Vulnerability. This is a topic that I talk about regularly at work. When I am working with leaders and teams, the conversation often comes back to the concept of vulnerability and vulnerable-based trust for healthy relationships.
In “Daring Greatly”, Dr. Brene Brown describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure“. It is choosing to share a part of yourself (emotions, feelings, thoughts, experiences, etc) with someone and putting yourself at risk and uncertainty with what people will do with that.
This concept is already hard. Being gay adds a whole new layer to this challenge.
As gay men, we need to talk about this. We need to talk about our relationship to vulnerability and how it impacts our lives. That’s right. Us. That includes me too.
This post will be different from my other posts. I won’t be writing about leadership development or team development. This post will be covering an important topic to me and a more intimate view into my life. If you are uncomfortable with this, I suggest you close out of this post.
I’ve been experiencing a spiritual awakening that started in January 2020 and has shed a light on my shadows and relationship to vulnerability. This is something that I have been working on with a therapist. I have been debriefing my insights and awareness with my therapist every time we meet.
She said something surprising in a one of our sessions. She said: “You should share that. More gay men need to hear that (she works with the LGBTQ+ community). It could be anonymous.” I am choosing to not be anonymous.
For a long time, I described myself as an independent and assertive person who had strong boundaries in place and didn’t need to be in a relationship with anyone. I became single when I was 27 and I decided to remain single these past 14 years.
When people used to ask me why I stayed single, I responded with the idea of a relationship did not spark joy for me and that it just wasn’t a part of my journey. I was happier by myself and did not want the responsibility of someone else’s happiness on me. I meant it. I also believed that I identified as “aromantic” or someone who didn’t experience romantic feelings.
Through some awareness and inner work, I discovered that it’s not the idea of relationships that doesn’t spark me joy. It’s the concept of vulnerability. Letting people in and allowing them to see the deepest parts of me. Hard pass on that.
In reality, I became an overly independent person who’s boundaries are really barbed wire fences to keep people out and also the prison in which I have locked myself in. I can’t get hurt if no one can reach me. The only way I can get hurt is if I take a risk and allow people in. I wasn’t aromantic. I just blocked myself from romantic feelings. I was mentally strong but emotionally hidden.
It isn’t just romantic relationships. This issue spans across friendships and work for me. It is hard for me to ask for help or say that I don’t know something. It is hard for me to open up about myself or talk about myself. I feel like a burden or that I may get judged for being incompetent. I can feel myself having an strong anxious response to opening up. I can be there for other people but will not allow them to be there for me. I will just deal with whatever I need help with myself.
Born from my lack of vulnerability was envy. Specifically, I get envious of my friends when they engage with guys that I’m attracted to. The envy comes from me not being confident enough to put myself out there and missing an opportunity for connection out of fear of rejection. They have what I want, but they it’s my own fault that I don’t have it!
My house is even nicknamed “The Fortress of Solitude” because I never invite anyone over. This is my place to hide from the world. I realize now that too is a representation of my invulnerability.
I made the connection that my mother and father are both why I struggle with vulnerability not too long ago and I just recently realized how this has directly impacted my life. I am painfully independent because of a lifetime of having to depend on myself for a lot of things. I cannot and do not allow others to support me. My parents never accepted me for being gay and so I had to learn how to deal with things all by myself. My parents didn’t model healthy relationships or make me feel safe to be myself and there was so much about myself that I could never share. I don’t know how to open up or ask for help. My siblings also don’t know how to do this as well.
What I do instead is I hide behind my intelligence and background. It is my armor that protects me and makes me feel safe. I know what social skills to use to engage people to share about themselves and also how to pivot away from myself. Interestingly enough, I’ve learned how to curate vulnerability. I’ve learned what I can share that sounds vulnerable and what I still hold deep within.
A couple of years ago, I met a guy that I connected with and for whom I developed feelings. I put myself “out there” with him. This was really the first time in a long time that I liked someone or dated anyone. We had great sexual chemistry and I usually bottomed for him. We dated for a short while until it got weird and we stopped.
I had a tough time with that situation. My confidence and self-esteem took a hit. I went into that situation with no boundaries and had no defenses to protect myself. I let myself be vulnerable and it blew up in my face. So I put my walls up again. Never again and fuck that.
