Being vulnerable with someone you care about, for most of us, feels a little uncomfortable. When we share what’s really on our minds and hearts, when we talk about our fears and resentments, when we ask for what we really want, we’re opening up to the possibility of being hurt, rejected, or laughed at.
For some people this can feel unsafe to the point where it becomes difficult to trust your own judgement at all. Is the discomfort you feel when you share your vulnerable parts a sign that you’re finally opening up and allowing deeper intimacy? Or is it a sign that your boundaries are being crossed and, well, it’s not safe to share so deeply with this person?
Here are some signs that it might be safe to explore being vulnerable.
1: You’re acting within your boundaries (and limits)
The first thing to get clear on is where your boundaries and limits are. Having fuzzy, unclear, or badly defined boundaries is a surefire way to introduce feelings of unsafety, because ultimately you are the person responsible for deciding what you will allow into your life, and for filtering out everything that you don’t want.
However, there’s a good chance that you’re already pretty good at all of this (and if you’re not, check out my Ultimate Guide to Setting Boundaries).
So the other key thing to know about boundaries is that they are contextual and flexible. They are not impermeable barriers – they can be moved and shifted. You can experiment with them, negotiate them. If you’re used to being very firm and clear with your boundaries then this might feel like an edgy place, but it’s important to bear in mind that being able to talk about your boundaries and have a little flexibility (within your own limits) is an important part of sharing vulnerability.
This can also create more safety, by knowing where your limits are and negotiating contextual boundaries within them.
2: You have a good support network
Being vulnerable is much safer to explore if the person you’re exploring with isn’t your only form of emotional support. Having a close friend or two, family members you can turn to, or a professional you speak with regularly is really important. Not only does this protect your relationship against codependency (because you’re not relying on the other person for all of your needs), but it also helps to give you more safety and security from which to explore more challenging places.
3: Your boundaries are received well by your partner
It’s a great sign if you are able to assert boundaries and limits without the other person becoming defensive or aggressive. This doesn’t mean that they may not be upset if your boundary means they don’t get something they want! But if they are willing to talk with you and they have the capacity to hear your needs without invalidating you then this shows that they can work with you to find solutions that work for you both.
4: You are able to share fears and receive reassurance
Notice whether you are able to share your fears and stories with them, and they make time to reassure you when you ask. It’s unlikely that anyone would ever be in a relationship that’s completely free from occasional fear, anxiety, or insecurity! How you deal with these feelings within the relationship is the most important thing. If your partner is willing to make space for your fears, listen to you, and assure you that the stories you’re telling yourself are not true, then they’re telling you that they can hold your vulnerability without taking it personally.
5: Your partner’s actions match their words
Do they say they want to help you to feel more secure (within their own boundaries), and take steps to help with this? Are they open to changing their behaviour or compromising on things to help you feel safer in the relationship? This is a tricky one, because it’s important that they are not stepping into a people-pleasing role. But if they actively want to find ways that they are happy to give you more support, this shows you that your safety is important to them.
6: They can clearly communicate and hold their own boundaries
Just as important as you knowing your own is them knowing theirs. If you can both do this well then this creates lots of safety in any relationship, because you can make requests of each other while trusting that neither of you will override your own boundaries. You can trust each other to say yes and no.
7: The things you’re most scared of don’t actually come true
Finally, it’s worth checking in: do the things you’re most scared of ever come true in your relationship? Perhaps you fear being taken advantage of, being forgotten about, being laughed at… Do these things ever happen? Is there any evidence they are happening?
Chances are you’ve had experiences of this happening in the past, but it’s important to differentiate the past from the present. It’s really common to project past experiences onto current situations, and before we know it we’re not really seeing our partner when we look at them – we’re seeing someone from five, ten, twenty years ago.
Which is pretty unfair on them!
So reflect every so often (and particularly when your fears get activated). Is there any real evidence that what you fear is happening right now? If you’re unsure, can you check with your partner by asking for a reality check? By asking for reassurance that your stories aren’t true? Yes, this may feel vulnerable to do – but this can be a great practice to give yourself a new experience in proving to yourself that your fears are unfounded in the present moment. It’s also a great opportunity to find out their response to your fear.
