How to be Vulnerable in an Online Community

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Vulnerability is an odd thing.

It feels like weakness but looks like bravery. It’s the only way to push relationships deeper, but it might also lead them to die an inglorious death. It’s scary and daunting and necessary.

It’s also highly delicate. Vulnerability requires a fine balance somewhere between being too closed and sharing too much. Too closed and you risk never getting close to people and missing out on receiving empathy and support. Too open and you risk oversharing, overburdening others, or coming across as needy, manipulative, or attention seeking.

This balance becomes yet more complex when considered from a community perspective.

Being vulnerable in a community context means being vulnerable in — gulp — public. And being vulnerable in public is tricky. Is it possible to be truly vulnerable if it’s to a large, faceless group? Is it just a bid for attention? Does it seem dumb to those you’re trying to be vulnerable to? Is it courageous and encouraging? What even is the goal?

So many questions.

Why you should care

Why would you want to learn how to be vulnerable? Simply put, you can’t have meaningful relationships without it. Vulnerability is what brings people closer in an authentic, deep way. If relationships like that are something you want, then vulnerability is what you need. Vulnerability is sharing yourself and without sharing yourself healthily and effectively, you can’t become known by others which means you can’t build deep relationships.

Are you following this glorious stream of logic? Great.

Also you’re on social media. You likely wouldn’t be reading this otherwise. And people share on social media. Now, let’s be honest: sometimes it’s a bit too much sharing. You don’t want to be that oversharing person. It’s awkward.

What you want is to share wisely because you like taking the wise route. (Go with me on this one. I believe in you.)

Fabulous. You’ve come to the right place.

Where all this brilliant info is coming from

The basis for this article was a survey I put out to an online college community. A total of 37 people provided their thoughts on vulnerability and on whom they saw in the community practicing it well. I then conducted interviews with five of the people most frequently mentioned as being vulnerable in a healthy, worth-emulating kind of way.

I distilled the interviews, and all the insights I pulled from them, into the top five ways you can become more vulnerable, more effectively, specifically in the context of an online community.

(I’ll also call upon the brilliance of Brené Brown, shame and vulnerability researcher, as needed.)

But first…

What vulnerability really is

Always define your terms! And in this case, defining vulnerability makes a big difference in how we approach the questions posed at the beginning of this piece. Superficially, vulnerability would seem to be the act of opening up and sharing things about yourself and your life. But that isn’t quite it.

Based on the survey responses, vulnerability is sincerity.

It’s purposely setting yourself up for potential hurt. It’s the act of diving deeper into relationships by being honest, showing your flaws, saying the hard things, and going beyond small talk answers to questions.

Vulnerability is about feeling fear but moving through it in order to bridge the gap between two people.

It’s bravery.

To Brené Brown, vulnerability is, quite simply, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”.

What vulnerability actually looks like

While some sharing might look like vulnerability and sound like vulnerability…it isn’t actually. We just defined what vulnerability is. Manipulative oversharing isn’t vulnerability. Awkward group exposés aren’t either.

“Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure, and it’s not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust-building process.”

That’s from Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. (Highly recommended.)

Survey respondents had similar things to say when asked what they thought distinguished healthy vulnerability from “unhealthy vulnerability”. (The latter of which isn’t actually vulnerability, as we’ve just established.)

They indicated that the motives for sharing are what really distinguish real vulnerability from a sharing that just looks like vulnerability. What are you hoping to gain? Why are you doing it? Is it selfish or manipulative? Those are some questions to think about. If the goal isn’t in line with what vulnerability is about, it likely isn’t vulnerability.

Context is another big deal. It’s not necessarily about what you share but about where and to whom. It’s important to understand your audience and the expectations around your relationship so that you share appropriately, upping the likelihood that your sharing will be adequately received.

Trust is yet another vital component in any vulnerability situation. To share something scary requires a deserved level of confidence in the other person’s character and the safety of your relationship with them. You’re sharing yourself and yourself is valuable, so you need to establish a solid sense of trust with whomever you’re opening up to.

The need for emotional intelligence and maturity plays a role as well. That includes being able to respect boundaries when it comes to sharing; understanding yourself, the other, and the dynamic; knowing that relationships require a give and take, and not a one-sided dumping; and being thoughtful towards the other person in general and what they can handle at any given time. Without all that, you’d likely be engaging in unhealthy sharing instead of vulnerability.

On a deeper level, a healthy sense of self worth is a defining feature of real vulnerability. Vulnerability takes courage and needs to be backed by a solid-enough sense of self value that rejection won’t result in complete dejection. That’s the risk of vulnerability — rejection by the person you’re being vulnerable to. They might not be able to handle your vulnerability, they might judge you, or they might push you away. If you want to be vulnerable, you need to be able to safely risk those outcomes. You just might get rejected and to deal with that you need a firm sense of self. (Or firm enough.)

How to be vulnerable

This is where you learn the top five vulnerability lessons I got from those community members voted “bestest in vulnerability.” (Okay, that’s not really what they were called, but that’s what I’m calling them here.) They are community leaders in how they effectively navigate the online space, and they are seen as sharing when and where it matters, and in a way that builds connection.

Yet, ironically, none of them think they’re great at being vulnerable. Most feel they’re overly closed and one feels she tends to share too much. This phenomenon leads to the first lesson.

