Why Vulnerability Makes Us Anxious

A therapist’s advice on how to stop equating silence with strength

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently shared her traumatic experience of the Capitol riot, the flurry of criticism that followed struck me as an utterly familiar dynamic. As a therapist who works with families, I often see the pushback people will get, even from those closest to them, for talking about their trauma. In this case, the country seemed to be functioning just like an anxious family.

Our personal level of comfort talking about emotional events has a lot to do with how we grew up. Some families are more comfortable having hard conversations, while others can be allergic to one another’s anxieties. This is why some people can grow up never learning about the trauma experienced by previous generations or how to talk about difficult subjects like death.

This aversion to openness exists on a societal level as well. The more turbulent the times, the more reactive people can be to honest talk about uncomfortable things. They’re quicker to label anyone who talks about their trauma as weak or attention-seeking. And they work hard to put emotional space between themselves and the person who’s opening up, pretending everything’s okay even when it’s not.

Distancing ourselves from trauma can look like:

  • Staying quiet when we feel anxious.
  • Staying as busy as possible.
  • Sticking with superficial topics in conversation.
  • Using substances like drugs or alcohol.
  • Asking others not to share their experiences.
  • Criticizing others as being “emotional” or “needy.”

It’s a natural instinct to want to turn away from uncomfortable feelings, but silence isn’t always strength. At best, it provides short-term relief from anxious events, allowing us to temporarily calm fears of the future by ignoring facts and downplaying others’ experiences. This ignorance isn’t just unsustainable; it’s unhealthy, too. And the long-term cost can be great: Left unchecked, it can unmoor us from reality.

Pushing back against a tendency toward silence, on the other hand, is deeply uncomfortable. But when one person is willing to be open and honest about their experiences, they grant space for others to follow.

The next time you feel like others want you to sweep your experiences under the rug, remember that the pressure to be silent is simply a predictable, human response to stress. You can go along with it, or you can remember there is strength in vulnerability. Groups become stronger one story at a time, especially when someone is courageous enough to tell a story that’s hard to hear.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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