Letting Others Be Vulnerable
[Because people are predisposed to give others good impressions, when our relationships deepen, it’s more likely that we’ll have to revise our initial “perfect” models of the other person. For the person doing the updating, it can internally feel uncomfortable. I outline this dynamic and argue why it’s important to push through nonetheless.]
Recently, I drew a comic about the importance of being accepting when someone opens up to you. I think I did a passable job of condensing the main points into the text, but I figured that a more in-depth explanation was probably worth a blog post in itself. Plus, it’s been a while since the last blog post, and I’ve been doing a very poor job sticking to my supposed weekly release schedule.
Here’s the comic, if you haven’t seen it:
Before we begin, a quick clarification: I am agnostic about whether or not the relationships I describe below are of a romantic nature or not. I think that the process of “becoming closer to someone” is roughly the same, no matter the relationship type.
In the above comic, it’s not exactly clear how people are supposed to be “interacting”. To make things clearer, below is an illustration simplified model I’ll be using throughout the essay. (I stole the idea of representing people as 2-D shapes from Kevin Simler’s fantastic essay on Personhood, which I’d also recommend checking out.)
This is a person:
They have a lot of things inside of them, and some of them get shown to other people:
On the outside, on their surface edges, they have nice, smooth, grooves on the outside. They are the pieces that make connecting with other people easy.
On the inside, we have lots of pointier pieces that we keep hidden, the pieces which might cause disagreement. If we were to let them out, they might grate against other people.
Our external surface represents the facets of ourselves that we show, be it the words we speak, the reactions we show, and the body language we display. Our interactions can be thought to involve our edges bumping into each other. So we’re choosy about what gets shown and what gets kept hidden.
Sometimes, this choosiness is explicit, like selecting which jokes to tell to signal you’re part of some in-group (EX: “If we’re ordering pizza, make sure to get two boxes!”). Other times, it’s implicit, like the pauses in our speech and the way we behave (EX: interrupting less when the other speaker seems important).
The default action, I think, is to push for being agreeable, and this drive sometimes even trumps being true to our beliefs. We want to be able to look good in front of other people, and we want to be liked. This means that when we meet people, both sides selectively focus on actions which allow for a harmonious interaction.
What makes for a “harmonious interaction”?
First off, norms. There are shared expectations for what polite interaction looks like (though what the norm is, exactly, might differ between cultures or sub-groups), and we will have a tendency to focus on steering our interactions to follows such expectations, partially because other people expect us to. (See Simler’s essay on Personhood for more on how the recursive justification for norms bottom out.)
On top of that, there is a tendency for our relationships with people to fall into different roles. In fact, many of our roles are defined by the limits of what we are and aren’t willing to share. Some example potential roles are below:
Your co-workers, the people you talk about work with.
Your drinking friends, the people you joke with and go do fun things with.
Your longtime friends, the people you reminisce with.
But what happens when our interactions break through the defaults, the norms, and the roles? Social psychology tells us that relationships deepen with iterated sharing, as both sides open up and become more vulnerable. But what does all of that really entail? What counts as vulnerable? And when it happens, what does the whole deepening process feel like, to the two people in the relationship?
I think the first piece of the puzzle has to do with our internal models of others, i.e. the picture we have of them in our heads. The models we have are largely going to be based off of the edges the other person shows, as those are the most visible pieces of information. We’re often incentivized to improve the models other people have us because said model shapes how others treat us. Their model will determine the predictions they make, the recommendations they give, and how they behave. The more accurate it is, we might reason, the better they can help us out.
One reason to share more, then, is that we’re trying to give the other party a better picture of what we’re “really” like, so that they can interact with us in more relevant ways. On top of this, I think we also like to feel validated—knowing that someone else has a grasp of all the things in our head can make us feel less alone.
When we start to share information about ourselves, though, it’s likely not going to be stuff that makes us look good. Our best qualities are likely already on display at our edges. The stuff we keep beneath, then, is disproportionately likely to be the stuff we don’t want other people to see (at least not immediately). Herein lies our fears, our insecurities, our prejudices, and our perversions. It’s going to be things which are more likely to cause disagreement, to make people like us less.
This is the stuff we were perhaps hesitant to share at first because it likely didn’t help contribute to a harmonious interaction.
It’s strong, sometimes dark, stuff. For the person revealing such information, there’s a lot of trust involved. Vulnerability, I think, has a lot to do with how damning the information you’re providing is. When we share something that the other person could use to hurt us, we’re demonstrating that we trust them. Though they could, we don’t think they will. It might still be scary (after all, there is still potential risk involved), but we’re willing to swallow that fear.
