The word vulnerable is derived from the Latin, “vulnerare,” to wound. Vulnerable literally means “able to be wounded.” In common usage, we refer to being vulnerable when we’re feeling weak, fragile, and emotionally worn down. No wonder most of us want nothing to do with vulnerability. Beginning in childhood, we learn to protect ourselves from emotional attacks perpetrated by family members, peers, and teachers. What’s more, if our parents are guarded and closed, they serve as role models for exercising emotional caution. The old adage, “Don’t show too much of yourself because they will use it against you,” becomes part of our unwritten life rules. The result is that many people tend to feel ashamed or embarrassed and avoid acknowledging their needs for love and intimacy.
Indeed, appearing or being vulnerable does have drawbacks. If a politician shows the slightest sign of weakness–and vulnerability is often equated with weakness–it can destroy his career. A businessman trying to close a major deal must give the impression of absolute confidence, or risk losing his client. Most surgeons do not express self-doubt in the face of a frightened patient; rather, they often foster the impression of being super confident, even if they’re not.
In relationships, most of us proceed with caution. Vulnerability, even with those closest to us, is often perceived to be dangerous and frightening. Communicating in an intimate manner can be anxiety-provoking because it places us in the precarious position of being susceptible to rejection or humiliation. This outcome is an ever-present possibility because exposing our needs may threaten a partner who is struggling to ignore his own needs.
Depending on the extent that we protect ourselves, we may experience a sense of safety, but simultaneously feel alone and isolated. It is not surprising that couples usually learn to eliminate conversation that touches on areas of sensitivity and conflict over a period of years. Sometimes they do it so well that relatively little remains for them to talk about.
Is the answer simply to wear your heart on your sleeve? It’s not that simple. Vulnerability, like many factors in relationships, is not without its complications. Too much vulnerability and you are likely to burst into tears if your love partner is being critical about a minor issue. Yet, without some degree of vulnerability, intimate relating, and life is devoid of meaning. The capacity to suffer along with a loved one as well as to be open to your own pain and disappointment is a crucial component of a healthy relationship.
Vulnerability, without it, our relationships are sterile, with too much, emotion runs rampant making closeness impossible. Here, then, are the ingredients that combine to give and get the best of vulnerability in a loving partnership.
Own your own issues. Stop blaming your partner for your mistakes, bad behavior, problems with your family of origin. These are your problems, your issues, and your solutions to tackle.
Resist the temptation to be defensive. If you are saying too much, you are probably being defensive.
Keep a small notebook with you each day for a full week. Jot down each and every evasion, no matter how petty (for example, complimenting someone falsely, smiling when you’re actually annoyed, telling people what they want to hear). Study the notebook at the end of each day to determine patterns of inauthenticity.
Consider the thoughts and experiences about which you are most ashamed/embarrassed. Pretend someone else has confessed these things to you. What counsel would you offer that person? Are you more benevolent toward this “other person” than toward yourself?
Stop judging your partner. Focus on expressing how you feel rather than on the nearly impossible task of trying to change your partner’s behavior.
Be more open about yourself with those closest to you. A special kind of inner strength is summoned when genuine feelings are asserted.
Lastly, to be open with another person, it helps if you are acceptant of yourself.
Following the guidelines above will assist in providing the strength and courage to love well; to muster the courage to be vulnerable without feeling overwhelmed.
Joel Block is a psychologist and author of The 15-Minute Relationship Fix: A Clinically-Proven Strategy That Will Repair and Strengthen you Love Life.
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