At some point in any relationship, you can make a choice to trust and connect or to hide and protect. Trusting and connecting can feel unbearably vulnerable for reasons that you may or may not be able to identify. It’s worth remembering that if there are plenty of green flags present, it could be a great opportunity to test your vulnerability in small ways and relearn how it can feel to allow deeper connection again.
It feels sometimes as though new relationships are where the most difficult feelings come up.
You know the other person well enough to really care, but you haven’t yet built a foundation of trust that allows you to feel really secure in the relationship.
Perhaps you find yourself anxiously waiting for them to return your messages, wanting to know when you’ll see each other next, preoccupied with wondering where they are and what they’re doing.
Or maybe you experience what feels like a physical barrier, or wall between you and the other person. You long for closeness and contact, but something stops you from really allowing them in and telling them how much you enjoy their company, inviting them to meet your friends, or even returning their messages.
Both of these responses come from an underlying feeling of not being safe within this new relationship. Whether the precise fear is of them abandoning you, betraying you, or of losing yourself, some part of you is protecting yourself from feeling that fear – by limiting the kind of connection you are having.
If you have an anxious attachment style
If you identify with the more anxious approach, then it’s likely that a lot of your energy and focus is on the other person. Perhaps you can recognise some people-pleasing tendencies, or patterns of resentment showing up when your needs aren’t met (because you find it hard to clearly ask for them in the first place).
The antidote to this is to bring some of that energy back to yourself. Nurture your connection with yourself, your own desires and needs, both within the relationship and on your own. This is particularly true if you notice you have a pattern of abandoning your own hobbies and friends when you enter a relationship! Spending some time reminding yourself of all the important things you have in your life can be a great exercise to try, whether you do this via journaling or another method.
What brings you most joy in your life?
If you had a whole day to yourself, how would you most like to spend it?
What need(s) is your relationship filling, and can you fill any of those needs on your own or with friends?
The benefit of this exercise is in the reminder that you are already a whole, complete person, you can take care of yourself, and you already have a life with things that bring you joy – so you’re not dependent on the other person to provide these things for you.
If you have an avoidant attachment style
If you identify more with the other side, with having a barrier that stops you from really letting the other person in, then there’s a different approach you can try.
Here, it’s likely that sharing more of your life with them feels really vulnerable. It’s easier for you to keep them at arm’s length and pay the price of a diminished connection, than it is for you to share more of yourself with them and feel the fear of either losing the other person, or losing yourself.
The antidote here is to share that vulnerability with them.
This doesn’t require any other action, or change in behaviour – simply getting really well acquainted with your fear, so that you can share it. It’s an awesome opportunity to grow intimacy without having to actually face those fears yet.
This might sound like,
“I’m noticing that we’re spending more time together lately and it feels really vulnerable for me. I have a fear that I’ll lose myself in new relationships / that if I get close, the other person will disappear.”
Sharing and naming these things can be a great first step to removing their power, and letting the other person know what’s going on allows you to come up with creative ways that you can create more safety for you both, together.
Whether you’re into floggers and rope or vanilla as it gets, there’s a lot to be learned about communication, boundaries, and consent from those in the BDSM community. Although these may not be the first things many people think about when asked what makes for the most memorable encounters, they can make sex so much better if we get good at them.
So why is that?
One thing I’ve learned during my own explorations is that relaxation is everything when it comes to pleasure. And in order to relax, we need to feel safe.
If there’s one thing experienced BDSM enthusiasts know about, it’s safety. Knowing how to ensure everyone is as safe as possible is absolutely vital when experimenting with bondage, intense sensation, and other activities which could cause real physical (and emotional) harm.
Here are a handful of ways those in the BDSM scene ensure safety – and therefore also relaxation, and ultimately pleasure.
Talk About What You Want
Responsible BDSM players will only engage with others who are able to clearly speak their wants, needs, boundaries, and limits before they begin a scene. When people’s physical and emotional safety is at hand, it’s vital to be able to know that your partner knows their limits and has communicated them clearly with you.
