Vulnerability is the glue in life and relationships. Without it you would not be able to connect with those around you. Well you could but only on a surface-to-surface level. Vulnerability allows you to connect deeply from heart to heart. But as important and valuable as it is, vulnerability for many of you may be hard and scary. Actually I might even go as far as to say for most of you. Like words might not seem to explain hard and scary it is to express your desires, and needs. Sure maybe you can share with the barista at the coffee shop that you need a coffee but sharing the deep heart needs and desires with the person that matters most? Eyes-wide moment.
I saw on Instagram recently a question that Esther Perel posed asking: “What is one thing you would like to do differently in your relationships?” Hundreds of women responded and not surprisingly to me many wrote about how they wanted to be more themselves and to share themselves through more vulnerability. Here are just a handful of those responses so you can hear that other women around you are also feeling the want for vulnerability but also the difficulty:
“I would like to be able to show vulnerability to people I care about. I have incredible deep emotions but can’t often let people see them, so they think I’m a happy-go-lucky bubbly person with high walls. They aren’t wrong.”
“I want to remove all the insecurities from my head and be honest with what I really want out of that relationship. Straight forward conversation.”
“To be as open and as vulnerable as possible. It’s the hardest. But the healthiest.”
“Being more vulnerable”
“I want to feel safe and empowered to say things that are hard or uncomfortable”
“Be more open about my feelings”
“To say the thing or ask the question. Whatever it is that seems scary. Be honest and vulnerable as I can.”
“Express my feelings yet more honestly”
“Dare to be me. Be vulnerable”
Every day I hear similar thoughts from women that vulnerability is hard and as a result, their true selves and their hearts are hidden away. So if you find vulnerability tricky and scary and would want to do that differently in your life, know you aren’t alone and that you are capable of unlocking your heart.
What is Vulnerability
Vulnerability occurs in two directions. One one side it’s knowing yourself, including your needs, wants and desires, and sharing that with your partner. Often times vulnerability can be cast in the light as bad or “weak”, especially for men. But being able to be vulnerable in front of other people is hard. It takes strength. It is one of the strongest things we can do to take our heart and share it outside of our protective walls where there is a risk that it won’t be received well. As important as vulnerability is it’s also just as important to share your heart with safe others. So I want you to know that I’m not asking you to willy nilly toss your heart out at anyone and everyone. You do need to be discerning about who is safe to share with.
Vulnerability is not only sharing your heart but it is also allowing your partner to know themselves and to share their own heart including their own needs, wants and desires with you and letting them touch your heart. It’s the heart to heart conversation. So it’s not just in sharing more of yourself but to receive is also vulnerability. You need both for your relationship with your partner in a beautiful back and forth heart conversation.
Not sure what to do when someone shares their own vulnerability? Check out this wonderful video by Berne Brown Sympathy Versus Empathy. And if you haven’t checked out her work yet I say run to (well click to) Amazon right now and get her books. They are amazing resources on vulnerability and what blocks us.
Why You Aren’t Vulnerable
What tends to happen for women is many learn that being vulnerable is not OK. We hear and experience many things that send the messages of don’t act this way, don’t say that, be quiet, act like a lady. We learn that if we say or do a certain thing then the people around us may not respond positively. And having people respond positively is, well, a positive thing. Or perhaps you experienced negative things that sent the message to you that to be open, playful and you were not OK or safe. So you learned to lock your heart down and portray a chameleon version of yourself. Your heart is safe inside your walls but it is also imprisoned, along with your freedom and happiness.
As one of the guys Jonathan on the awesome show Queer Eye on Netflix so accurately says: “You can’t selectively numb feelings so if you try to numb your vulnerability you also numb joy, happiness, connection. You can’t have connection, joy, and happiness without vulnerability.”
I want you to consider what blocks you from being more vulnerable. What fear puts it’s foot in front of the door when you even think about opening it and sharing your heart? Is it a fear of being judged? Being seen? Of not being enough? Is it a fear of that person leaving? Or not being liked (I’m raising my hand here: fear of not being liked and therefore being abandoned). Slow yourself down and take some time to ask your heart what it’s afraid will happen if it shares more with your partner. Once you are curious about what the foot in front of the door is you can begin to work with it. You can’t change what you don’t know or avoid.
Why You Need Vulnerability in Your Relationship
Vulnerability is the thread that weaves a hammock underneath your relationship. You need it to support the relationship and to allow you both to comfortably and safely relax back. If you only contribute a few threads here and there then the hammock will be weak and won’t be able to hold the relationship. This can actually end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you don’t share more of yourself for fear that a relationship won’t last and they will leave, then the hammock of your relationship will be a thin, straggly thing and it won’t be able to hold the relationship and guess what? It won’t last. Thus, reinforcing your thought that “see, relationships don’t work and people leave me so why be vulnerable?”. Further, if your partner is contributing to the relationship hammock and you aren’t, they are going to get exhausted with being the only one contributing the vulnerability threads of the relationship hammock.
