Vulnerability is the only path to authentic connection with another human being. Vulnerability is the way we share who we really are with someone else – by being honest with our feelings and needs, our histories and hopes for the future.
Sometimes this is a very painful process. This is especially so for a victim of childhood abuse. For adults who had abusive parents, sharing their feelings and interests was dangerous, and expressing their needs futile. If as a child you are used to hiding who you really are or even automatically lying for fear that someone will trample all over the real you, being vulnerable around others will always be a slow and painful process. After all, you simply don’t know who is safe.
There are some ways to find out, of course. You could for instance ask them about their attitude towards spanking or yelling at children, before you tell them about your own childhood. Or observe them in their interactions with other people, especially children. A safe person is one who has empathy and can withhold hurtful judgments. Who picks compassion over criticism as much as possible. A person you can be yourself around and feel accepted. Our intuition often does a good job of discovering who it is safe to be vulnerable around, assuming we haven’t developed blind-spots.
At the end of the day though, the only sure way to find out whether someone is safe to be vulnerable around is to try. Be honest and vulnerable – be yourself – and see what they do with that honor.
Ask yourself this: after being vulnerable, how do you feel? Are you relieved? Do you feel a closer intimate connection with the other person? Did you get an empathetic and supportive response? Perhaps most importantly: would you want to share again?
If instead they diminish the importance of what you’re saying, minimize your feelings, disregard your needs, mock or insult you, put you down, or reject you altogether – then as painful as this is, they just did you a favor.
Take that rejection, partial or whole as it may be, and realize that you can never connect to this human being on any deep level. You can’t be your authentic self with them. You’ll always feel the need to minimize those feelings and needs that you think are inconvenient to them, and share selectively for fear of what they might say. In other words, you can only be around this person by wearing a suffocating mask.
Take that mask off, and only the people worthy of being in your life will remain.