Even when you’re not tying each other up or playing with extreme sensation, being able to voice your needs is so valuable. It can feel vulnerable and tough to admit to what you want, especially with those whose opinion matters most. But being able to do this can only make sex better; it’s unfair to assume that our lovers can read our minds and know what we want, or what our limits are.
Being able to be vulnerable and intimate in this way, and showing all of our desires, encourages our lovers to open up to us, too. This is how intimacy begins: by allowing all of ourselves to be seen by those we trust, our desires as well as our limits.
Talk About What you Need
Alongside being able to discuss your wants, you can also think about what you need to feel safe, to be able to relax and enjoy. If you’re negotiating a BDSM scene you might be asked by your partner about what aftercare you may need once it’s over. Do you need contact, cuddles, a particular food or drink? What about a check-in the next day?
This doesn’t only have to apply to experiences that include extreme sensation and power play. Perhaps we would like to request a text from the person the following day, or lots of cuddling afterwards. Maybe you need them to spend the night afterwards.
Being able to identify what you need, and ask for it, helps to remove anxieties over whether our needs will be met. And discussing these in advance also helps to filter out people who cannot meet our needs.
Establish Safe Words
It can be so easy to ‘tolerate’ touch; to allow our lovers to do what they’re doing without correcting them or asking for something different, out of fear of rejection, abandonment, or shame over our true desires.
Sometimes in the moment it’s far too much to specifically ask for something else. Being in this place of noticing you’re not enjoying what’s happening but feeling frozen or stuck and unable to ask for something else can be unpleasant and triggering.
In these moments it can be helpful to have a safe word. Many people who indulge in BDSM use a traffic light system, with red meaning stop and orange meaning a check-in is needed, and that can be helpful here. Or, to make it a little more gentle, I like to adopt the word ‘pause’ (thanks to Rachael Maddox for that one). I explain to my lovers that when I say pause, it means just that: we pause what we’re doing, we cuddle, we give me some space to feel in to what’s not working and figure out what I’d like instead. This might be a massage or a cup of tea.
Safe words are so helpful because they allow us to interrupt whatever pattern is currently playing out. Instead of getting caught up in the stories of what may happen if we ask to stop or ask for something different, we can use a different word to communicate that something needs to change, even if we’re not quite sure what yet.
Sex Can Mean Different Things
In the vanilla, hetero-normative world of sex, the definition of what ‘counts’ is often fairly limited. And if those few activities don’t work for you then it’s easy to feel like the sex you have isn’t valid or good enough.
We can learn from the creativity of the BDSM community. As a well-used saying goes, “Your kink isn’t my kink (but your kink is ok).” People come up with all kinds of ways to enjoy each other’s bodies and minds outside of the conventional narratives, and in doing so liberate themselves and their partners to enjoy sex on their own terms.
If the sex you’re having isn’t working for you, maybe it’s time to question whether you’re only engaging in particular activities because you feel it’s what sex ‘should’ look like. You get to decide what works for you (and it doesn’t have to involve kink).
Learn New Skills
If you want to be able to tie someone up Japanese rope bondage style, and do it safely, then you’re going to have to ask someone to teach you. Likewise, there are countless workshops teaching all kinds of skills in playing with extreme sensation and power dynamics. Within BDSM there are always new ways to learn new skills if that’s what you’re into.
Why should vanilla sex be any different? What skills could help us to make sex better with our lovers? And how could this attitude of wanting to learn help us?
Firstly, a keenness to learn about our partners’ bodies is a great place to start – without going with a fixed script or approaching the exercise with judgement. There are all sorts of other communities too who teach techniques you can use to help develop intimacy with yourself and the other, and relax into feeling more pleasure. Explorations into Taoist methods and neo-tantra can help us to feel more into our sexual energy, for example, and bring us more in tune with both ours and our partner’s needs.
Ultimately, all of these practices we can learn from the BDSM community are in place to keep everyone involved safe. And when we’re feeling safe, we feel more able to relax and open more of ourselves, which is key to deepening intimacy and more fulfilling sex.