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 8020 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.