“I don’t know how to open up to people. I feel awkward and uncomfortable. I know it’s important to let people in, but I get afraid. How do you start opening up to someone if you’re not used to doing it?”
In this article, I will explain the main issues that can make opening up feel so challenging. I will also show you the best strategies for feeling more comfortable sharing about yourself.
“Is it important to open up, or is it over-rated?”
Learning how to open up emotionally has many benefits. Let’s get into some of the common ones.
When you can be honest and open with your friends, you can enjoy having more meaningful relationships with them. Good friendships include sharing your feelings and needs with one another. Ideally, you can lean on your friends for support and guidance. But this requires opening up to them- they need to know how to be there for you.
Difficulties with vulnerability can cause intimacy problems. Think about it. If you’re with someone who never shares how they feel, you’re always trying to guess if they’re okay. If you sense something is wrong- but they don’t tell you what it is- you end up feeling frustrated, scared, or even resentful.
Successful romantic relationships require a level of trust. And to trust someone, you need to be able to share how you feel with them (and vice versa).
Bottling in your feelings isn’t good for your mental health. Holding them in can make them stronger- some research shows that suppressing emotions actually makes you more stressed and aggressive. If you stew in how you feel, you may make things worse by avoiding it. But if you learn how to open up about them, you can experience faster relief.
Holding in your feelings doesn’t just affect your mental health. It can also impact your physical health. Some research shows that holding in emotions is linked with health conditions like cancer, diabetes, and obesity.
It should be mentioned that not opening up to people doesn’t cause poor health. But suppressing how you feel may make you more likely to use other coping strategies. These strategies can include isolating yourself, drinking alcohol, using drugs, or overeating.
Although it may seem strange, being vulnerable can actually make you feel more confident and secure with yourself. That’s because you are honoring your truth and allowing yourself to share it with others. It’s an act of courage, and that courage can improve your self-esteem.
If you’re secretly struggling, most people won’t know how to help you. Some loved ones might be able to tell by the changes in your behavior or mood, but that’s not guaranteed. Most of the time, if you don’t open up, people won’t know how to talk to you- or how to help you. This can make you feel more lonely and insecure.
“Why can’t I open up to people? When I try, it’s like there’s something holding me back.”
Sometimes, learning how to open up to new people isn’t as easy as wanting to do it. First, you need to recognize the obstacles that might be getting in your way. You may have more than one obstacle, and that’s normal.
Here are several common reasons you can’t open up to people:
More than anything, the fear of rejection can make opening up difficult. If you are worried that people may judge you negatively, you might hold back your true thoughts or feelings. This is a fairly normal reaction. We all want to fit in with other people. If you sense that something you say might not “fit in,” you might hold back altogether.
If you don’t have experience sharing thoughts or feelings with other people, it can feel awkward to open up. This level of vulnerability can take practice. You need experience taking social risks, and if you don’t have it, then opening up may seem daunting.
Additionally, if you have limited social skills, you might struggle with social cues and nonverbal communication. For example, you might not know the appropriate ways to start or end a conversation. You might feel anxious about oversharing or saying the wrong thing altogether.
It can be hard to open up after bullying, physical abuse, or other traumatic events. Trauma can fundamentally change the stress response in the brain. That means that you may feel anxious or preoccupied many years after the event. You may assume bad things are going to happen, and that assumption can lead you to act more guarded around others.
Many people grow up in households that restrict opening up to other people. For example, maybe you’ve been told not to cry or act scared. You may have learned that emotions are weak or that it’s better to pretend that everything is okay.
Most parents don’t have bad intentions when they teach these messages. Usually, they have been passed down for many generations. But if nobody taught you how to express your emotions, you may find it strange to do it later in life.
If you feel insecure about yourself, you might assume that other people won’t like you if they get to know the real, unpolished you. This negative thought can automatically stop you from opening up. You may feel like your emotions are stupid, and that judgment prevents you from wanting to discuss them.
If you don’t know how to identify how you feel, it can be hard to open up. Many people don’t learn this skill in childhood. Instead, they learn that people respond to, how are you, with answers like “good” or “fine.”
It’s easy to deny that you have feelings. You may even assume that feelings are bad, so you try to avoid thinking about them. But denying or downplaying your feelings makes it hard to open up to other people. If you don’t know what’s going on inside of you, it may feel impossible to share it with someone else.
It’s common to assume that people won’t care or don’t want to be bothered with your personal thoughts. It’s true that we shouldn’t use our friends as therapists or talk on and on about ourselves. But your friends do want to get to know you beyond the surface level.
If you never share something personal, you risk getting stuck as acquaintances.
Learning how to let people in your life doesn’t happen overnight. It usually requires baby steps. You need to practice sharing feelings over time and with safe people whom you trust.
Let’s get into some of the best strategies for how to open up.
We don’t hold back our feelings without a good reason. It can help to do some soul-searching.
It’s important to become aware of any history you have of rejection or shame. Sometimes, it takes just one bad experience for you to feel unsafe around other people.
Here are some common examples of rejection:
- Getting told to “get over it” when you express your emotion.
