There’s a Difference Between Emotional Transparency and Emotional Vulnerability—Here’s Why That Matters

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A friend once told me, “I’ve never seen you cry. I feel like you just don’t cry.” While I do cry, I’ve never really been able to do so in front of anyone because it makes me uncomfortable. I have a hard time being vulnerable in that way.

Often, once I reflect and absorb an emotional situation alone, I can then be transparent and share my thoughts or feeling about it with other people. This is the difference between emotional transparency and emotional vulnerability.

When we’re emotionally transparent, we communicate our true thoughts and feelings honestly, says Michael Rucker, PhD, author of The Fun Habit. When we're being emotionally vulnerable, we're being emotionally transparent in situations that make us uncomfortable in some way because there are potential risks involved with such self-disclosures. Doing so could cause us to feel anxiety, shame, pain, or stress of some kind. (There are rewards too—vulnerability builds intimacy.)

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Examples of being emotionally transparent could be telling your friend how you genuinely feel about getting a bad performance review at work or a break up, whereas being emotionally vulnerable could be telling that same friend how you feel about them not asking you to be in their wedding.

The difference between emotional transparency, vulnerability, and oversharing

As with everything in life, having good boundaries around being emotionally transparent and vulnerable is important in order to maintain healthy relationships with yourself and others. Without this, you may be guilty of oversharing. “Those with a propensity to be overly transparent [or vulnerable] and not respect the psychological safety of others risk what Brené Brown calls floodlighting,” Dr. Rucker says.

Similar to the way actual floodlights engulf a space with light all at once, in her audiobook, The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connections and Courage, Brown describes floodlighting as inundating someone with self-disclosures as a means of expediting the process of building intimacy or getting over feelings of discomfort. In this way, it's similar to love bombing. “A lot of times we share too much information as a way to protect us from vulnerability," Brown says.

It's the idea that you don't want to "be an open book" with everyone, when in reality, as Brown puts it, people have to earn the right to hear your story—and you have to be willing to share it with people when appropriate (even the tough stuff).

Why some people struggle to open up

There are so many reasons why people struggle to be vulnerable or transparent. “Generally, it begins with the level of psychological safety the person feels in the context of the opportunity to share,” Dr. Rucker says. The less safe you feel, the less likely you are to be emotionally transparent or vulnerable, and vice versa.

Being both emotionally transparent and emotionally vulnerable, especially toward the people you love and feel safe around are important skills. But if you struggle with either (or both), don't beat yourself up about it. “These are skills, and like all skills, some will have inherent abilities, and others might need to work at them a bit," Dr. Rucker says.

To start building more emotional transparency and vulnerability in your relationships, first identify your limits. “Predetermine your psychological bumper rails,” advises Dr. Rucker. “What are you comfortable risking, and what is out-of-bounds? If these concerns feel ambiguous initially, roleplay in a safe place first. For instance, practice vulnerability and openness when communicating with someone you intimately trust.” And like with any skill, the more you practice, the better you'll get.

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