I haven’t really bottomed since then. Not only did I stop bottoming, but I’m also became scared to bottom. I only top. I realize now that bottoming and vulnerability are directly connected to each other. You physically allow someone “in” and that frightens me after putting up my barbed wires to keep people out.
The truth that I have avoided saying for a long time out of fear of appearing weak is that I actually do want a connection with someone else. That just feels so weak and so desperate – the opposite of how I want to be viewed. I have judged people for saying stuff like this.
While I don’t say this out loud, this desire is evident in my propensity for finding weekend boyfriends on party weekends. I always find a guy that I connect with and he becomes my boyfriend for a few days. I generally spend my time and energy on him. One doesn’t just make those types of connections without wanting something like that deep down.
Vulnerability is crucial to building deep and meaningful relationships. We often believe that we need to trust someone before we can become vulnerable. However, it’s actually a paradox. Being vulnerable with someone builds trust, and when you build trust you can be more vulnerable, and so it continues.
Vulnerability creates a real human to human connection. Humans are social creatures and when we connect emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, it fires off oxytocin, the trust neurotransmitter, to bring us together. We truly bond when we are vulnerable. Trust is the most important component of a relationship.
Creating true connection requires taking a chance. It’s taking a risk. It means stretching ourselves past our comfort zone. It is letting getting go of our fears like shame, criticism and rejection.
Vulnerability also creates intimacy. Intimacy is the feeling of emotional connection, closeness, and feeling supported by someone when we connect. When we are scared to open up and share ourselves, intimacy can become the scariest thing in the world. When fight through the fear, let down our guard, and invite people in, we can achieve a new level of joy and connection that might not have otherwise existed.
As gay men, we have social pressures and influences that impact our relationship to vulnerability and intimacy. Some of us had caregivers and family who didn’t model vulnerability and safety for us because they didn’t accept us. Society also does not yet still fully accept us and we may feel like we need to wear a mask and be who everyone wants us to be. We’ve had to fend for ourselves.
We’re guilty of social comparison within the community and compare ourselves to each other by social media, physique, money, etc. We hide the parts of ourselves that we think we will be judged for and ultimately not accepted for. We shame ourselves for who we aren’t or how we don’t look.
This directly impacts our self-perception (how we see ourselves) and self-esteem (how we think about ourselves). We can believe that we aren’t sexy enough or that we aren’t good enough. And so we hide. We try to become someone that we are not. Our authentic self is is then lost and so is vulnerability.
There are plenty of gay men who have transactional/emotionless sex or don’t have sex at all (me) because they are afraid to open up and be vulnerable. There is nothing wrong with transactional sex, by the way. It can just become an issue when you are avoiding intimacy while also desiring it.
We have to take ownership of our vulnerability and especially our barriers to being vulnerable. We lose out on so much when we shut down vulnerability.
As Brene Brown says: “When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity”.
What happens when we aren’t vulnerable:
- We miss out on opportunities for genuine connection
- We lose out on experiencing joy
- We become envious of others (wanting what they have)
- We limit our own growth
Fourteen years of living in a space of invulnerability cost me more than I think I will ever know. I avoided all romantic connections. I went through my entire 30’s without ever having a boyfriend. What connections did I lose out on? What joy did I miss out on?
I recently had a growth experience regarding vulnerability. I experienced what it means to allow yourself to be vulnerable and intimate with someone.
I met a guy that I was really into. He’s incredibly gorgeous. I approached him first and we immediately hit it off with some great chemistry in the hot tub. We went back to my room and initiated a passionate and steamy session with each other.
He asked if I bottomed because he’s a top. Fuck. In that moment, I had to make a snap decision: Do I say yes or no? I prepared beforehand, but I always do and never bottom anyway because I avoid it.
This is where the growth happened.
I fought through my initial “no” reaction and responded with “yes”. I figured best case scenario is that it goes great or worst case scenario if it goes sideways at least I don’t know him. I needed to do this for myself either way.
After that, we become really intimate with each other. He took his time with me. I needed to stop a couple of times and he was so amazing about it. I started to get into my own head and felt my walls going up. I reminded myself to just breathe and be in the moment. I was safe with him. That tenderness and intimacy coupled with how sexy and fun he was just sent me. It was one of the hottest hours of my entire fucking life.
I can’t stop thinking about what would have happened if I had said no. I would have missed out on such a magical experience!
