarticulated and implicit expectations are assumed to be binding, then the relationships can become quite strained. Unfamiliar communication may be subject to problematic speculation. For example, the teenager or the other person may present an intimate side of themselves too early in the relationship. This could make the recipient either uncomfortable- (“Why are you telling me that? I’m not ready to expose myself to someone I don’t know well enough yet”). If the disclosure comes from someone not well known it is not readily trusted. However from someone close- someone with whom there is already some intimacy, it is viewed as a sign of trust and more likely to be reciprocated. Expecting a teenager one has just met to automatically engage in reciprocal vulnerability and sharing may be unfounded. Worse yet, it may result in a disastrous relationship.

Yet and of importance is that disclosure or expression of vulnerability tends to prompt reciprocal disclosure even if the recipient is not normally disposed to reveal him or herself. Someone who uses self-disclosure with a teenager may be “priming the pump” to get the teenager to “flow.” A parent being open and honest about his or her adolescent or current struggles with life (alcohol, drugs, sex/relationships, career goals or aspirations, etc.) may prompt similar disclosure from the teenager. Reversing the normal authoritative positions may be beneficial- that is, ask the teenager for assistance. Perhaps, let the teenager be the helper. “Tell me (the adult), what’s not working in the schools?” “What’s most annoying about doing it this way? Help me understand.” Sometimes, a person may be able to respond to the needs of another person- that is, help, but may not be able to show vulnerability to another. Being sensitive, kind, nurturing, helping, or supporting another can keep the “helper” in a superior hierarchal position. The “helper” stays in a dominant position to the subordinate position of the “helped.” Some men who have been raised to be the “big dog” or the alpha male can readily assume the role of the gallant knight able to save a damsel in distress or to slay a fierce dragon. A teenager may find the role empowering. Conversely, a person may sense being in need or revealing vulnerability becomes tantamount to becoming the damsel in distress- an unacceptable role for many individuals- perhaps, especially some insecure teenagers. Other family or cultural patterns vary on the acceptability of exposing ones vulnerability. These patterns or models can become problematic when carried into any relationship that is supposed to be intimate. The second person needs to not only respond to the first individual’s vulnerability but also to expose his or her own vulnerability. This becomes an implicit golden rule of the intimate relationship- to expose oneself or else one insults the other as being unworthy of holding ones vulnerabilities. An unaware or unsophisticated adult may feel disrespected if the teenager is unable or unwilling to reveal him or herself. And, may pathologize the reaction as teenage resistance rather than indicative of important values and behaviors.

Given the opportunity to respond to the second person’s vulnerability,

  • “If I treat your vulnerabilities with sensitivity and caring, I confirm to you that I am a kind person and worthy of your trust… worthy of risking intimacy.

If I abuse your vulnerabilities… if I doubt, question, or insult your anxieties, fears, hopes, joys, needs, dreams, injuries, and traumas, I dishonor you… I betray your hope that I am a kind, sensitive, and caring person. The beginnings of mistrust will color your sense of me.”

Honored and Reciprocated

Mistreatment, which consists of failing to hold vulnerabilities with kindness, will break down a relationship. Mistrust or trust grows as the process cycles repeatedly. Unfortunately, some teenagers and adults- particularly their parents have cycled negatively to dysfunctional relationships. On the other hand, if both individuals- for example, the teenager and an adult respond well and honor each other’s vulnerabilities, trust and an intimate relationship grow a little bit with each interaction. The growth prompts two people to risk further vulnerability with each other. As further vulnerability is honored and reciprocated, gradually greater trust and a more intimate relationship grow. Over and over, continued positive consistent interactions build a stable healthy relationship. If one or both persons- either the teenager or the adult respond poorly to each other’s vulnerabilities or withhold vulnerability, then mistrust grows and intimacy fades. In problematic teenager and adult relationship has often has suffered inadequate interactions around sharing vulnerability. It can be very beneficial to bring this to a conscious level for discussion, examination, and adaptation. As a negative cycle may have developed, both persons are contributing to perpetuate it. In other words, either person can also change his or her pattern of response or action to something more positive. “You go first” changes to “whoever can go first, should go first.” And both are “wrong” for not doing something more positive. That may be in risking being vulnerable… first.





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