Recently I was having a conversation where we were trying to identify important topics for a program. During that conversation the words trust, vulnerability, and intimacy were all thrown in as potential options for keywords to cover together– and while they’re all valid options individually, I instantly saw them immediately as a flow. To me, trust yields (or can yield) vulnerability and vulnerability yields (or can yield) intimacy. I should get it out of the way that I am not using intimacy as a euphemism for sex. I mean the kind of connection that two people can have when there are no barriers between them – emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
Here I want to explore how once you trust someone you’ll feel safe enough to become vulnerable. Once you’ve become vulnerable, you’ve removed the barriers that prevent intimacy. Of course, some folks aren’t focused on intimacy as the goal – however, I find nothing as exhilarating as much as being able to truly know another human being. There’s plenty of research (some of which I’ll reference below) that being connected – truly connected – with other humans improves your life and your life expectancy and that all starts with trust.
I’ve written about trust before. I have done three book reviews on trust: Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace, Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships and Life, and Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma. I followed these up sometime later with a post titled “Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet” which talked about how to build trust. However, I haven’t really talked directly about the relationship between trust and vulnerability. It starts with what trust is. Trust is about “reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing.” (Dictionary.com) In other words, trust is a belief.
As I mentioned in the review for Building Trust, there are three kinds of trust: Basic (implied), Blind (disconnected from reality), and Authentic (measured). The kind of trust that I’m talking about here is authentic trust. That is trust that acknowledges the realities of the situation and provides grace to allow people to be less than perfect. It’s about knowing what you should and should not trust in other people. Though that sounds odd in the context of building safety, vulnerability, and intimacy; knowing that no one is perfect allows you to accept who they are. I don’t trust my baby sitter to do my taxes or my accountant to watch my child. Trust doesn’t need to be limitless to be valuable to you.
In Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, we learned that there are three kinds of trust – but from a different dimension. There is contractual (based on expectations), communications (based on authentic communications), and competence (skills and talents). In other words, we can trust that someone CAN do something (competence), WILL do something (contractual) or will LET US KNOW if they can’t (communications).
Strangely, trust isn’t an indication of whether a person or thing is trustworthy. Whether someone is ultimately worthy of trust isn’t the point. Trust is a gift. Trust is a leap that you make towards opening up to another person. That is leaving yourself somewhat vulnerable – hopefully in an appropriate and measured way.
One unfortunate understanding that is essential to understanding trust is that invariably your trust of someone will be violated – betrayal is a natural part of trust. The betrayal may be accidental in nature – a slip up. It may also be a difference of opinion about the nature of the trust relationship. In other words someone might not realize that you had told them something in confidence and share it with someone else. The benefits of trust are worth the occasional betrayal. A betrayal is ultimately a disappointment. In your trust, you expected someone to behave in a certain way, and they behaved in a different way. Betrayal may seem to be a strong word, and it is somewhat. However, the natural emotion when someone violates your trust will be betrayal. It will take some processing to get past this and move towards acceptance.
On the one hand, someone breaking your trust – some sort of betrayal – is normal. However, on the other hand if your trust is broken intentionally or in an egregious way, you may need to reevaluate who you trust or refine your understanding of how to determine whether someone is trustworthy to you.
In my review of Emotional Intelligence, I mentioned the truism that in order to be vulnerable you must feel safe. I touched the topic again in my review of How Children Succeed. Vulnerability is a tricky topic because we associate vulnerability with an outside force. That is we look as if our ability to be vulnerable isn’t under our control, however, much our vulnerability – particularly emotionally – is under our control or partial control.
Considering vulnerability from a non-emotional perspective to start, a common scenario for review is someone being mugged. The question is often posed “Did I have a choice to be vulnerable or not?” Ultimately, in the moment you didn’t have control, you needed to succumb to greater force or the risk of harm. However, while you don’t have complete control, you do have influence. The starting point is you can determine whether you’re in a high-crime neighborhood or not. Being in a “good” neighborhood doesn’t prevent muggings but it makes them less likely. Managing which environments you put yourself in is a very long-range view of the influence you have towards your physical vulnerability.
