On a day in recent history, I received some triggering news that made my blood run cold, and a mushroom of anxiety and grief bloom furiously in my belly.
I sat frozen on my floor for a few minutes, feeling completely lost and paralyzed, before pulling out my phone and sending texts to half a dozen people. I explained to them what had happened, and told them I needed their support.
Within a few minutes, I had a mountain of texts.
One friend let me know she couldn’t talk right now, but offered a day and time when she could give me her undivided attention and support soon. Some were immediate offers of empathy, letting me know that my pain was witnessed and heard and valid. Some were questions like “how can I help?” and some were funny GIFs.
Each person brought something unique, different, special, and healing to me over the next few hours of texting. Together they helped me shift from a place of panic and shame to one of safety, calm, and secure belonging. Their support literally re-regulated my triggered nervous system, grounded me back into my body, and protected me from sinking into depression.
What’s interesting about this is that five years ago, I never would had sent those texts.
For most of my life, I wouldn’t have wanted to bother anyone, and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable burdening anyone with my feelings– especially big, panicky, ugly feelings. Back then, when I got triggered by shit, I didn’t reach out to anyone to help me re-regulate, so instead I just spiraled downward, alone, for a loooong time.
We desperately need support and connection. We’re wired for it, and we genuinely can’t thrive without it
Getting support and connection from other people when we’re freaking out (aka when we’re dealing with a disregulated nervous system) literally helps the body calm down and return to normal.
Yet so many people struggle to reach out for support, just like I used to, and end up spiraling downward alone instead. Why?
I believe the answer involves the way we’re socialized to see our own gender roles. While men have their own battles to fight in this arena (aka male bonding activities are everywhere, but male emotional vulnerability is discouraged), I’m going to focus on women.
Women are taught that their value comes from giving others a positive experience: being pretty, desirable, bubbly and cheerful, helpful, and nurturing/caring. As such, most of us learn to not cause a fuss, be as pleasant as possible, and always put the needs and desires of others before our own. Can you see how burdening someone else with our needs or feelings would go completely against everything we learned? It would be selfish! It would be too much for them to handle! It would be anarchy!
It can be so scary to imagine being vulnerable, asking for help, or inconveniencing someone with our feelings, that many of us would rather just soldier on alone
— miserable and disconnected, but at least feeling “safe” that we didn’t mess anything up.
This fear of opening yourself and being vulnerable makes sense.
After all, it opens you up to rejection– what if the person says no? That would really hurt.
It also opens you up to judgement and criticism. What if someone gets mad at you, or says “your feelings are wrong and stupid”?
It also lets other people see that you’re not perfect, and you don’t always have everything together. Many women are so afraid of being seen that way that they spend their entire lives avoiding it.
Let’s take a look at the most common fears I see women struggle with– the ones thatkeep us from reaching out for the support we need when we need it:
* Fear of being a burden/inconvenience
* Fear of people realizing we’re imperfect
* Fear of upsetting/disappointing someone (or being disappointed!)
* Fear of being judged or laughed at
* Fear of being seen as selfish
* Fear of being “too much” for people
* Fear of being rejected or disapproved of
Do any of these sound familiar? These fears can be absolutely paralyzing, and the longer you go without facing them, the more powerful they become!
This is what a lot of “fear of vulnerability” and “difficulty opening up and trusting people” comes down to– feeling like you wouldn’t be able to handle the negative consequences of one of the above fears.
But letting these fears run the show isn’t just a disservice to you. It’s also a disservice to everyone around you!
Think about it this way: You have a friend who never opens up to you, tells you about the shit she’s going through, or asks you for support. This means you never get to be there for her, and you never see her messy authentic self, so you never feel comfortable sharing your messy authentic self either. The two of you both keep presenting your “best selves” to the other, staying pretty surface-level, while each of you wishes the other would open up so you could deepen the friendship.
This happens all the time, especially among women. We all crave deeply nourishing relationships, but we’re too afraid to let people see our messy/private/weak/hurting parts, or bother people with our needs or feelings. So we try to handle everything ourselves, never giving anyone the opportunity to step up… and then when we really need support, nobody is there.
Letting yourself be vulnerable, asking for help, and opening up to people– these are SKILLS.
They might be uncomfortable right now, but that’s ok. They might even be straight up terrifying, and that’s ok too. But you deserve to have friendships that nourish and support you in times of stress, and so do the other people in your life.
The good news is that you can overcome these fears with practice– it gets easier the more you do it!
I feel so strongly about the need for overcoming these fears that I actually teach it in Authentic Body Confidence (a 12 week online course that launches again in August!) to women who have been afraid and disconnected for a long time.
It’s important to note here that overcoming the fear of opening yourself up to people is a numbers game. Sometimes you will be rejected, and that’s ok. (Again, it’s a skill!) But if you only open up to one person every 10 years, and one of them rejects you, shames you, or breaks your heart… it’s gonna be reaalllllly difficult to do it again.
If you practice overcoming these fears every week though, you’ll start to see that some people take your invitation and rise to the challenge, and others don’t, and both are fine. In this way you will become a lot freer, more resilient, and way more self-confident.
That’s why I encourage you to practice opening up more often.
Practice inviting people to do things or talk, being uncomfortable and opening up anyway, and handling rejection and conflict. Ask for the exact kind of help and support you need, and commit to expanding your comfort zone every week by reaching out, reaching out, reaching out.
Yours in belonging,