E03: How to deepen relationships
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Humans require connection. We are hardwired to live with other human beings and to feel known by them. The way we live today tends to lack meaningful connection and forces us to be very intentional in order to build relationships. Therein lies the challenge. The more intentional we have to be, the more we open ourselves up to pain and rejection. How can you overcome this fear of rejection to become more vulnerable and increase your connection with others?
This is a podcast transcript. If you would like to listen to the show in full, please find it on our podcasts page here.
Hello everyone! I am so excited to talk about friendships and relationships today. Is there any greater gift in this world than the gift of connecting with others? I feel like a lot of content is geared toward work-life balance, home organization, child rearing, exercise, and more. These are all great things to talk about and some of them are easy, fast solutions you can put into place right away. But how often do you stop to think about how enriching a great friendship can be? It takes time, work, and courage, but its value lasts a lifetime. Today we are going to talk about how vulnerability plays a key role in human connection and how fear of rejection prevents us from getting the closeness we crave. We are also going to bust the myth that it’s too hard to make friends as an adult. I’m really passionate about this topic because it’s been so influential in my life as I shift my priorities from things like work to motherhood and being a more peaceful person.
I feel like vulnerability gets a bad reputation. After all, it is the state of being exposed and defenseless. In a survival situation, vulnerability can mean death. Fortunately, modern life is cushy and most of us are surviving just fine. If you have time to listen to this podcast, I doubt you’re also outrunning a bear. If you are, hats off to you. You’re an amazing multitasker! Vulnerability in human relationships also includes exposure and requires courage, but of a different kind. When we are vulnerable, we are open to pain and rejection. But we are also open to love, connection, creativity, and achievement. We have to figure out how to navigate the fear of rejection in order to be vulnerable and intentional in relationships.
My definition of vulnerability in the context of human relationships is: having the courage to be authentically yourself and having compassion for the imperfections of others. Repeat that.
We tend to think of big moments of vulnerability like when you say “I love you” first. But life is made up of millions of mundane, little moments wherein we can choose to put ourselves out there or withdraw. Where we can push a relationship further or let it stall. Vulnerability in the mundane could look like:
Rubbing your spouse’s back when they’ve had a bad day, not knowing if they’ll accept it
Reaching out to a friend and telling them you’d like to hang out, even though they’ve canceled on you a few times
Telling someone something about yourself that you find shameful or hurtful
Apologizing for something, even if the other person isn’t asking for it
Asking for help if you’re feeling unwell
Hanging out one-on-one instead of in a group setting
And many many more daily mundane moments
For me, I feel very vulnerable saying what I’m saying to all of you right now
Each of these instances carries the potential for rejection and for acceptance. When we hold ourselves back, we are often fearful of how others will think of us or judge us and opt for self-protection instead. Or we fear a lack of understanding or compassion, thinking our situation is shameful and our pain is unique. I’m sure we can all think of a time when we held ourselves back for fear of failure, judgment, or rejection. The root of these fears is shame in yourself. This posture shows a lack of compassion for yourself and a lack of trust in others. But a posture of vulnerability is key to feeling comfortable in your own skin and connecting with others authentically.
Exposing yourself to others and fully investing in relationships requires courage. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of fear. It is when you’re aware of the risk but you act anyway, with hope for a positive outcome. Vulnerability might get less of a bad reputation if we saw it as an act of courage and focused on the good things it can bring to our lives. It is the starting point for most creativity and connection; we wouldn’t have love or achievement if we weren’t willing to be vulnerable. In the case of connection, you can feel unburdened and create deeper relationships by being authentically vulnerable and empowering others to feel the same way. It’s exhausting being inauthentic but it’s freeing when you can be yourself.
It’s odd that I would be an advocate for vulnerability when, until just a few years ago, I was very closed off and fearful in relationships and social situations. I thought I was just being a good introvert. I felt resolute and strong but simultaneously lacking meaningful friendships and didn’t understand why. In hindsight, I was afraid of rejection due to various things I was ashamed of that ranged from tiny - I didn’t like my teeth when I smiled so I would avoid smiling - to huge - I was ashamed to let people see my failures and flaws. So, though I was present socially, I wasn’t very engaged and didn’t go beneath the surface very often. I stayed where I felt safe in conversations and avoided situations that would require me to go deeper.
However, in one spontaneous moment in my life I learned the power of vulnerability when I shared something huge. A few years ago I started attending a weekly meeting with a group of about 20 ladies from my church but I only knew one of them. I used her heavily as a social crutch, as was my normal mode of operation. Our lesson included journaling about a time we trusted in God. My story was deeply private and I was ashamed of some things I had done. I wrote down all of the details in my little journal and then - to my horror - they asked if we would like to share. I did not have to share it and did not plan to. I could have left that night without speaking at all and no one would have missed hearing my story. But something in me compelled me to speak. As they moved through the group and, one by one, people shared or passed, I wrestled with this urge and tried to squash it. It overpowered me and, when it came time to share my story, I just started reading. And instead of skipping over the shameful parts, I told the entire ugly truth. I was terrified and cried while I did it.
Almost immediately, two things happened that have forever shifted my perspective on vulnerability and shame. 1) I no longer felt as burdened by my shame. Once I brought it to light and said it out loud, it lost some of its power over me. 2) Afterward, two other people came up to me to thank me for sharing and to tell me that they went through the same thing I had. All three of us had previously felt alone but that evening we learned that we weren’t alone in our pain and were able to experience a deeper connection. One of them was a part of a book group at YMCA where people discussed similar issues and I was able to join that group and learn a lot. More on that later in the podcast, though.
What started as another mundane moment turned into a life-altering event for me. Going through that experience enabled me to see power in vulnerability. It has the power to bring people together when you least expect it. And it can bring you strength by removing the burden of your pain, shame, hurt, or rejection. There is strength in being authentic and vulnerable, even in these small moments.
I started to experiment with vulnerability in friendships, with the hypothesis that, as I shared myself, others would feel less alone in their suffering and be more likely to share themselves. That hypothesis turned out to be true in most cases. An unforeseen side effect of this experiment was compassion. Learning more about other people and the extent that we all share pain and shame increased my compassion toward others and increased my desire to connect with people I previously would have avoided. This process revealed who my friends really are. Many people came into my life and became closer friends because we started to bond over our shared experiences. To my surprise, in the hundreds of times I’ve put myself out there, I have only received one truly negative response. And that negative response didn’t crush me - it just revealed that I couldn’t trust that person. That’s ok. We aren’t friends now.
When I revealed last week that I had had a miscarriage in my podcast and in my blog on my website, youruncommonlife.com, it was the first time I had done so publicly. Previously only a handful of people knew about it. I was nervous at first...but why? What’s the worst that could happen? I’m not sure but I do know that the best thing that could happen is that other women who have gone through one might feel less alone. That’s amazing. That’s powerful.
I believe I have adopted a posture of vulnerability and I’ve made it my mission to encourage others to be more courageously authentic and vulnerable as well.
So if vulnerability is so great, why aren’t we vulnerable more often? As I said earlier, generally, we fear rejection and subconsciously believe that any rejection is personal.
We build up layers to protect ourselves from rejection and these layers prevent us from being truly known by others. There are many forms of deflection and self-protection from sarcasm to general withdrawal to overt deception and unkindness. If you do these things, you can keep people at arm’s length so they can’t hurt you and you don’t ever have to feel uncomfortable. There are less obvious layers, too, that you might use to keep people away and I’ll go over them now. It’s important to know what your layer is so that you can start to intentionally peel it back. You want to know how to build true friendships as an adult? This is how. Start by identifying and then peeling back your layers.
1. Layer #1: You edit yourself. Maybe you’ve been burned before by putting yourself out there and have put up your defenses. When people judge us, sometimes we internalize it, assuming that their opinions are important. As we internalize rejection we feel shame and guilt about either a part of our personality or a part of our history and we start to hide or alter it. Fearing judgment gives people power over us. We give people the power to decide which parts of ourselves are worthy to reveal and which aren’t. When you’re inauthentic or hold parts of yourself back for fear of judgment or rejection, you are giving others power over who you get to be. This extends from in-person conversations to social media.
Fear of rejection becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You want connection, but are afraid to put yourself out there so you stay in your shell. So, true connection never comes. And then you think, “Well, people don’t like me now, so why would they like me if they got to know all of me?” You withdraw even further, assuming that sticking your neck out would only worsen the situation. This doesn’t mean you live like a hermit. Maybe you are still social, but you keep conversations light and fun or only hang out in groups, avoiding the discomfort of one-on-one time.
2. Layer #2: You numb yourself. Perhaps you’ve become so good at numbing yourself that you think you are doing fine. Without even knowing it, many of us have adopted numbing coping mechanisms to protect ourselves from rejection. We do things to excess to distract ourselves: drinking, eating, drugs, including legitimate prescription medications, using our phones, practicing a hobby, working, or just staying excessively busy. Anything to keep us from authentic, meaningful connection. Social media in particular provides a farce for friendship that makes authenticity and vulnerability even more elusive.
