Opening up to people is difficult for many.
Being more open with people and letting them see your inner world means embracing vulnerability and letting go of fear and shame – of course, that’s easier said than done.
First, we’ll discuss some of the reasons why it’s so scary to open up to others, as this will shed some light on how to be more open with people and in relationships.
Why Is Opening Up So Hard?
If you’re a closed-off person, that’s probably because you’ve experienced pain as a result of having let others in the past. The wall you’ve built around yourself protects you from being hurt again.
Whatever it was that forced you to build that wall has resulted in fear and shame, which stops you from being vulnerable and open with people.
There’s a sense of “If I open up and let people know my fears/ dreams/ mistakes/ desires, then they will judge me as being weird or bad, and they will reject me.”
This shame comes from feeling unworthy or not feeling good enough, and consequently, you hide yourself behind a wall so that no one can judge, ostracize, or reject you.
Here are some reasons why opening up can be difficult for people:
Traumatic experiences, especially of the relational kind, often lead people to feel shame about who they are. They develop a strong fear of others seeing their “flawed” self, and consequently, they close off and avoid people and sharing their thoughts, feelings, and inner world.
Being abused, neglected, stalked, mistreated, assaulted, or bullied (to name a few) can be significant traumas that can make you feel extremely vulnerable.
Naturally, you want to avoid feeling vulnerable again, so you build that wall and let no one in.
Avoidant or Disorganized Attachment Styles
Children whose feelings and needs were not appropriately validated and met may develop an insecure attachment style. The avoidant and disorganized attachment styles are associated with difficulty opening up to others for various reasons.
People with an avoidant attachment style value their independence and avoid intimacy and sharing because they don’t feel much need for it.
Being closed off isn’t necessarily uncomfortable for them, and they often quite happily stay on the shallower end of emotions.
Those with a disorganized attachment style want closeness and connection, but they fear it, usually because they’ve experienced trauma in their early life. They want others to understand and comfort them, but they push them away if anyone comes too close.
It’s a mental battle, a deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability that is often masked by anger, indifference, and fierce independence.
Fear of Rejection
“If I open up, others will reject me”.
Trauma and insecure attachment can cause fear of rejection. Maybe you were rejected by caregivers, peers, or society, and this fear has followed you through life and made you close off.
You expect rejection, and so look for signs of it. When you speak, you might feel the other person isn’t interested, or when you’ve been vulnerable with them, you feel they’re not empathetic enough.
Your expectations of how another should react when you open up might be quite high, and anything that falls short of that expectation is interpreted as a rejection.
Fear of Judgement
“If I open up, others will judge me and think less of me.”
Again, fear of being judged can be the result of trauma and insecure attachment. Maybe you were bullied or humiliated at home and/ or at school. There may have been situations when you were judged for being who you are – the fear isn’t necessarily random.
You might judge and be highly critical of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors – that could be the voice of your parents or childhood bullies telling you it’s never good enough.
If you judge yourself harshly, you also judge other people and believe they must be judging you too. So, sometimes, the judgment you perceive could be a projection.
Big or many little traumas can cause low self-worth: the sense of not being good enough, of being deeply flawed and unworthy of people’s affection and time.
Low self-worth causes shame of who you are and that can lead to fear of rejection and judgment.
So, low self-worth is usually what underpins having difficulties opening up, but it could also be your personality if you’re, for example, introverted.
Introversion is a relatively stable personality trait that describes someone who has less need for social interaction, enjoys and needs solitude, feels comfortable with silence, and doesn’t feel the need to share all the time.
As such, introversion is not a bad thing, although society as a whole makes more room for extroverts.
If you’re not as open as others but feel secure and confident, that’s okay. But if you believe you’re a burden on others, your feelings aren’t valid, and you don’t trust others, then it would be beneficial to address that.
How to Be More Open
Being closed off and avoiding vulnerability by opening up is often a deeply entrenched way of thinking and being.
That means it’s not something you can just switch on and off – it’s a journey of learning to trust, being comfortable with vulnerability, and building your self-worth.
The key is to approach it slowly and take small steps in the right direction, rather than launching in and potentially causing more anxiety.
It’s also important to understand why it’s beneficial to be more open because part of you might be telling you that staying closed off is safer.
Focus on The Benefits of Vulnerability
Connection is what gives life meaning and purpose. From working in the mental health sector for many years, I know that feeling connected and cared for is one of the best antidotes for suffering.
Learning to be vulnerable and open is therefore not just important for your social life, it’s imperative to your well-being.
Being closed off stops you from connecting authentically and wholeheartedly. Even when friends and family surround you, you don’t feel like you’re really connecting.
