Vulnerable Moments

Why might another person's seem vulnerability more admirable than your own?

By Devon Frye, published November 6, 2018 - last reviewed on January 1, 2019

FLUKY FLUKY/Shutterstock
FLUKY FLUKY/Shutterstock

Expressing feelings for someone, owning up to a mistake, and other acts of self-exposure can bring on uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability. Apart from the risk of embarrassment or backlash, however, there are upsides: Opening up can deepen relationships, and candor can earn respect.

How positive a display of vulnerability seems may depend on whether you or someone else makes it. In recent studies, German university students contemplated situations in which they or another person showed vulnerability, such as by requesting help or apologizing first after a fight. Overall, students rated acts more favorably—based on how much they reflected attributes like courage or weakness and how they would be seen generally—if someone else did them.

"We see others' experiences more abstractly," says lead study author Anna Bruk of the University of Mannheim. "When it comes to our own vulnerability, we have a better view of what might go wrong."

This focus on the costs of vulnerability could obscure its benefits. Revealing personal details can help foster intimacy, explains psychologist Arthur Aron, who was not involved in the study. "We tend to fear the outcome more than we should," he says. "We're overdoing it."