3. Layer #3: You’re ashamed of yourself. We also create our own shame and guilt, without input from others at all. We get in our own heads. There is likely something about yourself that you are not proud of. Something you wish you wouldn’t have done or wish wouldn’t have happened to you. You think it makes you imperfect and unacceptable. So you bury it. You don’t bring it to light. But when our shame stays in the darkness it weighs on us and lies to us. It tells us we are not worthy of acceptance. But God forgives and he loves everyone. Are you greater than God, that you get to withhold forgiveness and love from yourself? This is another layer that prevents you from being known.
4. Layer #4: You are lazy and prefer comfort. This might rub you the wrong way but, we are all lazy and prefer comfort. It is genuinely uncomfortable opening up, getting to know someone else, and investing in a relationship. It is uncomfortable reaching out to a friend for help or advice. And often we simply let our need for comfort override our need to be known and accepted. Time moves on, our relationships stall or fall away, and we start to wonder why we don’t have many meaningful friendships.
5. Layer #5: You invest less and self-sabotage. Self-sabotage in friendships is sneaky and might not be obvious. It can look like investing yourself only at the surface level. If, in a relationship, you don’t go deep and get vulnerable, when that relationship fails, you don’t need to take it personally because you never really revealed yourself. The rejection isn’t a reflection on you because that person never really got to know you. It’s not just the surface fear that someone would not be interested in spending time with you or not respond to a text. It’s a deeper fear that their actions are a rejection of your personhood. People can’t reject you if you don’t let them too close. But if you’re never sharing all of yourself - sharing your deeply held beliefs, dreams, and motivations, then you are never letting someone get to know you. How many people in your life know you that deeply?
So, which of these layers have you put over yourself? How can you start to peel them back? I know I have been guilty of all of these layers in some way or another throughout my years. All of these layers reduce the authenticity I bring to the table in relationships. They may manifest themselves differently for you. But they all come from the same place. The place where we let our insecurities take root and believe lies that something about us is shameful. These are all symptoms of misplaced power to other people - that their acceptance of you somehow affects your emotional well-being. This transfer of power becomes crippling and anxiety-inducing over time as we are regularly greeted with the hard truth that we’ve given power to people that we can’t control and that will let us down.
We can overcome our fear of rejection and be more intentional and vulnerable in the relationships we have right now. That’s right - the secret to getting more comfortable with vulnerability is just doing it. But, we will start small.
Let’s assess your willingness to be vulnerable with sharing information about yourself. Is there anything that your close friends, family members, or a partner does not know about you? What has prevented you from telling them? Flip the situation around - if there was something about these people that you didn’t know, would you want them to be comfortable telling you? Would you have compassion for them if they shared it with you? Of course you would. A true friend does.
I’d like to challenge you to courageously shed your layers here. This is something you can do right away. Reveal that thing that people don’t know about you to those who are close to you. But before you do, tell yourself in advance that, no matter how they react, you will be ok. Do not make your being ok contingent on how they react. Do not have expectations that they will have any particular reaction. Life moves on and true friends will stick around.
The things that we need to be vulnerable about are often the things that hurt us. We might choose to hide something that’s happened to us or something we’ve done wrong. There’s a negative emotion, like shame, fear, pain, anger, or hatred tied to our pain. If we aren’t vulnerable and keep it inside, it’s extremely challenging, if not impossible, to unburden ourselves of that negative emotion. It festers. But everytime we say our vulnerability out loud, we reduce its power over us and become a little more unburdened. Another positive outcome is that, the people we unburden ourselves to might see a little bit of themselves in your struggle and feel motivated to share as well.
If you don’t have anything to share, maybe you have something to apologize for. This is an equally uncomfortable, vulnerable thing to do. But it’s so necessary for closeness. Apologize even if the other people didn’t ask for it and even if they don’t accept it. Just like a pain or hurt, a withheld apology can also weigh us down and damage relationships. But when you clear the air, you can unburden yourself and deepen relationships.
The second is more of a habit to adopt for life. When you love people, love them despite their imperfections, and let them know that you love them no matter what. Make sure people don’t feel condemned when they expose themselves to you. Make sure that love is unconditional. If they screw up your reaction is: “I love you. I’m with you. You hurt me, but I love you.” The effect is that they will feel more worthy of love and therefore more likely to be willing to be vulnerable or to show a similar love to others. And when you demonstrate compassion to others for their imperfections, you may find that you have more grace for yourself and your own. Obviously, if it’s a toxic relationship, don’t let that person near you. But, for the most part, people don’t intend to hurt you and grace goes a long way.
Now that you are feeling more comfortable sharing a piece of yourself in your existing relationships, let’s talk about getting more intentional in developing and deepening relationships.