From a feelings-based perspective, opening up can feel bonding. If you open up and the other party is receptive and acknowledging, you feel comforted. There’s a feeling of security when you know that the person on the other side is willing to listen and accept whatever it is you tell them.
But for the receiver to be able to be accepting is where I think the second difficulty lies, and I think this part of the share/receive model of vulnerability has been given less attention.
From the receiver’s perspective, they learned something new about the speaker which likely clashes with their existing model. They initially had a model which was nice and neat, of a pleasant person. As the other side opens up, all the initial reasons they had to be close to the other side can feel dwarfed by the new information being shared. Doubts like “Did I misjudge the other person? Is this what they’re ‘really’ like?” can arise.
There seems to be a potential unfortunate dynamic where people are drawn together and then are subsequently pulled apart after opening up because both sides start to show their messier edges.
I think a key skill of compassion and understanding is to be able to remember that everything you learn is true. People are a lot of things. They are the excellent person you knew them as, with all their positive qualities. And they are also the strange person they’ve revealed themselves to be, with all their secret grudges and sadnesses. People are a huge mix of beliefs, feelings, thoughts, words, and matter.
But, given the roles that we usually play, we typically hold only a fraction of those in mind when we’re interacting with someone.
For example, it might suffice to think of the professor in lecture as just another Mentor figure. You might reason, “They are there to Teach, and I am here to Learn,” with all the associated baggage that comes with the student-teacher role. This sort of “reduction to roles” can be seen as dehumanizing, but it happens regardless. Roles can be thought of as compressed ways of representing rules of how to interact. Oftentimes, having a fully nuanced model of the other person is just…not very relevant to the interaction at hand, and you can get along fine with a simplified model of the other person that highlights only a few relevant qualities.
I’m not knocking the use of social roles or trades. It’s fine that some of your interactions are transactional; many of our interactions in life are.
But when someone opens up, they’re trying to tell you more about themselves, and you likely want to learn more about them. It’s a different sort of interaction altogether. You want to appreciate them as the human that they are, rather than abstract them away with a simplified model that attempts to 80⁄20 how they work.
And because we’re predisposed to have our nice and neat models of the other person, as well as compressed role-based models, it can be difficult to fit this new, messy model of the other person in mind. It’s easier to focus on just the negatives or just the positives. And unfortunately, our oft-demonstrated negativity bias means that the bad parts can easily dominate our overall judgment.
This why I think it’s so important to bias towards cultivating a state of mind where you can be appreciative of other people opening up, even when it seems like the more you learn about them, the less there is the two of you have in common.
What are the components of this attitude?
One part is reframing the way we look at people being vulnerable, as I outlined above. When you learn more about someone, it is very likely that you’ll learn information that will make you feel less agreeable, close, or drawn to someone. The very fact that they’re sharing such information, though, is itself a sign of closeness.
Still, it can be disappointing to learn that our model of someone was wrong, when it turns out they’re not “the person we knew”.
From an epistemological standpoint, though, things have just improved. Your goal is to know more about how the other person, and they’ve just offered information to update your model. That’s great! And from a complexity standpoint, they’ve just gotten more interesting. It turns out there is more depth to them than you knew, that they are more than just the nice, neat coating they showed you. That means more things to explore and discover, perhaps like a favorite book that you learn has more chapters than you thought.
The second part of this involves self-honesty. Though most of this essay has focused on the ways that other people can break your nice, neat models, it pays to remember that you’re a person too. It’s important to ask if you’re modeling your own messiness. I think it can become easier to accept people as mixed-bag bundles when you start to see yourself as a mixed bag. Coming to terms with yourself as someone who simultaneously harbors a combination of strengths and vices isn’t necessary, but I think it helps a lot.
When you’ve developed a way of looking at yourself that doesn’t shy away from the dark and messy bits, you hopefully develop a better intuition about it feels like to hold the entirety (or, more realistically, a more representative sample) of a person’s personality in mind. Then, perhaps it no longer seems strange when people open up, and our perfect surface-level model becomes messier because we’ve come to expect people to be an unruly collection of things.
The end goal here is to develop your sense of “human-ness” such that you can anticipate, expect, and normalize the messiness that’s inherent in all of us.
My hope is that these suggestions + framing allow us to reckon with one another more fully and make the process of building close bonds easier.