Teenagers are known for taking risks. Developmental psychologists have even termed a certain level of risk in adolescence “normative,” meaning that a certain range of risks are to be expected. We usually think of those risks in terms of more dangerous physical behavior, but teens take relational risks too. They differentiate from their families of origin and assert themselves as “different” from those who have raised them in their beliefs, appearances, hobbies, and interests. They have more room to explore their identity and practice ways to be close to others. Teenagers tend to be boldly themselves and strongly align with particular positions and values that feel important. Lately, I have been wondering if a variation of this “normative” risking is something that we may want to continue to employ in our relational lives even into adulthood.
We tend to live our lives so distant and protected from one another, even though we feel isolated. We fear being seen. We hide from being known. Being vulnerable and being open is foreign and often something we actively avoid. We are understandably fearful that we may get hurt or rejected, which makes the task of being open a frightening one. I come across many people who long to feel close and to be known by loved ones but shame and uncertainty keeps them miles apart and feeling perpetually isolated. Sharing their vulnerability with others feels inherently risky, so they avoid it.
I experienced this desire to “keep distance” in my own life in the last week when I was a bit overwhelmed and stressed by the many demands of the particular week. I was feeling maxed out and I spent a morning trying to get “everything done” (which it turns out is never possible) and move forward in my own mind. Then, when I felt I had neared my limit, I knew I could try to figure it out alone or ask for trusted others to come alongside me. I decided to reach out to trusted friends and request some time to talk. As I shared my experiences and feelings, I was met with “that is so hard,” “me toos,” and “sometimes I feel the same way.” While none of our experiences were exactly the same, it felt great to be heard and feel less alone. I had a sense of relief from sharing my journey, and I was rewarded with feeling more connected to people I love.
I admit that sharing with others is “risky.” Because we may not be understood; it is possible that we could feel more alone and less connected after opening up. The one thing I do know is that we will almost NEVER feel closer if we avoid opening up and stay closed off. Taking the step toward another person in vulnerability is an initial requirement for being truly known and it can come with great reward. There will likely be some misses in taking the risk to be vulnerable where others have trouble relating, but safe, trusting relationships can usually withstand and repair from a few misses. Maybe we should take a relational cue from our adolescent friends and engage in some relational “risk taking” by letting ourselves be seen in our closest relationships.