How To Be (A Little) More Vulnerable With Your Friends
Learning to delve a bit deeper with your buddies has big benefits for everyone involved.
“I worry that my son doesn’t have any friends.” “Is it just me or do you often think about what you’d say at your dad’s funeral?” “We definitely struggled to find time to connect after the baby arrived.” “I’m really having a hard time trying to stay positive at work.” “That’s great! I’m so proud of you, man.”
Vulnerability is one of the most important skills a modern man can develop. Learning to express yourself emotionally, to share honest apprehensions and fears as well as moments of happiness or words of appreciation and support can benefit you as a parent, co-worker, spouse, and friend. A greater emotional fluency helps you understand yourself and others more deeply. It allows you to form stronger bonds and feel less alone. It can help you become a happier, more fulfilled person.
Of course, being vulnerable is easier said than done, especially when it comes to male friendships. When meeting up with a buddy for a burger or talking to a dad friend at a block party, it’s not unusual for it to feel unnatural to take the conversation to a more personal place. Chalk it up to traditional notions of masculinity, which stifle such shows of emotion. Maybe vulnerability wasn’t encouraged when you were growing up. Maybe you received more overt messaging that opening up is something that a man “just doesn’t do”. As a result, your internal instinct might be to ignore certain topics or even go so far as to bust your friend’s balls when the conversation comes close to more emotional territory.
Blake Blankenbecler, a Charleston, South Carolina psychotherapist and the creator of The Friendship Deck notes how more traditional masculine norms keep men “stuck and stifled.” “There’s a big impetus, she says, “on cutting off the emotional part of yourself, which is why there are such high numbers of depression and suicide.”
According to the 2021 State of American Friendships Survey, 15 percent of American men surveyed said they have no close friends. Only 30 percent said that they shared personal feelings with a friend in the past week. In general, men’s social networks are shrinking. The danger of this is real: Men who lack strong networks of friends are more susceptible to chronic illness, loneliness, and suicide. They also tend to have a more difficult time getting along with their family and have difficulty modeling what friendships look like for their children.
Learning to open up more can help buck these trends and create more fulfilling relationships. “When you are more vulnerable, you attract more emotionally intelligent friends,” says Henry Ortiz, a San Pedro, California psychologist. “You can be seen and heard as the real you, not just the superficial guy persona [where all you do is talk] about sports, that leaves you still feeling empty or lonely at the end of the day.” Importantly, Ortiz adds, this can also help avoid a prevalent side-effect of not having close friendships: over-relying on your partner.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to immediately expose your deepest darkest fears with your buddies. There are simple ways to introduce a bit more vulnerability into your friendships without overwhelming your friends or yourself. As always, it starts with a few basic, actionable reminders.
1. Start Small
When dipping your toes in the ocean of vulnerability, you certainly don’t want to hijack a casual meetup by monologuing about all your feelings. Instead, find a friend who you’re comfortable with, especially if they’re someone who’s been vulnerable with you in the past, and, when the moment presents itself, share a little something you’ve been feeling or struggling with.
“If they respond with support, then you know you’ve got a green light,” says Ortiz. “You can share more. You can deepen that relationship. If they judge you, reject you, make fun of you, then you know that maybe this isn't your person.”
There’s no “sexy way” to do this, says Blankenbecler. No matter how your friend reacts, have compassion for yourself. “Focus on the fact that you took a risk and that you're doing something different.”
Both stress the importance of building up your resistance to other people’s opinions. “One of the most important things we can do for personal growth is to learn to let others think what they want to think of you,” Ortiz says. “You may lose some friends who are not emotionally intelligent. That's part of the price of having a better life, weeding out some of the folks that shouldn't be there.”
2. Be Honest That This Might Be Hard For You
One way to ease into being more open with friends is by outwardly admitting to them that you’re practicing being more vulnerable and why. Be vulnerable about how hard it is for you.
“It’s the equivalent of giving a speech when you're nervous,” Ortiz says. Sometimes the best way to defuse the tension is to say to the audience, “I'm not used to public speaking, and this makes me so nervous. Please bear with me.”
After you share something personal, Ortiz recommends asking your friend “What do you think about what I'm saying?” That way, you turn it into a discussion. If they give a response that hurts you, you want to call them out, use “I” statements to tell them how you feel. Think, “I was hurt when you changed the subject.”
3. Be There For Your Friend In Return
Vulnerability is not a one-way street. It’s important to be respectful and kind when someone opens up to you as well. This means actively listening, asking follow-up questions, and, if able, relating to what they shared to make it clear they’re not alone in their feelings. Try your best to refrain from offering advice and instead focus on helping them feel heard and acknowledged.
Often, actions speak louder. Are they going through a tough time? Don’t ask if they need anything. Instead, offer something practical and tangible. For example, if they had a new baby, drop off dinner. If they’re lonely because a relationship ended, schedule some time to meet up at the driving range or for a beer.
And get in the habit of checking-in after the initial conversation. Shoot them a message that shows you were listening and care. Were they worried about a work issue? Try, “Hey man, just checking in. I know you were worried about that meeting with your boss today. How’d it go?”
4. Take Small Bites
Vulnerability takes practice. It won’t happen overnight. Go easy on yourself if it doesn’t come naturally. With small adjustments — a promise to share a little bit more with your coworker or to ask your buddy one deeper question the next time you hang out — the more comfort you’ll develop. Model good listening with your loved ones. See a therapist to help express and understand yourself better.
When it comes to vulnerability in friendships, Blankenbecler admits that it’s a hard thing to do and friends may dip out. She stresses that a few deeper relationships are better than a bunch of superficial ones. “The rule of thumb is quality over quantity,” she says. The goal, Ortiz adds, is to find the people who truly care. “Make vulnerability a lifestyle for yourself,” he says. “Build your own tribe of people by stepping into this one step at a time and practicing it.”
And remember, it takes courage to be vulnerable. “You'll be okay,” says Ortiz. “It takes self-trust. It's an act of self-love.”