What follows is a deep sense that you don’t belong, don’t have community, and no one cares. This can lead to loneliness, which, as research has shown, is as detrimental to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The hard part is letting go of the fear and shame – if we could do that, we could open up more easily.
Lean Into Vulnerability
Vulnerability is uncomfortable for most people, especially for people whose vulnerability has been abused. To them, being strong and not showing any “weakness” seems like a safer option than being open.
Many people numb their vulnerability – the feeling of being vulnerable – by taking drugs or drinking excessively, engaging in extreme behavior, or succumbing to workaholism.
However, according to researcher Brené Brown, numbing vulnerability can also look like blame (transmitting your negativity and shame onto another), perfectionism (hiding behind a façade of being perfect) as well as pretending your actions don’t have a significant impact on other people.
The problem is that you cannot selectively numb negative emotions – when you numb your vulnerability, you numb all emotions including joy, gratitude, and happiness.
So, when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you invite positivity and connection into your life. According to Brené Brown, vulnerability gives birth to shame and fear but also joy, creativity, belonging, love, and empathy.
That’s why you must lean into vulnerability because it allows you to connect to what and who makes life worth living.
- Write down how being closed off has limited your connections and joy. Refer to this when you feel afraid to open up.
- Identify 1-2 trusted people to practice small self-disclosures with to start building confidence.
- Practice asking open-ended questions to invite the other person to share more.
- Remind yourself of the rewards like deeper connections when you feel fear or shame arise as you reveal more.
Part of you believes that letting others see your true and whole self will lead to judgment and rejection. Something within you tells you that you are not good enough, that you’re not worthy.
In a world of “perfect” Instagram lives and Snapchat filters, it’s hard to feel like you’re enough.
But people with high self-worth believe that regardless of their achievements, flaws, and failures, they are worthy of love and connection.
- Writing down and reminding yourself daily of your strengths and achievements
- Daily practice of affirmations such as “I am enough.” – make it specific to your life, e.g., “I am a good enough mother”; “My looks are good enough”; or “I am good enough at my job.”
- Contemplating why the things you perceive as personal flaws and shortcomings should mean you’re not worthy? No one is perfect.
- Healing relational wounds and traumas by going to therapy or reading books/ resources
Give People the Benefit of the Doubt and Experiment
Opening up and being vulnerable means being generous in your assumptions of others – giving people the benefit of the doubt. Let go of assumptions and test out your beliefs in real life.
You might believe that if you tell someone how you feel, they will ridicule, dismiss, or scold you. But what if they listen and offer their empathy, and you feel lighter because you allowed yourself to be open?
Test this out with a person you trust (at least somewhat) and tell them something you wouldn’t normally speak about.
It’s wise to start with something small, something that won’t make your anxiety go through the roof but still bears some significance. Choose a good moment and then speak from the heart, allow yourself to be open and express yourself, and see what happens.
You don’t have to share and open up to everyone, but having one or two people in your life is enough.
Relationship therapist Jenna Nielsen recommends, “Look at your own values and find a person who shares similar ones. That should make it easier to open up.”
People like to be confided in and asked for help, so the other person (your friend or family member) will likely be receptive and empathetic.
In Brené Brown’s research, the people who felt connected and loved, lived from a sense of worthiness, and believed “That which makes me vulnerable, also makes me beautiful.”
- Choose someone you trust and test opening up on a minor issue.
- Pay attention to their response – are they empathetic? Does sharing feel freeing?
- Regardless of the reaction, remind yourself it’s okay if it doesn’t meet your expectations.
- Understand each person’s reactions are a reflection of their own experiences and perspectives.
- Try more self-disclosing based on these small experiments and how others respond.
Throw Yourself Into Heartbreak
Naturally, we all want to avoid being hurt, but as the Buddhist teaching goes “Human life is one of suffering” – you cannot avoid the ups and downs of life.
Instead of living in fear of suffering, Brené Brown recommends throwing yourself into heartbreak because, as life goes on, you will inevitably have to face it. When doing so, you also open yourself to experiencing the beauty of life, connection, and relationships.
Vulnerability might make you feel out of control and unable to predict what will happen next, and that can make you feel unsafe.
Little by little, practice letting go of your need to control every interaction and situation in life – do things that make you feel scared, including sharing your inner world with others.
When you live in fear, your growth is stunted and you can’t fully enjoy life. But when you live from a place of compassion and empathy towards yourself and others, you allow yourself and your relationships to grow and flourish.
- Identify situations you avoid due to fear of rejection. Take baby steps to face them.
- Let go of controlling interactions. Allow vulnerability without predicting reactions.
- Push past discomfort to increasingly share true thoughts and feelings with trusted people.
Brown, B. (2010, June). The Power of Vulnerability [Video] TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability?language=en
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B. & Layton, J.B. (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316.