Vulnerability vs. Defensiveness: Why Talking to People Feels Harder Than It Is

Vulnerability vs. Defensiveness: Why Talking to People Feels Harder Than It Is

By: Dr. Laura Gallaher

Summary Points:

  • Being vulnerable is scary, but in the rare case that others respond negatively – that’s just their shit
  • You need vulnerability on your team
  • An unwillingness to be vulnerable is a red flag
  • It takes true courage and self-esteem to be vulnerable

read time: 6 minutes

Vulnerability vs. Defensiveness

Her: “Is that story real? I mean, I’m not calling you a liar or anything but…”


Me: “Um…” I paused. “I think maybe you are,” I say cautiously, but honestly.


Her: “Well…”


Me: “It’s a true story, just like I said at the beginning.”


Her: “But…there’s no happy ending? That’s really embarrassing, it’s hard to believe you would share that.”


Somewhat stunned, I paused for a moment, and then felt my eyebrows raise in acknowledgement.


Me: “Yeah,” I say slowly. “It’s not easy to share. I wanted to give you a real example, so you could relate.”


I had just started consulting with a stage 2 growth company. The CEO wanted to improve teamwork, communication and collaboration. With varied history and tenure, even the newest member of the team already had a heavy history of conflict and distrust.


So, on day 3 working together as a team, I jumped heavily into vulnerability.


I was explaining the elements of the FIRO Theory (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation Theory), which is a mouthful that basically just means how we relate to other humans. I was explaining that our behavior is directly connected to how we feel about ourselves.

Our Behavior is Directly Connected to How We Feel About Ourselves 

For example, one’s preference for inclusion, or my desire to be around a lot of people can be high, medium, or low and it can change over time. I used to have a medium-high preference for inclusion. I loved being with my group of friends, I loved having multiple roommates, and I loved working on teams where the work required collaboration.

But in 2011, I had a friend walk out of my life in a way that stunned me and broke my heart. I didn’t understand it and I couldn’t get any real answers. It went on for years that way. Now, we have since reconnected, at least at a surface level, but the years of feeling abandoned and confused really affected me. While I was struggling to figure out what had “gone wrong” and what was “wrong with me” I found being around other people excruciating. I was constantly “trying” to be some kind of way, but I wasn’t even sure what. It was tiring and unrewarding, because even if a social gathering “went well” I didn’t feel like I was being myself.

Sharing Our Vulnerabilities Isn’t Always Easy

I shared this story to illustrate how my preferences for inclusion had shifted over time and depended on how I felt about myself.


I’ll call this woman Sherry (not her real name).


Sherry was unbelievably uncomfortable with my story. It was beyond her comprehension that somebody could share a story like this.


For most people, witnessing somebody being open and vulnerable creates a sense of empathy, compassion, and even admiration for the courage to be so open.


But it’s also relatable. Even though we all have different types of experiences in life, the feelings that we have are the same. Most of us feel a great sense of relief and comfort to know that others have those same feelings, and that we’re not alone.

But for some people, acknowledging those feelings – the sadness or helplessness associated with losing a friend and not knowing why – those are too painful. They trigger such deep insecurities – fears of being fundamentally unlovable, incompetent or insignificant, that defenses kick in and prevent them from feeling those fears.


Sherry: “Is that story real? I mean, I’m not calling you a liar or anything but…”


So, when Sherry accused me of being a liar and then announced how embarrassing my story was, it wasn’t because she is a rude person or a mean person. Rather, her self-concept was so threatened by the parts of herself that feared being inadequate, that she blocked herself off from those feelings.


Me: “Um…” I paused. “I think maybe you are,” I say cautiously, but honestly.


Sherry: “But…there’s no happy ending? That’s really embarrassing, it’s hard to believe you would share that.”


My vulnerability was so uncomfortable for her that her defense mechanisms kicked in, and instead of allowing herself to feel those feelings (vulnerable), she became a critic – believing there was no way that story was true, or no way that I would share a story that didn’t have a happy ending.


The rest of Sherry’s team was quite open, and they expressed compassion and understanding at my story. Over the next day and a half, the team worked to help Sherry open up, but she just wasn’t ready.

Vulnerability Has A Way of Disguising Itself

I learned the next week that she left the team, and they were relieved. While they wished her the best, her constant defensiveness was detracting from the team’s ability to have real, open conversations. They were striving for big growth, and with big, measurable goals that were tracked every week, having open dialogue is a must.

Admitting, as a leader, that a goal is too high and asking that it be modified – that’s vulnerable.


Allowing other people to help and offer suggestions even when you’re supposed to be the subject matter expert – that’s vulnerable.


Telling your boss that you had an emotional reaction when he expressed anger, or used a tone in his voice, and requesting that he engage with you differently – that’s vulnerable.


And these are the real conversations that happen on high performing teams.


I have grown over time – I used to deny my own vulnerability, even in the face of others being open, and now I’m often the one leading the charge.


What’s true for you?


What happens for you when somebody else is vulnerable? Do you take the time to connect? Or do you close up to deny your own connection to the same vulnerable feelings? Please share your thoughts and experiences here.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Laura Gallaher

    I love real examples! I also used to be more like Sherry, although perhaps even more toxic, because I would keep all my critical thoughts in my head. I’d look at somebody sharing vulnerably, and even if – or especially if – it resonated with me, I would find myself denying it or feeling really uncomfortable in their presence. Slowing down is great – and I also find such a freedom in just being open about myself – even the things that I’m afraid to share. It creates freedom from judgment and freedom from my own shame and negative self talk. Thanks for commenting, Chelsea!

  • Chelsea Coster

    Thank you for sharing real examples Laura! Your examples often resonate strongly with me. I think I used to be more like “Sherry” and after working with you and attending Human Element (along with becoming more self aware) have allowed me to recognize my own defense mechanisms and defenses others may be using. Being aware of these defenses is the first step for me. I am now trying to slow down and notice responses in myself and others and I want to take the time to connect.