Fear and Vulnerability

Have you ever sat next to someone, new or old and realized that you have nothing left to talk about? Everything that you can ask has already been asked and now you're just sitting there waiting until someone picks up their phone and this wall of pseudo interest in one and other can end? Well, this used to happen to me all the time until I understood the real reason why: because I wasn't being vulnerable. 

In my last year of college, I took a class called “fracturing fictions of fear,” where I examined the relationship that fear has with vulnerability.  As humans, we create these gates. Barriers that from the outside reflect an image. This image is our exterior, the characteristics that we want others to see and know us by. It’s our personal image. However, these gates hide our true self which usually is quite different. Very few people have access to the interior self that the gates keep shut. The only way to get in is through a key, which in this scenario is vulnerability. For someone to see past the exterior image they have to take part in an interpersonal exercise of vulnerability, can be a fear for many. I found this interplay of fear and vulnerability fascinating. While we see fear in many ways, a majority of the times we see it as crippling. I wondered if there are ways that fear can be motivating and if being vulnerable help counter those fears.

With this idea in mind, I created a vulnerability workshop where two participants who didn't know each other too well, introduced themselves to each other and answered a series of ten questions. The questionnaire was loosely based on a psychological study by Aron et al. (1997), who looked at how being vulnerable with strangers can influence interpersonal closeness. They created a glossary of 36 questions that had to be answered by two strangers in a single sitting. The research, while old, has become immensely popular as the “36 love questions”— questions that if asked, guarantee that you fall in love. While I was skeptical of its ability to find me love, I was very interested in the questions being asked.

The questions I asked were: 

  1. What did you think of the introduction exercise? Do you think it was effective? Would you do that with a friend? 
  2. Name three things you and your date have in common (collective discussion, make note for later)
  3. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  4. What is your most terrible memory?
  5. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either mind or body of a 30 year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want? 
  6. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
  7. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most?
  8. Where do you see your life in 5 years?
  9. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find the most disturbing? Why? 
  10. How/why did your last relationship end? 
  11. Affirmation: Thank your date and tell them one thing that you appreciate about them.

There were three things that I learnt from this workshop: 

  1. Vulnerability is seen as risk taking: Participants acknowledged the value of vulnerability but also elucidated its potential harms. The things that people found to be positive about being vulnerable was its ability to open channels of deeper thought and empathy between people. While debriefing with my group about their experiences with the vulnerability workshop, people were really amazed at what they learned. They were almost pleasantly surprised at how much people were ready to share with them and how that allowed for them to share things back as well. Being vulnerable allows for this conversation and creates opportunities for being open. 
  2. There is a positive correlation between being open and feeling close to someone: Vulnerability increased interpersonal closeness but only to a certain degree. For us to be closer, we need to persistently communicate otherwise we lose the closeness we had worked. This makes sense when we look at our close relationships between friends and family— we are close to them because we continue to be open and engaging.  
  3. Our emotions surrounding death are relational and vulnerability seems to have a positive impact on how we acknowledge its presence: There was an interesting pattern within Aaron’s 36 love questions, a majority of them related to death. I found this theme interesting an incorporated some of those questions into my set of ten as well. What I found was that participants loved those questions because even though if was hard to share their own answers, it was equally rewarding to hear others’ responses. 

I love these ten questions. There is a depth of understanding that you achieve with them that no amount of superficial time in a coffee shop can achieve. I hated being vulnerable but these questions help me challenge my own fears and generate this new dimension with which I see new people. This was a very basic breakdown of a much larger analysis which I’m happy to share with people. If there is anything, I want people to take from this is that: if you ask the right questions, even the most boring people become fascinating.