When we were finished and he left, I was flying so high! I felt so empowered and confident. I felt like I finally broke down some of the walls I had built around myself. I felt like a whole new world of possibilities just opened up for me. I liked being vulnerable!
That experience and connection impacted me so positively that a few days later I hosted a kiki at my house with my close friend group and friends. I never have people over my house so that was a big deal. I really enjoyed having my squad in my house. My “Fortress of Solitude” felt more like an invitation into my personal space and life.
I am now more comfortable to share with my friends things that are more personal in nature and to ask for help. I am more open to sharing with people I work with that I don’t know something. I am open to putting myself out there more and being more vulnerable with a guy.
Between you and what you really want are your walls. Vulnerability is what will take you to the next level in all of your relationships. It will positively influence your sense of self and your relationship to others.
Over time, and with practice, you build confidence. Confidence builds resiliency. You can start to become vulnerable with people and not allow setbacks to raise those walls back up.
To lower your walls and become vulnerable, you first must change your mindset around it. It has to start here. How we think and feel about it determines how we engage with it. It is time to change the story you are telling yourself about vulnerability. Vulnerability is not weakness and it is not a bad thing. Vulnerability is a posture of strength. The payoff is worth the risk.
You have to have a better understanding of yourself. This means you have to identify what the barriers are preventing you from being vulnerable. What experiences influenced you to close yourself off? What emotions drove you to build up walls so that you didn’t experience them again? What have you been avoiding? What traumas have you experienced?
Connecting with a therapist and a coach can help you work through these questions and experiences. I highly recommend this as they can help you make sense of the nebulous thoughts and emotions that float inside. A therapist can especially help you unpack and connect things.
Start small. You don’t have to go out into the world sharing the deepest and most intimate things of your life with everyone. Tell a friend something you normally wouldn’t. Tell the person you’re dating about something embarrassing that happened to you that you haven’t told anyone. Tell a friend or lover about how you actually feel about things, even if it feels silly.
Tell people what you want and need. This type of honesty not only allows you to identity these things for yourself but it creates an opportunity to express those things. Speak your truth to power. People respect honesty way more than we give them credit for.
Lean into the risk. Part of being vulnerable is knowing that you are increasing the risk of getting hurt. Confidence and resiliency will get you through this. Understanding your scope of control is important here. You will never be able to control external forces like how people treat you or handle your vulnerability. It is a waste of your time and energy to focus on that. Instead, focus on what you can control: your emotions and how you respond.
Remember what your goal is. The goal is to foster a genuine connection through vulnerability. It is a way of freeing yourself from the walls you have built up and the stories you’ve told yourself. If you are using vulnerability as a way to get someone to act a certain way, then you are being manipulative. If I am being vulnerable with my boyfriend to make him excuse how I treat him, then I am manipulating him. That is never okay! This should be about you showing as your authentic and best self and nothing else.
I want to leave you with this Ted Talk from Brene Brown “The Power of Vulnerability”.
As gay men, we have the opportunity to truly thrive by developing genuine relationships by connecting as our authentic selves. We have the capacity for vulnerability. We need connection more than anything. We rob ourselves of incredible experiences and opportunities of warmth, love, growth, and belonging.
As a marginalized group, community is also critical to our well-being. We have to get out of our own way and each other’s way. We have to create a space of psychological safety where we can be vulnerable with each other and express ourselves. We don’t have this in other spaces. Vulnerability begats vulnerability.
Only when I started becoming vulnerable with my friends and sharing fears and needs that I learned that other people were experiencing the same things. It made me realize just how much I am not alone.
We still have gay men who are afraid to talk about things like bottoming, douching, and accidents during sex. We have gay men who are afraid to talk about emotions, fears, needs and wants. We have those that are afraid to share what they’ve experienced in their lives and how its impacted them. We have siblings in the community who are in unhealthy/abusive relationships and are afraid get help. This is not okay. Society already shames us. We shouldn’t do it to each other.
My parents, my culture, society and past experiences all laid the groundwork for how I approach vulnerability. There’s comes a point where their impact on my life ends and where I begin. Part of me moving forward is sharing my experiences and takeaways.
Vulnerability is a requirement for true human to human connection. I teach this regularly and now it’s time for me to be the student as well. I hope that we can learn together.