- Getting made fun of in a group setting.
- Reaching out for help and getting turned away for it.
- Being laughed at or yelled at for crying.
- Getting told that you’re acting dramatic or irrational.
- Trying to hold your composure after bullying or other criticism.
Remember that most people don’t want to intentionally hurt your feelings. In general, many people struggle with emotional expression. If they feel uncomfortable with vulnerability, they are more likely to act uncomfortable if you try to do it.
Think about your internal dialogue about vulnerability and emotional expression. We can hold rigid judgments about what sharing feelings really mean.
Some common judgments include:
- Nobody will care about what I have to say.
- My feelings are stupid.
- If I share how I feel, people will laugh at me.
- Nobody will understand my feelings.
- Nobody will like me if I act weak.
- I shouldn’t feel this way in the first place.
- I can’t trust other people.
- People will hurt me if I don’t keep my guard up.
If any of these judgments resonate with you, write each of them down in a journal. Then, spend a few minutes answering the following:
- Where did this thought come from?
- How strongly do you believe this thought on a scale from 1-10?
- What evidence do you have that supports this thought?
- What might change if you no longer believed in this thought?
- Any other opinions that come to mind.
Once you have identified your main fears, you can start taking action towards change. Remember it’s normal to still feel scared. But the more you try to change your habits, the less scary the vulnerability will feel.
You can open up about things without having to be vulnerable. It’s important that you can be vulnerable with your closest friends—But most of the time, being personal can be enough to form a closer connection with someone.
These are examples of things you can share with anyone you want to form a closer relationship with.
- Dreams about what you wanted to be as a child.
- Your favorite music, books, or movies.
- What you prefer doing in your free time.
- Your emotional state, such as feeling a little bit nervous, excited, tired.
- What motivates you in life.
These are examples of things that suit better to share with friends you trust.
- Your biggest fears or worries.
- Medical conditions.
- Challenges in your family.
- Struggles and hardships that you usually don’t share about.
In the end, you decide what makes you feel vulnerable or not.
When talking to acquaintances, share about yourself when it’s relevant to the subject you’re already talking about.
- If you talk about the weather, you can share something about your favorite type of weather or where you’d rather live.
- If you talk about your parents, you can share what it was like growing up.
- If you talk about where you’re from, you can share a little bit about why you decided to move.
By making a personal comment based on the topic you’re on, sharing about yourself will both feel more natural and help you get past the initial small talk.
Around close friends, you don’t need to stick to a topic like when talking to acquaintances. You can simply start off “There’s this thing I’ve been thinking about…”
For two people to bond, they need to gradually get to know things about each other. Being too personal too fast can be off-putting. Never opening up can make a friendship get stuck in the small-talk phase and fizzle out.
Here are some guidelines for how to gradually open up:
- With someone you just met: Asking something just slightly personal related to what you’re already talking about. Examples: sharing and asking about what food, movies, music, or books you like.
- With someone you’ve talked to for a few minutes: Sharing your emotional state, such as feeling nervous or excited.
- With an acquaintance you run into occasionally: Sharing what you’ve been up to since you met or what you’re excited about. Sharing about something that worries you, such as an upcoming assignment at work.
- With a casual friend: Personal questions such as what their dreams or fears are in life, if they want children, what they are looking for in a partner, or what they regret in life.
- With a close friend: Challenges in your family, the mourning of a loved one, things that can make you cry, secrets you usually don’t tell anyone.
Remember that it’s usually the very act of opening up that brings you closer with people.
Sometimes, people avoid being open about their feelings by asking too many questions. For example, if you feel scared about an upcoming project, you might keep asking your coworker, do you think you have everything ready?
Try to be more mindful of how often you ask questions. Challenge yourself to practice making statements instead. Instead of asking your coworker that question, you might say, I’m feeling nervous that we don’t have everything ready.
Rather than saying “It makes you worried when…” say “I felt worried when…” When you make this shift, you talk about yourself rather than people in general. This makes the conversation more honest and personal.
Just like it’s important to use statements instead of questions, it’s also important to make the right statements. Don’t blame other people for how you feel. Instead of saying, you’re making me angry, you can say, I feel angry when you don’t answer my phone calls.
I-statements show personal accountability for your feelings. They naturally require that you open up to other people. They can also be extremely useful if you’re having a disagreement with someone. Instead of attacking the other person, the I-statements force you to focus on how you contribute to the dynamic.
Some people find it safer to open up online than in real life. Describing how you feel online first can help you feel more comfortable expressing your emotions. You can try by asking questions, commenting, and sharing stories on message boards or forums. Most users are supportive and compassionate.
Just remember that typing it all out isn’t a complete substitute for interpersonal vulnerability. It’s great to make online friends, but it’s also important to know how to connect with people in the real world.
You probably know what that “scary thing” is. It can be anything—your depression, something you experienced in childhood, the problems in your marriage. Whatever it is, make a plan for how you can practice sharing it with someone you trust.
To begin the conversation, start by saying, I want to get something off my chest. It’s nothing about you in particular. I just need to vent. Is that okay with you?