1. Learn how to be vulnerable.

Humans aren’t born knowing precisely when and what and how to share. Considering the fact that vulnerability takes “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”, your life experiences might have taught you that it’s not worth it or that it’s way too scary, so you don’t open up. Or maybe you’ve struggled in the past to get the connection and support you need, so you just keep sharing in less-than-ideal contexts, essentially using the idea of vulnerability to get that emotional boost…without success.

The good news is you aren’t doomed to be closed off from people nor are you doomed to be an indiscriminate sharer.

You can learn how to be vulnerable. It’s a skill.

All the interviewees noted that they make an effort to be appropriately vulnerable, whether that means sharing or not sharing. They train themselves to be aware of situations that might call for vulnerability and make the conscious decision about how vulnerable they want to be (or not be.) They also actively accept feedback and calibrate their vulnerability as needed.

The point is, they keep learning and practicing. (And as one interviewee said, the decision making process becomes much more intuitive and subconscious with time.)

Photo by Trung Thanh on Unsplash

2. Choose to encourage.

The top vulnerable from the survey make a point of encouraging people with their vulnerability. If they’re sharing publicly, they want it to be for a purpose that benefits the reader or listener. If they’re on a leadership team, they might share to make themselves (and, by extension, the leadership in general) come off as more accessible and relatable. They might share something that they’ve struggled with and overcome so that others can feel hopeful as they grapple with their own issues. It needn’t be something grandiose — it just needs to be more other focused. They try to make their vulnerability less about them and more about the people they’re being vulnerable with.

This point goes back to how vulnerability is based on motives. Those I interviewed aim to be vulnerable for the group benefit of connection, community building, and encouragement. They tend to save the vulnerability for which they need emotional support for private, one-on-one situations.

3. Be humble.

Being vulnerable isn’t about perfection. On the contrary, the whole point of vulnerability is showing imperfection. The interviewees try to keep themselves grounded and humble when they share themselves. Their sharing is done with a humility people pick up on because their vulnerability isn’t about showing off or furthering a self-serving agenda or to make themselves seem a certain way.

That’s not to say they don’t think through what they’re sharing and how it might come across. They do. Some of them arguably severely overthink it. They want to be a good example, to maintain their self-respect, and, really, to just not seem silly. All that said, their goal typically isn’t to make themselves sound great or to be congratulated or sympathised with.

Their sharing is an exercise in humility because they are exposing themselves for, what they hope is, the benefit of others.

4. Connect behind the scenes.

This is a big deal. Why? Because how something is viewed publicly depends a lot on what is cultivated privately.

All the people I interviewed focus on vulnerability one-on-one. In fact, the majority of them find public vulnerability to be some version of uncomfortable, inane, unnecessary, or unwise. They all actively build real relationships with people outside of social media and public interactions. The public arena is only an extension of the relationships and community they’ve fostered one-on-one and in small groups and so being vulnerable in those contexts feels less public than it might otherwise.

Vulnerability, as established, is better received when there’s a strong relationship, so by establishing those personal relationships, any public displays of vulnerability are better received and perceived.

5. Recognise the value.

Everyone I spoke with values vulnerability.

They understand that the act of being vulnerable deepens discussions and enhances relationships. They know they need to share even if it’s scary, uncomfortable, or awkward. That’s why they practice vulnerability and use it as best they can. Being vulnerable (in the right way) starts with recognising that you need to be. It starts with seeing the value in opening yourself up to that emotional hurt.

The interviewees know that. They might not even like it, they might still feel they aren’t very vulnerable, but they see the value in meaningful sharing.

What the answers are

To recap, I posed some questions about public vulnerability at the very beginning of this writing. They were:

  • Is it possible to be truly vulnerable if it’s to a large, faceless group?
  • Is it just a bid for attention?
  • Does it seem dumb to those you’re trying to be vulnerable to?
  • Is it courageous and encouraging?
  • What even is the goal?

Considering the meaning of vulnerability, yes, it’s possible to be vulnerable to a large group. It’s not ideal. It isn’t where the vulnerability magic happens, but it’s possible to be vulnerable to a group granted you play it well. It might be a bid for attention, but then it isn’t actually vulnerability. Remember that motives tend to decide if something is healthily vulnerable or not. And yeah, it might seem dumb. You can’t control perceptions and if there’s one thing that I personally took away from my research was just how perception-based vulnerability is. Everyone I spoke with had a different idea of what vulnerability looked like coming from them and that sometimes further differed from how their sharing was perceived by other members of the community. Your perception of someone else’s vulnerability depends less on if they’re actually being vulnerable or not and more on if what they’re sharing is something that would make you feel vulnerable.

Funny how that works.

So yes, your sharing might be perceived as dumb, but hey, that’s the inherent risk of being vulnerable. (As incredibly uncomfortable as that is.) But it might be seen as courageous and encouraging too! If you truly are being vulnerable, then yes, that’s courageous and hopefully it’s encouraging too because you shared with that goal in mind. Just remember that you can’t control perceptions either way. You can simply practice wise vulnerability, aim to encourage, be humble, and cultivate those relationships behind the scenes.

As to the last question, only you can answer that: what is the goal? Whatever your answer, it’ll guide whatever you might share.

Answer well.



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