A more short-term view is your awareness of your surroundings. Are you watching for the person who isn’t acting like others? Are you actively looking for someone in the shadows, or someone who seems to be loitering, waiting, and watching. Again, just because someone is loitering, doesn’t make them a mugger, however, being aware of those people who might be threats creates an opportunity to react before there is a problem. Being mindful about your surroundings is one way that you can safely reduce your vulnerability even in situations which may be prone to muggings. Failing to be mindful of your surroundings doesn’t make it your fault that you were mugged – however, it makes it more likely.
At an emotional level, you have control of what you personally disclose to others. There are some emotional circumstances that you don’t control – such as someone being told or discovering a previous misdeed. However, for the most part you get to choose what to disclose and what to hide from others. You can control your emotional vulnerability. You have the choice to be emotionally vulnerable – or emotionally invulnerable. Given those two choices it would seem that the right answer should be emotionally invulnerable but not so quick, the research doesn’t support this point of view.
Some people feel safe because they put up walls and borders which they let no one through. That sounds good, until you reflect upon research including a study reported in Science where isolation alone “is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” Ouch. So maybe the right answer isn’t complete safety. Social isolation has been shown in study after study to increase mortality rates. So being completely safe – walled off and out of contact with other human beings may actually be less safe than interacting with other humans – even with the occasional disappointment. (See Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review.)
The idea that you have to experience problems shows up again and again. In The Me I Want to Be, Ortberg talks about Dr. Marian Diamond’s research at UC Berkeley and how our brains need challenges. How Children Succeed while warning about too many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) equally encourages the kind of challenges that encourage the development of “grit” – or perseverance. While at first glance the idea that we need challenges for our brains to be healthy and we need challenges to develop a persistence in us, may not seem like it is an encouragement to be vulnerable – I believe they’re connected. There’s a certain sense of the lack of uncertainty in a framework of expected outcomes that causes us to grow.
The subtitle of the classic Boundaries book by Cloud and Townsend is “When to Say Yes, and How to Say No.” In other words even a book dedicated to a discussion of boundaries there is a discussion of when to let people in. Consider that walls are a good analogy for boundaries. Walls and even walls – like the Great Wall of China – need gates. You have to be able to know when you should keep people outside and when you need to allow people in. Learning whether to allow someone in or to keep them outside isn’t as easy as looking at the uniform they’re wearing. However, it is a process that you can learn how to manage – particularly over time. By taking small risks with people you can observe their behaviors and decide to trust them and become more vulnerable on larger things.
Beyond Boundaries, a follow up to the Boundaries book, discusses two different kinds of boundaries. They are protective boundaries and defining boundaries. Protective boundaries are temporary barricades to prevent people from entering into places which are still hurt and are recovering, much like temporary barricades that prevent people from walking in newly planted grass or keep people from parts of the highway which are under reconstruction. Protective boundaries are designed to be temporary in nature. At some point they should be removed.
Defining boundaries are different. Defining boundaries are permanent and changing them requires that you change who you are. Consider the idea that you were forced to steal bread to feed your family. If you had a defining boundary – one for yourself – that is that you won’t steal, if you choose to steal the bread – you’ll change your defining boundary. Others see our defining boundaries as who we are. That’s why people on the news say “I would have never believed he could have done such a thing.” They inferred a defining boundary on someone they knew.
One of the strange realizations about this is that boundaries aren’t for other people – boundaries are for you. They allow you to define what you will and will not accept. Vulnerability is not defending those boundaries. For instance, let’s say that you have a defining boundary that you don’t eat meat. You don’t eat meat – but a friend slips some hamburger into some supposedly vegetarian chili. This is a violation of trust – a betrayal. You can decide whether it was intentional or unintentional and whether it is important or unimportant. You trusted your friend to honor your defining boundary and they didn’t. Your trust allowed you to be vulnerable. You didn’t provide your own food. You didn’t extensively question your friend. You didn’t take the food to a lab for analysis. You were vulnerable to the possibility that you might ingest some amount of meat.
