As a psychiatrist, I get a close whiff of people’s dirty laundry, so to speak. Most people would rather share their weaknesses with a total stranger (and pay good money for it) than confide in someone they know.
In fact, it’s the reason that most of my patients seek my help in a crisis. Yes, they may want a medical professional’s unbiased opinion, or they may have exhausted their social networks. But another reason is so that the image they have worked so hard to maintain gets to remain intact. I don’t interact with their social circle and I don’t judge them. There is no question of gossip or their reputation being tarnished. Our rapport, no matter how impactful, always remains in a protected vacuum.
How neat would it be to have a friendship like this? Where you are heard, seen, validated, and not judged? A place where you are accepted and loved unconditionally? A place where there is no need to put on airs about your income, relationship, or travels?
Even in the closest of relationships, we feel the need to preserve our image. After all, social standing is everything. How valuable you are to a team — from sports to the corporate world — guarantees your compensation and protection. Even my 3-year-old dons his Iron Man/Superman/Spider-Man costume the minute he walks in the door. He puts on his cloak of invincibility, the way most of us wear ours metaphorically, so that we don’t get hurt and humiliated.
But what if showing your weaknesses could actually make you more of an asset? What if sharing emotional vulnerabilities could make people feel closer to you and want to protect you as a result?
Is this all just crazy talk? Why would I, in my right mind, disclose that I am secretly a ____ (fill in the blank.. hoarder, binge eater or drinker etc)? Well, hear me out...
You become charming by being disarming. You are not a threat. We are constantly sizing people up, trying to find out where we stand in comparison. We are so afraid that complimenting another somehow makes us appear less than. On the contrary, you endear yourself to the other.
My husband, mesmerized by his co-worker’s rather large pad (at their company’s holiday party) asked, “Dude, wow, do we have the same job?” He instantly became this guy’s BFF.
Seeking a friend's advice on a job, a trip, or a doctor's recommendation makes your friend feel like a valuable resource. I frequently hear from my clients that they don’t feel appreciated at their job or at home on a daily basis. Asking for advice makes them feel “in the know” and it makes you appear humble. People love humble people.
Of course, you want to remain respectful of your friend’s time and resources by reciprocating. This creates a sense of community and shared support system. I recently swapped coaching services with a nutrition friend, creating accountability. When going on vacation, I hit up friends on travel tips and I’m always impressed with how happy folks are to share their insights. I love learning, and they get to brag about base jumping. Win-win!
I did this as a new mom, having no clue what to expect in those early days and now as a mom raising two little boys. It doesn’t matter how many professional degrees you have, at the end of the day, we have all felt vulnerable as a parent, questioning our decisions. I’m always happy to learn other’s insights and life experiences. (And of course, equally happy to shed that which seems totally off to me.)
For the most part, asking for advice can be win-win when done within reason. Sometimes, though, we are too afraid to come off as a novice. Just remember the line, “There is no such thing as a stupid question”. (Or say to yourself, it’s OK to risk looking stupid just this once, but then I’ll know the answer. If all else fails there is always Wikipedia).
One of my co-workers became a dear friend when she was in the process of her divorce. She reached out to other colleagues, and all of us became tighter as a result of her life-changing experience as she was able to be vulnerable and open up.
This is important in friendships. It says I trust and respect what you have to offer and I value what you think enough to reveal something about myself. I'm not perfect. I'm not better than you. I need help sometimes.
Often we work too hard to preserve an image of being "put together" or want to be seen as "having it all.” We don't realize that it's through the cracks that the light comes in. Let people into your life by sharing your difficulties.
We set up barriers to closeness when we act holier-than-thou. Also, people love a little self-deprecating humor when well timed. You don't want to get in the habit of putting yourself down, but being able to laugh at yourself with your friends is key.
Sue Varma, M.D., FAPA is a board certified psychiatrist practicing in Manhattan and a Clinical Assistant Professor at NYU Langone.