Performative Vulnerability is Damaging our Relationships—Quit It & Get Real.
I dished out my best stories before my throat closed.
“I had a really great time, and I’d love to see you again. Can we plan for that?” I wanted to say. But a pit brewed in my stomach as I held in that energy of truth.
I could feel a stirring below my belly button, a wisp of longing that breezed into my chest like a smoke trail that was abruptly halted by the filter of my closed throat.
I didn’t speak. If he was interested, he knew where to find me, I rationalized.
Later, I called my girlfriend and spent hours worrying, wondering, and ruminating. I sent off some breezy texts to remind him of my existence and hoped he would do what I wanted him to do.
And I said nothing more.
We live in a culture of invulnerability, where vulnerability is punished and often laughed at or demeaned. So we are often more concerned about being fun and likable in our relationships than we are about being authentic. We tend to build and maintain relationships by relying on revealing things about ourselves that lack emotional content or choosing to say what sounds “right.”
We don’t want to splatter ourselves on the ground and prostrate our life stories, feelings, or descriptions of our body sensations to other people.
So we connect by way of what we know how to do: sharing the same kind of stories we would write on Instagram, covering delicate subject matter with words coming from our heads rather than the sensations in our hearts.
We narrate our lives with the same amount of emotional attachment as we do to posts on social media, or use a polished, rehearsed, or scripted version given to us by a therapist, friend, book, or gender norm. Or we wait for someone else to show their hand first, so we know it’s “safe” to share, act, or speak.
Women often justify it as a need to “let” a man lead/pursue/chase/pay/provide/protect.
Men often justify it by its lack of “masculinity.”
It’s impossible to connect with others if we are failing to tell the whole truth about what we want in our relationships, hiding our feelings, or failing to tune into them. We are essentially putting on an act, and our polished stories that sound meaningful are nothing short of fake vulnerability.
And I was damn good at it.
I exchange a lot of dialogue at work. I learned what “sounded” vulnerable and connecting by way of what would be categorized as sharing something deeply personal, most often a taboo or not-publicly-discussed topic.
Although I loved my clients, I didn’t have any emotional charge or attachment to my words at the office.
I became well-versed in bringing that same performative communication to my relationships, focusing on difficulties about being a business owner or something about being a lone parent or “hard truths” about my day.
These were polished, yet I actually had no heart behind my words. I was in the story, not in the emotions of the story. I had left my body. When it came to my deepest desires and wants, I froze.
I was in the thick of fake vulnerability. And it was f*cking up my relationships.
We are collectively feeling a sense of emptiness, loss, disconnection, and dissatisfaction in our relationships. We develop a sense of distrust, most often for our partner, or wonder what they are hiding.
We take the question to Facebook, searching for answers from everyone except the person we are in a relationship with:
>> We express truths to friends rather than to the person who needs to hear them.
>> We ruminate.
>> We invest in guessing, making up theories, complaining, or criticizing.
>> We bury our triggers, bodily sensations, and feelings and rely on coping mechanisms.
Instead of speaking directly to the person, we talk behind their back, asking for advice from books, third parties, or therapists. We fall back to relying on rules or gender norms because they provide the safety of: “if I do this, and I do that, I’m not actually invested, my heart’s not invested. So if I get rejected, it was not the real me.”
We learned to do this as children. Our body’s sensations and feelings were often ignored, hushed, or brushed off. We traded our authenticity for attachment, and we lost our connection to ourselves.
So as adults, we not only are not taking any risks by sharing, but it’s as if everybody is playing a cultural game of chicken, waiting for someone else to be vulnerable first.
But how do we connect without actually being vulnerable? On a base level, we can’t.
When we have a whole culture doing it, we hear stories about someone else’s day, their job, or the trials and tribulations of their most recent vacation.
And when the other person is not saying: “I still have feelings for my ex-girlfriend, so I am fighting off some guilt, being here with you,” or “I have a pit in my belly about telling him I’m dating again,” we blame them. And then we wonder why we aren’t deeply connecting and why we are so relationally dissatisfied.
Yet we are doing the same damn thing.
We need to quit it and get real.
We have to dig into the big-V of Vulnerability, ditch the coping strategies, work through triggers, and move past fake vulnerability. We need to deeply connect with others by speaking from our bodies instead of our heads.
We need to get into our present moment authenticity:
>> What sensations are arising in our body?
>> What emotions are attached to those sensations?
>> What personal beliefs are associated with those sensations or feelings?
>> What desires are bubbling up?
>> What would we say to someone else that we are afraid to say to this person?
And then we need to give them words, expressing something small and true: “I feel really happy to have spent time with you.” “I kind of have butterflies in my stomach today after our connection.” “I want more time together.”
It requires having the courage to put out where we’re at with someone so they can meet us. And if they don’t meet us, then we have information that we know where we stand with this person.
When we hear the word vulnerability, we often interpret it to mean “dark secrets” rather than “it’s what is in your body at this present moment.” Vulnerability does not need to be disclosing our deep, dark stories—those are stories that need to be earned.
But we can all ditch our fake vulnerability and instead follow what’s in our bodies. Vulnerability is not about the topic or story; it’s about the authenticity of body sensations and feelings. And we can’t fake those.
Next time, open our throats and say, “I had a really great time, I have very warm and open sensations in my body, and I’d love to see you again. Can we plan for that?”