Vulnerability- the willingness to be open, to share our weaknesses, to be honest with others- is the foundation of true, authentic, healing community.
Most people want to be part of a group where they feel fully known and accepted for who they are. Most of the time, that’s not our experience. How many times have we shared something about ourselves and had a negative reaction from others? It’s discouraging to say the least.
This often starts in childhood. Your family usually knows you the best, and when you feel like your family doesn’t accept you as you are, it’s difficult to trust others. The solution is to create a community where you can be vulnerable and seen and known and accepted and loved just as you are. The difficult part is bridging that gap.
As we try to create community, the only way to do that is to increase our vulnerability. We all have our stories we use to test the waters to see if people are safe to trust and if they will be open or rejecting.
This is where boundaries come into play. Some people, desperate for connection, overshare from the start. They want to get everything out in the open right away to create a deeper bond with a new person. Others, careful of their privacy, don’t share much if anything when they meet new people in order to protect themselves. Neither is ideal.
Appropriate levels of openness and engagement include five stages, each with an increasing amount of self-disclosure. People should only move down the stages to closer relationship as they demonstrate that they are worthy of your trust. This can be incredibly difficult, especially if you’ve been abused, abandoned, or betrayed.
- Strangers. These are the people you run into at the store, at church, at a party. You may know their name or recognize their face but that’s about it. The appropriate level of openness for a Stranger is called External Facts. These External Facts give and receive knowledge that is publicly available. Appropriate self-disclosure includes how you know the host if you are at a party of a mutual friend, commenting on the weather, or talking about the activity if you are at an event. You don’t have to decide if they’re safe to trust because you’re not sharing anything personal.
- Acquaintances. This step up from Stranger occurs when you see them enough to feel like you have a sense of their habits and way of being. Many coworkers are Acquaintances since we spend a significant amount of time around them. Even during a long conversation, a Stranger could become an Acquaintance fairly soon after meeting. Acquaintances should have a Basic Knowledge level of openness. This includes some information about your personal history including where you were raised, where you were educated, what neighborhood you live in, your current family, and any hobbies you have. As a step up from Strangers, Acquaintances don’t necessarily need to prove trustworthiness since Basic Knowledge tends not to be very private.
- Friends. As you continue to spend time with Acquaintances, they may become Friends, particularly if you live near each other, have hobbies in common, or have children at the same school. Friends get to a level of openness called History and Process. History refers to your own personal history, how you came to be who you are. Process refers to your current thoughts and plans, your working determination of where you are now and where you plan to be in the immediate future. These are people you share your free time with doing mutual activities. It takes the most trust to move from an Acquaintance to a Friend. These people should be able to keep your confidence and be consistent when you agree to meet up.
- Close Friends. Not all Friends are suitable to be Close Friends. The level of openness here is Internal Knowledge. The distinction here is that you don’t just share your activities, thoughts, and plans but also more intimate knowledge of your hopes, dreams, fears, and concerns. More than just sharing your plan to leave your job and start your own business, you also share how excited you are to have your own store and how worried you are about paying the mortgage if it doesn’t go well. Close Friends are those you can trust to hear your hopes and fears and give you support and encouragement along the way. The shift from Friends to Close Friends usually takes trust over time to develop. It often happens slowly and organically.
- Inner Circle. While it seems like Close Friends should be enough, it’s also good to have and Inner Circle that gets access to your Core Knowledge. Even Close Friends shouldn’t necessarily know everything about you. Ideally, your Inner Circle contains only a select few people who you can absolutely trust. That’s why this shift should be a very conscious decision on your part.
How do you relate to this list? Do you find yourself oversharing or undersharing with new people? Most importantly, how do you decide when someone is safe to trust with an increasing level of openness?