Your boundary of not eating meat isn’t for other people to prevent them from introducing meat in the foods you eat. This is an internal defining boundary that you’ve made others aware of. They can see this as a part of your identity. Having eaten meat doesn’t change who you are. The decision to change your boundary to allow yourself to eat meat would change your defining boundary – and how others see you.
From my perspective, a boundary that you do defend, one that you have to protect yourself on is a barrier. Protective boundaries can be barriers. If you are with safe people, a protective boundary need not be a barrier – but often it is.
Emotional vulnerability awareness is like the physical vulnerability expressed above. There’s a longitudinal view. You can look at the history of what they’ve done in their past relationships. Do they have long-time friends? When someone wronged them did they cut them off? Have they done wrong to others – and not made amends? By reviewing this you get a sense for their longitudinal trustworthiness – and therefore a sense for how much you may want to trust them and be vulnerable to them. On this front no one is completely “clean,” we’ve all made mistakes when it comes to relationships – just as there’s no such thing as a completely safe neighborhood.
Coming back to the short term view of vulnerability, if you’ve trusted someone with something relatively small and they’ve honored it, then perhaps you can trust them with larger things. One of the challenges here is that sometimes authentic trust is accidentally swapped with blind trust. The pain of being betrayed makes us stop being aware of the circumstances and realizing what’s going on around us. Many spouses have “discovered” infidelity that they could have easily seen before had they simply been willing to stay aware of what is happening. I don’t want to suggest that infidelity is the other spouse’s fault (it’s not) or that it could have been prevented. I’m only suggesting that as we’re looking at how much to trust and be vulnerable with someone else, it’s important to stay aware of our “surroundings.”
In my review of Trust Me, I talked about the concept of space and how you only let people you really trust into within 18″ of you, your intimate space. We’ve got a set of borders that we let people through. The invisible walls express themselves in physical space in terms of how close we let people get to us, but they also express themselves emotionally as we create different levels of distance that people can get to us. The safest spot is to feel totally vulnerable. Paradoxically you develop the greatest intimacy through the greatest feeling of safety, through trust at the moment of greatest vulnerability.
The book Boundaries says that sharing feelings is a kind of vulnerability that is the beginning of intimacy and caring.
Before we get to intimacy – and how it’s so amazing and critical – we need to move back to trust for a moment. We have to realize that trust is reflexive. That is that the more we trust someone else the more that they will trust us. This is an essential part of being able to be intimate with another person. If you can’t trust the other person – if you can’t be vulnerable – then you’ll find that you won’t be able to be intimate.
But what is intimacy? Many of the dictionary definitions for intimacy focus around closeness. Simplifying the definition, intimacy is about a level of closeness where there are few (or no) barriers between you and the other person. You can discuss anything without being harmed by the interaction. That isn’t to say that there won’t be the occasional disagreement, difference of opinion or hurt because we’re all human. It is, however, to say that intimacy is a courage to fully experience things with another human being. It’s the trust of being vulnerable with someone because you know that they have your best interests at heart.
It’s important that above I said that there are no barriers between you and the other person. I didn’t use the word boundaries (as has been used above.) Instead I used the word barriers. A barrier is a defended boundary. A place where vulnerability doesn’t exist. It’s a place where you don’t trust the other person to observe the boundary that you’ve communicated. Because you don’t expect the other person will observe the boundary, you put things in place to mitigate – or prevent – a boundary violation.
Getting back to trust – you have to trust that someone won’t violate a boundary that you’ve communicated. You have to leave yourself vulnerable along that boundary so that it doesn’t turn into a barrier – something that comes between you and the other person. The more that you share your reality – all of your reality – with the other person the more that you can be truly intimate with them. Barriers (defended boundaries) separate you from other people.
It’s important to point out that there’s a subtlety here between eliminating barriers and maintaining boundaries. It seems like you should not have any boundaries between you and your most intimate relationships – however, to do so would deny your individual identity. The beauty of a healthy intimate relationship is the ability to see each person as an individual and to see both of the individuals together as a couple at the same time.
A challenge for intimacy is the tendency for folks to retreat into themselves and to become selfish. The response becomes, “Why should I take care of their needs and concerns because they’re not taking care of mine?” Even written you can hear the hurt, scared, two year old who’s crying out to be cared for. Gary Chapman in The 5 Love Languages makes a point about each of us experiencing and communicating love differently. Love in this context is our way of caring for one another, for making sure that our needs for intimacy are met. How Children Succeed speaks of how rats with additional grooming from their mothers tended to be healthier in nearly every way when compared to rats who received lower grooming from their mothers.
The Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman (He wrote Emotional Intelligence) sat down in a discussion which led to the book titled Destructive Emotions. In the discussion they talk about whether humans are fundamentally compassionate and only pushed to selfishness out of need – or whether we are rational egoists – that is we realize that looking out for others is good for our own survival. Whether you subscribe to a view that we start out being compassionate towards others – or that we end up there – the point is the same we must have a deep connection with the experience of others.
Intimacy isn’t a one dimensional problem. It’s not like you can be completely intimate with only one individual in all things. Intimacy is faceted like trust. You may be completely physically intimate with your spouse and only partially cognitively intimate with them. In How to Be an Adult in Relationships Dan Richo suggests that we should get no more than 25% of our nurturance from one person. A need to be intimate is similarly spread across not one person but a few. The Wikipedia article on intimate relationships defines four kinds of intimacy: physical, emotional, cognitive, and experiential.
Physical intimacy includes both intimate touch and sex. Physical intimacy is generally expected to be isolated to a single other person. Emotional intimacy is sharing our most vulnerable feelings and fears with someone else. Emotionally we might be intimate with a few close friends. Intellectual intimacy is sharing a similar view of the world. We might be intellectually intimate with a broader group. Intellectual intimacy can be shared in a medium sized meeting with colleagues. In that way intellectual intimacy can be a more one-to-many type of intimacy than physical and emotional intimacy are.
The last type of intimacy – experiential intimacy — is more about a feeling of connection and safety due to shared experiences. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a false intimacy. There are plenty of families where there are many shared experiences and yet very little intimacy. However, experiences do influence how we are intimate with others.
In opening this post I spoke about emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy. (Carefully sidestepping the physical intimacy issue.) The addition here compared to the Wikipedia article is the introduction of a spiritual component. Most people have a special place for their “god” – even in intimate emotional relationships, the topic of religion is often guarded – or off limits. So I believe that whatever your faith is, that sharing that faith with another human being is an incredibly vulnerable and intimate moment.
Ultimately creating intimacy is about sharing your reality. As I mentioned in my review of Compelled to Control, reality is at the heart of intimacy. To be truly known we have to have a common sense of reality. Sharing our reality is that vulnerability that we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. It takes courage and bravery to expose ourselves to that vulnerability. However, without this vulnerability, intimacy will be blocked.
I talked about some of the reasons for problems with intimacy – some of which are caused by poor experiences — in my reviews for Bonds that Make Us Free, Leadership and Self-Deception, and Anatomy of Peace. This trio of books speak of “boxes” that people get in that distorts their reality – a reality distortion that makes the world about themselves, instead of being with others. Dr. Wayne Dyer might called these Erroneous Zones. They are places where your way of relating to the world are in error. Sometimes experiences create a set of learned behaviors which are bad. For instance, perhaps your father was an alcoholic and so you learned that anger signaled danger. As a result you became a peacemaker – someone who keeps the peace at all costs to prevent anger and the fear you felt as a child.
The idea that you’re trying to avoid a hurt that you experienced as a child that you couldn’t defend against is common. Beyond Boundaries calls it a “soul hole.” We can’t close the gaps on those holes except through getting the experiences we missed as a child during our adulthood. We do, however, tend to avoid the very experiences that can help us fill those holes. We can’t trust enough to become vulnerable, to let others see this hole in our soul. Nor can we become intimate enough with someone else to allow these holes to be filled by someone else. This is what positive intimacy is about – it’s about filling in the soul holes from our past and becoming more of us.
John Ortberg says in The Me I Want to Be that “I can only be loved to the extent that I am known.” So if you want to be loved you should – go be known by sharing your trust, your vulnerability, and intimacy with someone who deserves it. In short, go be loved.