• It's hard to be vulnerable, but finding the courage to do so can make our relationships and sense of self stronger

  • Psychotherapist and author Philippa Perry explores how our earliest experiences may have led to feelings of shame and made it difficult for us to communicate our needs

  • If this is something you struggle with, you can find a counsellor or therapist here

Feeling lonely sucks. And sometimes knowing what to say and how to be with others seems so hard that it feels easier to be lonely than taking the risk of rejection. 

We may feel cut off but perhaps that's better than showing what you really deep down feel and then having that part of you rejected. If we feel lonely and always keep part of ourselves hidden it may feel that at least that vulnerable part is safe. 

When beliefs like these dictate our actions it is a default mode of defence, such a strategy isn't consciously planned, rather we were trained for it by earlier experiences, maybe in our very first relationship, with our earliest caregivers.

It doesn't feel safe to share what you really feel.

It doesn't feel safe to share what you really feel. Perhaps your earliest experiences taught you that if you shared what are you really felt you were likely to be invalidated rather than the opposite. For example "I hate my baby brother" might have been met with "what a wicked thing to say" rather than "oh you feel pushed aside by the new baby, that's not nice for you". 

You may have been through similar experiences to these and although they may be now largely forgotten their legacy is that deep down you feel you are no good and if anyone got to know you they would would not like you. We tend to repress feelings such as these, but the trouble is, it's hard to close just one part of ourselves down – other parts get closed down with it. 

I'm saying "we" and "you" as I write this but of course I mean "me" and "I". When I was growing up I wasn't allowed to be sad or to be angry or even ill. So these parts had to be pushed right down in order to find acceptance. Of course a large part of myself went down with them. I compensated with a "game face" so I could go through the motions of social intercourse without showing all of myself . 

Sometimes this is the right thing to do – but not 24/7. I was often depressed though I found that I could hide it. When I decided to train as a Samaritan I thought it was to give something back to society. But with hindsight I think I wanted to know if it was safe to acknowledge and share my feelings.

Self-esteem is the self-belief that you are basically all right – even if you get knocked down occasionally.

I learnt that not only could it be safe to share difficult feelings but also therapeutic. It gave me the courage to go into therapy and practice being all of myself in that safe space. To be accepted by another person without keeping parts of me hidden was life-changing, in a good way, for me. 

Self-esteem is the self-belief that you are basically all right – even if you get knocked down occasionally. People who boast "I speak as I find" haven't necessarily got the hang of this. They usually mean they enjoy criticising other people. That's very different. 

What I'm talking about is becoming comfortable with your own vulnerability, not poking sticks into other people's soft spots. I don't think that a therapist needs to be the person that we first experiment upon. Sharing your authentic self is something you can decide to risk more often anywhere. Sharing all of yourself and learning to listen to yourself and others on a regular basis is very good, not only for your mental health but your physical health. Sharing yourself authentically and feel accepted will actually boost your immune system. 

And if you get knocked down, get up again.

Further reading

Why vulnerability is worth the risk

How to use vulnerability to forge strong relationships

What does real intimacy feel like?

Is your childhood sabotaging your relationships?

Why we internalise shame in childhood