In a culture where we are praised for being a perfectionist and an overachiever, it might feel counterintuitive to be open and honest about our struggles and display he power of vulnerability, especially when we are unsure of how it will be received.
We are socialized and conditioned to hold our emotions in and vulnerability might be misconstrued as a sign of weakness when the opposite is true, it is indeed a mark of courage. It’s a strength of a character and an asset in a relationship.
The more vulnerable we can get with the people we love and trust, the more authentic the connection becomes where we are able to embrace our own humanity and the humanity of our partner. But what does vulnerability even mean? How much of ourselves do we reveal? And what if our vulnerability is used against us?
What is Vulnerability?
Brene Brown is a world famous social worker and a research professor at the University of Houston who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.
She is the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers, including “Daring Greatly.” Her TED talk – The Power of Vulnerability – is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world with over 50 million views. She also has a Netflix special “The Call to Courage”.
Brene defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It’s where courage and fear meet.” And she believes that vulnerability is the “birthplace of things like love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.”
Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable and it’s the path for creating more connectedness and belonging. Some of the examples of vulnerability include, standing up for ourselves, saying no when we need to, sharing an unpopular opinion, asking for help or admitting that we are afraid or wrong.
Brene describes how we emotionally “armor up” every morning when we face the day to avoid feeling shame, anxiety, uncertainty and fear. Even though the armor differs from person to person, they usually revolve around one of the following themes:
Striving for perfection, numbing out, or holding back on joyful moments by “dress rehearing tragedy” and imagining all the things that could possibly go wrong.
Vulnerability is the ability to show the imperfect parts of you and trusting that you will be loved and accepted not despite of your imperfections but because of them due to the inherent sense of worthiness as human beings that resides within each one of us.
Why is it Challenging to Embrace the Power of Vulnerability?
A good place to start exploring your challenges around vulnerability might be reflecting on the messages you received in your family of origin regarding vulnerability and displaying emotions and struggles. Did your parents model vulnerability for you? What were some of the more acceptable and unacceptable emotions in your household? How did those messages impact the way you show up in your relationships with your partner or your own kids?
Many therapist who works with families, couples, and individuals have witnessed the idea of “Pain Prevention Parenting.” A lot of times when we notice that our child (or sometimes our partner) is experiencing a difficult emotion, including sadness, anger, fear, uncertainty, etc. we might want to immediately comfort them and find a solution to the problem as if our job is to just take away the tears and replace them with a big smile.
But, can you imagine the message that sends to the other person? They will probably think there isn’t a lot of room for their uncomfortable emotions, emotions are inconvenient, and the goal is to just get rid of them and move on from them as quickly as we can!
Practice creating space in the relationships where all emotions are welcome, not just the “positive” ones. When someone shares a difficult emotion with you, notice your patterns and what comes up for you around that. Do you immediately go to fix-it mode, or are you able to just sit with their emotion, validate it and relate to it before offering a solution? Is it more about your discomfort to see them that way, or is it beneficial to them to quickly move on from that emotion? And what lesson are you teaching them?
Instead try to be a good listener, reflect back what you hear, validate their experience, explore their emotions, relate to it and then in some cases you can offer a solution if that’s something they are interested in.
Examples of emphatic responses:
- I can see you are having a hard time with this.
- I’m sorry you’re going through this.
- It makes sense that you are feeling some strong emotions around this.
- Thank you for trusting me with this. That really means a lot.
How to Use the Power of Vulnerability in Your Relationships
There might not be enough room for the expression of vulnerability in your relationships. Be willing to have those difficult conversations about what it would look like to be more vulnerable. Address your hopes and fears around being vulnerable to create more safety and remember that you are two perfectly imperfect human beings trying to share a moment.
Be curious and give yourself permission to explore all the conditioning you have received around vulnerability and shame and get to know yourself outside of those limitations. Remember that shedding the layers of shame doesn’t happen overnight. Be patient with yourself and your partner.
One more thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to be vulnerable with everyone, only with the people who have earned that right, and not all once, but more in bite size pieces to test the waters and later you can expand on that. And if you’re vulnerable with your partner and later on that’s being used against you, that’s on them not on you.
Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an essential part of the trust-building process.
Vulnerability is an empowering tool that cultivates closeness and connection. As Brene eloquently states, “being brave with our feelings puts us on the path towards discovering the infinite power of our own light. Today I choose courage over comfort.”
Schedule a FREE consultation today with a therapist at Modern Intimacy to explore the roadblocks to having a more fulfilling and satisfying relationship.