The thing about vulnerability…
Today I’m talking about the dreaded V-word – not violence, but vulnerability. Well, I’m not sure if it really is dreaded, but I do know that when I mention it to (many of) my clients, I see a flicker of a look in their eyes that looks like dread or horror to me.
For many people, the idea of vulnerability signifies weakness or a pathetic state of being. Most of us do not want to show that we are, or are feeling vulnerable. Especially not at work when we’re trying to be at the top of our game; or in social situations where others might see us and ridicule us; or with the kids when we’re trying to be in charge; or with our partners who might take advantage of or criticize us, in our revealed and defenseless vulnerability.
Being vulnerable feels like complete exposure, stripped raw and naked to the world, with nothing left to protect us. People tend to run from, or at least secretly back away from, what we feel most vulnerable about, not wanting others to see this weak link of ours. Surely if that one tender spot is touched, our thin layer of protective armor will unravel and expose everything else about us that we feel shame about. To be in touch with our vulnerability can feel like we are completely undefended, little, ready for attack, exposed and – well – vulnerable.
Usually the experience of being vulnerable triggers intense emotions of fear, helplessness, shame, overwhelm – feelings that as human beings, we naturally want to move away from and avoid with every cell in our bodies. Our early ancestors would run from perceived danger; or fight back when they felt vulnerable to an attack; or freeze and mimic death, hoping to avoid oncoming harm.
Even though biologically we have evolved, our brains are still pretty primitive when our vulnerability is stimulated. We often engage in fight, flight or freeze in efforts to protect ourselves from revealing our vulnerability – our perceived “weakness”. The reality is that the more we resist or avoid any of our feelings, especially those as uncomfortable as vulnerability, the more those emotions persist. The more we want to get rid of them, the more we feel them in troublesome ways.
I looked up the word vulnerability and found the following definitions:
- Being capable of, or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon
- Being open to assault and difficult to defend
- The quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed – either physically or emotionally
- An emotional state – most dreadful to us, to which we develop many defenses in reaction to.
None of these definitions indicate the possibility for courage and connection that can come about from feeling and recognizing one’s own vulnerability – and sharing it with others.
Dr. Brene Brown has a popular TED talk about vulnerability that she defines as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure – that when embraced can help one to connect to the courage needed to be oneself.
Even though showing our vulnerability is so scary and makes us want to run; and even though there are definite body sensations we experience when we’re close to our vulnerability (maybe a wish to cry, a pit in the stomach, flushed cheeks, quickened breath, heart racing, sweating, a knot in the throat, maybe feeling like we have to heave, or literally run…), if we can hang in there with those uncomfortable feelings; take a deep breath; notice, allow for, and be with those most uncomfortable feelings; and then find some words to speak – this can be our strongest moment. Surprising strength, resilience, and compassion can come from within, and from those around us.
In expressing our feelings, especially the tenderest or most vulnerable ones, we give others a chance to see us and treat us with compassion. By acknowledging that we feel scared or wounded, or jealous, or hurt, or vulnerable…, And by doing so without blaming or being angry at our person for making us feel this way, we actually are providing a bridge and making an invitation to the other to connect with us. Treating our vulnerability with care and respect allows others to do the same, and increases the possibility of actually not being hurt when we’re sharing our “weakest“ side.
I’ve seen it over and over in my couples’ sessions, when one partner or the other can talk from their place of vulnerability, they are heard, listened to, understood more, and feel more intimacy with their partner. Moments of closeness and connection come when each person can tolerate their own emotional discomfort and have self-compassion for those feelings; and then speak them to the person they care about (and usually who they have felt hurt by).
And of course, when the person receiving or bearing witness to another’s vulnerability can lay aside their own hurts for a moment, find compassion for themselves and for their partner who is sharing a deeper part of themselves, and not simply react with fight, flight or freeze actions, they can respond better to the vulnerable one. This works to not trigger defensiveness and actually contributes to a closer connection or sense of intimacy shared between the two.
The thing about vulnerability is that the more open and accepting you are to it in yourself, the stronger and more connected will be your important relationships and sense of self. Funny how it works that way.
I’d love to hear from you…how comfortable are you with your own vulnerability? How do you notice it ebbing and flowing in your life? Do you tend to fight, flee, freeze or befriend it when vulnerability comes up?
If you or someone you love is struggling with how to handle your sense of vulnerability, please call me for a therapy appointment.
For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.