Chances are, they’ll say yes. From there, you can describe the scary thing. If you feel embarrassed or awkward, it’s okay to share those feelings. You’re practicing being honest.
After you’re done sharing, see what happens. Most of the time, your friends will be supportive and compassionate, especially if they know you’ve been holding it in. If they are judgmental or mean, that’s a sign you might not be in a healthy relationship.
Learning how to let people in sometimes requires working on some serious insecurities or traumas. It may be best to collaborate with a trusted professional if you need this support.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a specific therapy that focuses on changing your negative thoughts and behaviors. For example, if you have a belief that nobody cares about your feelings, a CBT therapist can help you challenge that thought.
Over time, this process can help you feel better. You learn how to take more appropriate social risks, and you learn coping skills to manage distress if it arises.
We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and is much cheaper than going to an actual therapist's office. They are also cheaper than Talkspace for what you get. You can learn more about BetterHelp here.
Therapy groups require some level of vulnerability. You aren’t forced to share anything in particular, but they the conversations may help you move out of your comfort zone. There are groups for all kinds of issues- grief and loss, anxiety, depression, and general support.
You can find a group by:
- Searching for a local therapy group online.
- Asking your primary care physician for a referral.
- Checking with your local university.
- Trying a community mental health center.
When you’re in the group, practice sharing more about yourself. If something makes you upset that week, make it a goal to talk about in the group.
Remember that these people are spending time (and usually money) to grow and practice social skills. Even if you make mistakes, that’s what these groups are for.
Opening up to everyone isn’t the goal. You don’t need to spill your entire life story when you meet a stranger. That can be inappropriate and off-putting.
Instead, think about the boundaries you want to set in your relationships. It’s okay to keep some things private. It’s also reasonable to share certain feelings with some people and avoid talking about them with others.
If you’re not sure where to start, consider reading this boundary guide by Love Is Respect.
Once you learn how to open up to someone, it makes sense that you want them to feel comfortable around you, too. Here are some important tips to remember.
If you skirt around the issue, you might model feeling uncomfortable or anxious. Instead, try to be more direct and upfront.
For example, you might ask someone you’ve been seeing, “How do you feel about how things are going between us right now?” Or, you might ask a friend, “How have you been feeling the past few weeks since your grandmother died?”
Active listening means giving your full attention when someone else speaks. Don’t just listen so you know what to say next. Listen with the intention to understand and connect. Try to be as curious and present as you can be during your interactions.
To improve your active listening skills, check out this step-by-step guide by Lifehack.
It’s easy to dismiss people with quick judgments. But if you’re judging people before getting to know them, you might be putting out negative energy.
Instead, when you are interacting with a stranger, tell yourself, I’m interested in learning more about this person. This mantra is grounding. It can help you remind yourself to stay curious and open-minded.
Validating someone’s emotions lets them know that you understand their experiences. When someone feels validated, they’re more likely to trust you and enjoy your company.
You can validate someone with statements like:
- I can understand why you feel that way.
- That makes perfect sense.
- It sounds like you did the best you could.
- You have every right to feel ____.
It’s a good idea to validate someone whenever they try to reject their feelings. For example, if they tell you they’re being stupid, dramatic, or “too emotional,” make sure you let them know that you don’t see them in that way.
The first step toward opening up to people is finding the right people. It’s hard to make strong connections if you don’t have friends.
Here are some tips for making friends:
Make it a habit to be friendly and engaged with people around you. You can do this by greeting people when you see them with a simple, hey, how are you? You can also smile at strangers when you pass them on the street.
Being friendly doesn’t guarantee you’ll make automatic friends. But it’s an important mindset towards being open in meeting new people. Having a friendly personality shows that you’re interested in the world around you.
Some friendships are just casual, and that’s okay. But deepening your friendships helps you open up to people. When you “go deep,” you demonstrate your willingness to trust and support the other person. It’s an important part of a meaningful relationship.
You can practice deepening existing friendships by validating their feelings and asking deeper questions. For example, if a friend tells you they’re feeling stressed about work, let them know that their situation does sound challenging. You can then ask what the hardest part of the job is for them.
You can also deepen friendships by sharing feelings about certain situations. For example, if someone tells you about needing to move to a new city, you can share that you feel sad about them leaving. Sharing feelings isn’t about making the conversation all about you. It’s about acknowledging that you have emotions and you trust your friends with them.
It’s important to socialize regularly if you want to make friendships. After all, good people won’t just appear out of nowhere! Make an effort to show up to events, parties, and social gatherings.
When you arrive, set a goal to talk to at least two new people. Try to think about 1-2 topics you might discuss ahead of time, such as what made them decide to come or who they know at the event. You don’t have to overly plan for this conversation, but if you get nervous in social situations, it might help to rehearse your lines a few times.
You need to put yourself out there if you want to make more friendships. Join a club or a Meetup to get to know other like-minded people. Make the effort to chat with people before and after the event.
Try to get someone’s phone number to foster more than a one-off friendship. You can reach out with a text like, It was great talking to you tonight. Let me know if you want to grab coffee this weekend! Hopefully, I’ll see you at the next event.