Escaping Our Aversion to Vulnerability

You walk into a crowded room and suddenly, it occurs to you that you do not know anyone but the friend that you came in with. She says she has to step outside to take a call, and you tell her you’ll wait here. “It’s no problem,” you say, but you feel your heart begin to race anyway. You realize that you’re slightly overdressed. Everyone around you is dancing to a song you’ve never heard. You nervously fix your dress and tuck your hair behind your ears. The boy and girl to your left seem to have noticed you’re standing alone—they smile and begin to walk your way. Now go make them like you. You have three seconds.

According to a psychologist from Princeton, that is the duration of time it takes for the average human being to form a first impression of someone. To decide whether you are trustworthy, or attractive, takes even less time—precisely one-tenth of a second.

Although I’ve often heard the age-old saying “You only have one chance to make a first impression,” I certainly never knew that it could slip through my fingers in the fraction of a second. If you stop and think about it, this is a rather terrifying statistic. I can’t help but wonder how we survive socially, even spiritually, in a world where others’ views of us are solidified in the blink of an eye—can we ever overcome this universal behavior, or are we infinitely bound to the initial impressions our brains project onto others?

In a certain sense, this is a question of nature versus nurture. If our natural cognitive functioning—our “human nature”—leads us to prematurely judge others, is it possible to “nurture” a new image for ourselves in time? Can we ever truly escape the first impression another individual has of us, or does it inevitably remain a shadow in their minds, haunting and informing the way that they perceive us?

These questions become particularly relevant within the kingdom of the college campus, where everybody, whether they like to admit it or not, is competing to fit in, impress others, and forge connections. It can be difficult to develop genuine relationships with different kinds of people when our brains are constantly operating in this default mode of distrust and judgement. We write people off every day without even realizing it—you decide the waitress does not deserve a tip because she rolled her eyes when you asked for dressing on the side, you sit back in your chair and relax when you find out your new professor is a grad student, you don’t bother introducing yourself to the boy you’ve sat next to all year because his arms are covered in tattoos and you’re not the “edgy” type.  

These are the moments where we miss out: We overlook what’s in front of us because we are too distracted by the incessant critics that live within us. We become so attached to our presumptions about other people that we forget to give them our lasting attention. In the flash of three seconds, we think we have them all figured out, failing to see the magnitude that lies beyond the narrow scope of our personal perspectives.

This judgmental inclination, however, does not always lead to criticism—it can also lead us to idolize another person before we’ve even developed a relationship with them. We like the way someone looks or dresses, and suddenly, everything they do is charming and enchanting. This is a natural part of human attraction. I am not arguing that it is wrong, but I do think there is a certain risk in prematurely placing someone on a pedestal, for we can begin to see them as what we want them to be, rather than what they are, and thus we miss out on the experience of genuinely getting to know them.

In either case, I believe such behavior stems from our innate aversion to vulnerability. Nobody likes to feel uncertain. We prefer to be confident in our beliefs and perceptions of the world—to have a concrete understanding of who all people are so that we can control our relationships with them and predict the effects they will have on our lives. When stated like that, it sounds like a tragically cautious way to live, yet I believe it is what most of us are doing unconsciously every day.

We project personalities and stereotypes onto people to avoid lingering in that three-second space of unknowing—that uncomfortable stage of, “I’m not sure if we will get along. Can I trust you? Do you like me?”

What if we tried to prolong those first three seconds to 15 minutes, or a week, or a year? What if we committed ourselves to giving people time and space—a space not only for them, but for us—to pause, to breathe, to quiet the voice in our minds and open our eyes. Perhaps then we could learn to truly recognize the other individuals in our presence. To see them not in light of our own preconceptions about humanity, but as they really are. To listen not to our endlessly scrutinizing mind but to what they are actually saying. There is always a trace of familiarity to be found in the other: something that strikes a chord, resonates, reminds us that we are on the same human journey.

Who knows—we might even find something we like.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor