Kelly Gonsalves


February 25, 2023

Kelly Gonsalves

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

By Kelly Gonsalves

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

vulnerable couple

Image by Manu Prats / Stocksy

February 25, 2023

We hear it all the time: Relationships require you to “be vulnerable” with each other.

It’s said so often that it’s almost become background noise in the world of dating advice, alongside other trite truisms like “communication is key” and “relationships take hard work.”

But despite being a bit of a buzz word, vulnerability is a complex concept. It’s also a characteristic that doesn’t actually come easy or naturally to everyone.


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What it means to be vulnerable.

In relationships, being vulnerable is the act of showing someone exactly who you are and how you feel without disguise, bravado, or ego defenses, exposing yourself to the possibility of hurt or rejection.

“Being vulnerable means we make a conscious decision not to hide ourselves,” explains licensed couples therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC. “This is risky because we can’t control how others will respond to us. It means others see who we truly are, and if they aren’t able to take us in, or appreciate our complexity, and they judge or reject us, it hurts deeply.”

To help understand what vulnerability looks like in practice, Muñoz offers the example of how babies handle emotions:

“Being vulnerable with someone means risking being your true self. For babies, this is easy. They’re effortlessly themselves. They feel sad and they cry. They feel happy and they smile. They experience pain and they flinch, gasp, or whimper. They’re afraid and they seek soothing and comfort. Babies haven’t yet learned to hide themselves or what they feel. As our brains get more sophisticated, and we experience losses and disappointments, and develop a sense of ourselves as separate from others, we learn to present ourselves to the world the way we want to be perceived. We learn to hide ourselves. When we feel sad, we laugh. When we feel scared, we act indifferent. When we feel jealous, we tell people we’re happy for them.”

As Muñoz points out, people begin to struggle with vulnerability because they fear getting hurt—typically in the form of other people’s rejection, judgment, or betrayal. We may begin to put on a brave face, act indifferent, suppress emotions, or step into a role meant to protect ourselves from these risks.

“The irony is, when we do this, we end up robbing ourselves of the intimacy, connection, community, and love of the people who have the bandwidth and capacity to take us in as we are,” she says.

15 examples of emotional vulnerability:

  1. Directly telling someone that you think they’re cool and are interested in getting to know them better
  2. Letting someone know that something they said hurt your feelings
  3. Telling someone when you’re feeling ashamed or embarrassed
  4. Acknowledging when you’ve made a mistake and apologizing for it
  5. Asking for feedback on a project you care a lot about and worked hard on
  6. Opening up to someone about a past experience of trauma or hardship
  7. Asking someone for help
  8. Telling a friend that your relationship has been rocky lately and asking for support
  9. Listening to someone explain a way in which you’ve hurt them, without trying to explain what happened or defend your character
  10. Letting people know about your personal insecurities or struggles
  11. Allowing yourself to feel hopeful and excited about a budding relationship, even though things are still new and uncertain
  12. Setting a boundary with someone
  13. Talking openly about your negative emotions—such as anger, fear, disappointment, or jealousy—without trying to cover them up or deflect from them
  14. Telling someone about a time where someone made you feel small
  15. Believing and trusting in someone completely, putting your faith in them that they’ll come through for you 


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7 ways to be more vulnerable in a relationship:


Get to know your inner world better.

In order to show people your true self, you need to know your true self.

This starts with getting to know yourself “behind your default attitudes,” says Muñoz. “Notice your knee-jerk reactions when something positive or negative happens. Ask yourself, ‘If I didn’t hide behind this reaction, is there more going on here for me?’”

She recommends checking out an emotions wheel and using it (frequently!) to identify what emotions are coming up for you throughout the day.

“Allow yourself to notice how you feel in different situations, tune in to your body, and practice saying how you genuinely feel about things out loud,” she says. “It can be surprisingly powerful to say, ‘I feel angry toward my sister’ or ‘I feel scared of being alone’ because often, we doesn’t even allow ourselves to be vulnerable with ourselves.”