Have you ever told yourself that it’s just too hard to make deep friendships as an adult? There is some truth to that statement. It is harder than as a child. As a child, you had less fear of judgment and were more open. You had exposure to the same people every day at school. You didn’t have the distractions of romantic relationships, children, or work. But it’s not impossible to make deep friendships as an adult. You can start with the relationships you already have. You likely are acquainted with many people - but how many of them do you truly know? How many know your deepest desires, dreams, and fears?
I have made some of my deepest friendships as an adult. Not because I’m popular or special. Far from it. I’m awkward and often speak too loudly when I get excited. But I’ve taken a few intentional steps toward deepening relationships. I actually had to create these opportunities myself rather than wait for them to come to me. It’s required me to be ok with sticking my neck out and being vulnerable but it’s been 1000% worth it. This does not feel natural to me. I’m pretty introverted and was never a super social person.
First of all, I have decided to make myself solely responsible for deepening a relationship. It opens me up to risk and rejection to put myself out there. But it is also the most effective way to reach someone. It’s not very effective to wait for the other person. Don’t make your investment in a relationship contingent on the other person’s investment. It is a lie that relationships are 50/50. Relationships are 100% period. 100% on you. There is no second number because you can’t be concerned by the effort of the other person if you want to be successful. If you are concerned about the other person’s investment, you give that person power over how invested you are. You let them edit you.
Remember how I said people are lazy and prefer comfort? The desire for comfort is at odds with the desire to be known. When people don’t respond to a text or cancel on me, I choose not to take it personally. Usually, it isn’t! Can’t you think of a time where you just forgot to get back to someone? Anyway, it’s not my job to worry about why they cancelled. It’s only my job to be friendly and reach out and put in my 100%. As long as I do my part, then I have controlled what I can. Therefore their reaction isn’t my fault and isn’t a reflection on me.
Another thing I did was get intentional with booking time with people. I got tired of waiting for people to nail dates on a calendar or get back to me. It was too hard to get groups of friends together at the same time - back when we could meet as groups. Often months would go by and I wouldn’t see people because we just sucked at getting a firm date. You know those conversations where you say “we should get together sometime” and the other person says “Yes, let me know next time you’re free” and then NOTHING happens? I decided to be the person to make things happen. This is as simple as getting very specific and direct. Say “I would like to see you. Are you free Wednesday or Thursday next week?” If they aren’t, ask them when they are free until you have a date or they stop talking to you!
With groups of people, what I’ve started doing is having a monthly standing date. The same Saturday of every month this year, my friends and I have done an outdoor distanced hangout. Yes, even in Washington. This last Saturday, my bones froze but it was worth it. It is the same day every month - can you make it or can’t you? Because I’ll be there. If you aren’t comfortable with something like that, make it a Zoom event or online event. Whatever you do, make it happen. Stop letting months go by simply because people are noncommittal. People will always be noncommittal but you can only control yourself - make yourself be different. Even in these challenging times where it’s hard to see people in person...especially in these challenging times...it’s so important that we find a way to connect with others. Can you meet people outdoors, in smaller groups, or set up video calls? Make it happen so that a year won’t go by while friendships stall or backslide.
I think another reason we have fewer deep friendships than we’d like is that we put pressure on ourselves to have friends for years, or even for life. If we don’t see how we could stay friends for very long, we put in less effort. Lack of investment rears its ugly head again. But this isn’t always feasible and it isn’t really how relationships work. Friends for a season can actually have a great impact. Sometimes people are put into your life for a specific purpose. Remember how I told my story to a group of strangers and ended up getting invited to a book group? That book group was life changing for me. It was full of women who were completely open and vulnerable and fully devoted to supporting each other. Whenever one of us would reach out with a need, everyone else showed up. It was only supposed to last a few weeks. I could have easily held back and not invested in these people. Thankfully, I did invest and the group ended up lasting about a year. I met with these people weekly and, through all of our deep sharing, found myself letting go of a lot of hurt and hang ups that I had had. Things that I had been letting drag me down. Then, a few people moved away and the group just stopped. I can honestly barely remember some of these ladies’ names. But they were some of the most impactful people I’d ever met...for a season. We all helped each other and then we moved on. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and go deep even if you aren’t sure where your investment will take you or how long it will last. You will never regret the friendships you make, though you might regret those you miss.
Stop letting your fear of rejection get the best of you. I hope you’re encouraged to find a way to show up more authentically from now on, to be more vulnerable, and to get more intentional in your friendships. Start small and share things with people who are close to you or ask them deeper questions about themselves. And the next time you find yourself wishing you had more close relationships, put yourself in the driver’s set and make yourself responsible for being intentional.
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