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Vulnerability & Connection

Withdrawing, Pursuing, & the Right Way to Reach Out

Many of us use withdrawing or pursuing as coping mechanisms to deal with our struggles. But while these coping mechanisms help us survive, they do not allow us to thrive.

It’s always a stressful time of year…

To do lists are piling up and work is getting busier. Your family’s demands seem to increase, and expenses take on a life of their own. What do you do, other than automatically reach for a chocolate bar?

“Complain to whoever is willing listen” is a common answer.  Human beings are wired to connect, and are skilled at assisting one another in regulating emotions. Think about it. What do you do when you are feeling lonely, sad or worried? Do you reach for the phone?

According to John Bowlby, founder of the attachment theory, reaching out to others is a natural response. We all long for connection, especially when we’re feeling distressed.

So, what happens? What gets in the way? Why are most people still left feeling worried, nervous, or overwhelmed? If reaching out to others is the solution, why are we still feeling anxious?

Opening up to others can be intimidating:

Reaching out to others is a good first step, but it isn’t the only one. It’s not enough to just complain casually to a friend. To truly relieve the anxiousness you feel about a situation, you have to open up about the deeper root of those worries. And that’s where things get complicated.

Often, we are afraid to be vulnerable, to let others into our fears, sadness and loneliness. Western culture values independence. A person’s self-esteem is measured by his or her unique accomplishments, rather than their inner value. We are taught that the self-sufficient person doesn’t need anyone to help them succeed. Our own wit and resources are all that’s required to fulfill our potential. Which brings us to the next conclusion: A healthy person shouldn’t need anyone’s help when struggling with their emotions. Right?


What else gets in the way?

Sometimes the way we cope with problems gets in the way of us solving them.

Dr. Susan Johnson, the creator of Emotional Focused therapy, explained that we tend to follow the coping patterns that helped us survive in the past. If you survived your critical father by staying quiet and retreating to your room, this could have an impact on you as an adult. You will probably withdraw when you are worried, sad or scared. Conversely, if you stood up to a bully in high school, your natural tendency may be to confront your problems head on.

Withdrawing and Pursuing:

As Dr. Johnson explains, when faced with distress our action tendency is either withdrawing or pursuing.


Withdrawing from conflict is exactly what it sounds like: trying to remove yourself from a combative situation as easily as possible. This may seem like a logical conclusion because it removes you from the difficult situation. However, this only avoids the problem. It doesn’t solve it, and the problem is likely to resurface at a later time.


Pursuing is approaching an issue head on and not leaving it alone until it’s solved. This may seem like the right course of action, yet pursuers sometimes learn that their criticism and desire to fix others can shut them down.

Withdrawing and pursuing will help you survive, but it will not help you thrive.

Any inkling as to why reaching out in this way might not get you the reaction you’ve been hoping for? Withdrawing and pursuing are coping mechanisms. They may have allowed you to get through some really rough times in the past but they are actually holding you back in the present.

Now you might be wondering, how do I reach out in a way that gets my needs met? How can I finally feel more heard, supported and okay about all the stresses piling up in my life?

The solution is surprisingly simple in theory, yet difficult in practice.

The answer is in being open to explore what is behind your worries. By reaching out to others and vulnerably sharing your fears, you will have a chance at having your needs met in a way that leaves you feeling understood and empowered. But here’s where the catch comes in, as Brene Brown explains:

We share our stories with those that have earned the right to hear them.

If you approach your overworked administrator to listen to your tail of woes, he or she might not have the time to be present for you. The administrator might actually minimize your experiences, causing you to regret sharing in the first place.

What does this vulnerability look like in every day life?

To illustrate this technique, we’ll explore a real-life scenario.

Shiri reaches out to her trusted friend Chana and shares:
I am so overwhelmed.
Chana is instantly sympathetic: That’s right you are getting married in a month.
Shiri: Yes, and I want to focus on my college work first, and then do the shopping with my groom Dovid. Chana: Sounds like a great plan
Shiri: I know. But I’m afraid, he’ll think that he comes second. And he really doesn’t. It’s just that I can’t focus on so many things at once. I’m also worried about my parents asking me about my grades. I am so embarrassed, how can I not get my usual As, after everything they have done for me?
Chana: Oh Shiri, you really are juggling a lot. Have you ever thought about discussing this with them?
Shiri decides to face her fears and reach out to her parents and groom.

Shiri is surprised with her results. Although her mother wants her to do well, she acknowledges how much Shiri is juggling, and expresses her admiration for her balancing it all. Dovid is pensive about the week’s break with Shiri, but understands. He even offers to take care of some of the things on his own. Shiri is beginning to feel empowered and a bit in awe of her own bravery. Who knew how many people really cared about her? She had always pretended to have everything under control, and rarely asked for help and everyone seemed to admire her for that. Yet, Shiri is surprised to discover how many people support her, even when she speaks openly about her vulnerable emotions. She is determined to continue trying out this new pattern of interaction.

The same goes for all of us…

Now you might be thinking, how wonderful for Shiri, but how does this relate to my life? My circumstances are totally different.

You are right. They probably are. And starting a new dance of interaction requires time for new steps, missteps and revisions. It requires enough repetition for people to recognize and trust your new way of interacting. Taking risks is daunting, and sharing your fears can be difficult. So why don’t you try small? Reach out today, to someone who has earned your trust, and share just one concern that has been getting in the way of the focus of your work. Give yourself the gift of connection, and watch the loneliness fade away.

For more on this topic:

Dealing with intense Emotions in a relationship

The pain of maintaining really close and intimate relationships

Living Your Life Behind a Mask

Connect with the author:

Mental Health Counselor, LMHC, MSE
Brooklyn, NY




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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Thank you for another amazing article. I so agree with being vulnerable – it really offers for real connection. I’m just wondering where codependency comes into this article. I think of codependency as an intense and unhealthy attachment to others. I’m just wondering where it comes into this article. Thank you!!

  2. That’s a great question Chavy. If we are wired to connect, why are people who reach out labeled as codependant? Emotional focused therapy does not suscribe to the the concept of codependency, as we all need a healthy attachment to survive and thrive. Wverything a person does makes sense if the actions are understood as a means of trying to mantain their connection to others.

    Often pursuers who are stuck in a cycle of reaching out incessantly, will be labeled by others as codependent. Yet striving for connection is what all human beings do. The difference here might be that the pursuer has not yet learned the skills in how to reach out, and whom to reach out to. As Brene Brown explained, “We share our stories with those who have earned the right to hear them.”

    One more point to address, that may have not been so clear in the article. After we reach out to others and share our fears, it is important to articulate what is need from the other person. For example, instead of a pursuer, constantly texting a partner about his or her whereabouts, at a quiet time, the pursuer can explain “Often I get lonely, and wonder if you value spending time with me, it would mean so much to me if you can choose a time of the day that we will have time to speak without interruption.” Once the pursuer knows that his or her needs will be met, there won’t be a need to constantly ask for it.

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