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Tell people how you really feel about things.

Once you’re more in touch with your own emotions, start communicating them to others. “Practice telling people how you really feel about things, even if it seems silly,” Muñoz recommends.

Missing one of your old friends? Send them a text and let them know. Did your partner hurt your feelings with a small comment they made this morning? Tell them honestly how it felt. Really enjoying hanging out with your sister? Let her know.

The truth is, part of being vulnerable is accepting the risk of getting hurt. That means we can’t always wait for a situation where we’re perfectly safe or know for certain that we won’t get judged or rejected.

“There’s always a degree of risk involved when you’re genuine and honest,” says Muñoz. “ven if we’re vulnerable and it doesn’t end up creating intimacy and connection, or it isn’t received well, that’s okay. Being vulnerable doesn’t guarantee things will go your way in all your relationships.”

Learn to practice acceptance for these moments and tolerance for the emotions that may come with it.


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Work on healing your attachment wounds.

The fear of abandonment or getting hurt by others often stems from past experiences where that very thing happened. These are sometimes known as attachment issues, and it can help to explore these wounds with a mental health professional.

The goal is to develop what’s known as a secure attachment style. A securely attached person tends to be much more comfortable with vulnerability, according to licensed marriage and family therapist Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT. “They know that it is OK to need or depend on others, and they value being needed in return,” she previously told mbg. “Intimacy and vulnerability are not a challenge, as a securely attached individual has a strong sense of self and isn’t dictated by fear of rejection or a fear of losing themselves.”


Invite feedback from others.

Asking your partner (or anyone) to give you their honest thoughts about you, your work, or your behavior is an intensely vulnerable act—but it’s also something that can lead to more intimacy and accountability in your relationships.

“When asking for feedback, be approachable and accountable,” spiritual expert Shannon Kaiser previously told mbg. “Expressing yourself vulnerably while inviting feedback could improve your connections as it gives people a chance to express themselves and convey any roadblocks or areas of friction.”


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Be upfront about the things you want.

As sex and relationship coach Gigi Engle previously wrote for mbg, vulnerability in dating can simply look like prioritizing your truth. It isn’t just about pouring your heart out and telling them all your traumas from the past (though that can be part of it, eventually). You can start with something as small as being open about exactly what you want from a potential relationship, or simply getting radically honest with someone you’re going on a date with.

“Try answering every question with a completely true answer,” she recommends. “If your date wants to get coffee but you don’t like coffee, don’t agree to have coffee. If you want to take a walk around the park, say you want to take a walk around the park. The building blocks of vulnerability start with honesty.”


Remember why you’re doing this.

Last but not least, it’s important to remember that vulnerability isn’t about getting other people to like us more, or really getting anything out of others.

“We need to remember we’re not being vulnerable to get people to act a certain way toward us,” says Muñoz. “It’s not a tool of manipulation. It’s a tool of liberation. We do it for ourselves.”

No matter how the situation plays out after you open yourself up, know that you’ve already benefitted—because you showed up as your full self.

“There’s only one you, and you were born to experience who you are as fully as possible as often as possible, free of masks, defenses, disguises, and shields.”


Why do I struggle with being vulnerable?

People might struggle with being vulnerable for a multitude of reasons, but one of the most common is having previous experience with receiving negative responses to your vulnerability—for example, growing up with parents who criticized you when you tried to share a struggle, trusting a romantic partner who later cheated on you, or being shamed at school when trying to express yourself. Some cultures also discourage being open about feelings; men in many communities, for example, are directly told to hold in their emotions in order to “be a man.”

What are signs of vulnerability in a partner?

A partner who is comfortable with being vulnerable is willing to share exactly how they feel (good or bad), is willing to trust you, and generally open to getting emotionally close with another person.


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The takeaway.

Being vulnerable is a risk, but it pays dividends in our relationships by allowing others to get close to us and know us more fully. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, it is possible to learn how to be vulnerable by practicing small acts of emotional bravery whenever and wherever possible.