A major reason vulnerability helps create the net underneath your relationship is it helps your partner love you. Being vulnerable and sharing what you want and need helps your partner love you by allowing them to actually know what to do. It gives them a chance at loving you best by guiding them and giving them direction rather than leaving them to guess and playing a frustrating game of 20 questions and you giving vague answers. You are a unique and wonderful person and by sharing your unique heart you help your partner love you and your heart fully and entirely. If you don’t share all of you then your partner doesn’t have the chance to love all of you.
Vulnerability is Hard!
Let me tell you I get it that being vulnerable is hard. I’ve struggled with this myself as well. That’s what makes us human. If we trusted everything and everyone then we would be in danger. Ya … Ha! Sure... let me just be vulnerable and expose myself outside the cave so the saber tooth tiger can easily find me and eat me and I’ll die. No thank you! But not every situation and person is the equivalent to a sabertooth tiger situation. Learning who is safe and what makes them safe so that you can be entirely vulnerable is key.
I will share with you something my partner so wisely said once many years ago when I had a high level of protection around my heart. He said, “It’s like we are playing a relationship card game together and you keep holding your hand of cards close to your chest and so we can’t even play because you won’t put your cards down. Or you’ll put down one card but not the whole hand.” He was getting frustrated because I was only showing him bits and pieces of my heart. I was full on in my protective cave because my heart just knew everyone was a saber-tooth tiger in disguise and my heart was only willing to peek its head out of the cave. He had been sharing his heart, putting it out of the cave, contributing to the hammock underneath us, but he couldn’t do it all on his own or stay out of his cave all by himself much longer. I had to show my cards. I had to meet him out of the cave. (whew analogies are a-flyin' here)
Yikes! Come fully out of the cave?! I knew he was safe to show my heart. Well, my mind said I totally could. I’ve checked in multiple times and the evidence was fully there. I knew he was safe. No 11-inch teeth, just love and kisses. But my heart and the past hurts from others in life was like that anxious guy in the movie Inside Out running around inside my cave screaming.
I mean what if I stepped out of the cave and showed him my whole heart and he didn’t like it? Stomped on it? Shamed it? Or he would run back into his cave and so when I reach out in return I would be alone outside the cave and would feel no hammock there to catch me.
That was the risk. He could have done all those things. Whew, makes my heart jump right now just thinking of it.
But I did it. I was afraid but I laid down my whole heart, my whole deck of cards, for him to see. But that’s what vulnerability is. It’s feeling that fear and making the reach anyway. It was scary but liberating. And I continue to show him my heart, although not always or perfectly. I tell you this not only to model vulnerability by sharing a piece of me with you but to let you know that I know that scary feeling when being vulnerable. Like, totally know the feeling. But I also know that if you keep responding to that fear that wants to block you from reaching out or you always hop back in the cave, you will not get to fully come out and live your life and fully be loved.
Vulnerability Takes Practice
Vulnerability comes in stages and is 1) a continuous practice and 2) happens in small, manageable steps over time. You self-disclose gradually, in an appropriate measure to how much trust has been mutually gained and earned. And you do so often to strengthen the vulnerability muscle. Just like pushups. If you want to get stronger you can’t do a push up here and then maybe another kinda, sorta push up there. You build your strength frequently so you get stronger and stronger. So when there is an opportunity for a big vulnerability share your mind can say “no problem, I got this”, like if you have been consistent with pushups and someone asks you to get down and give you 20 you can say “psh, I got this” instead of “oh sh*t there’s no way!”. And if we don’t practice vulnerability with safe others then our hearts will be walled up forever and never get to run around in freedom and play with the butterflies or others. I don’t know about you but my heart wants freedom. It’s stuffy and lonely inside that cave.
Vulnerability starts with yourself and ends with yourself as a continuous energy exchange with your partner. But starting with yourself is the key place of intimacy as you increase your ability to be intimate with your partner. If you don’t know yourself then how can you share yourself? Think of it like those desk toys that when you pull back one side of the balls then the same energy is transferred to the other side. What are those called? Asking my engineer hubs now…Newton’s Cradle! (although also called Newton’s Balls which I kinda like better). The science and math behind these is way beyond what we need to go into but it models the same energy of vulnerability. As far back as you are able to go into your heart is equal to the amount you are able to share with others. You just can’t share what you don’t know. And further, what you share with safe others then moves the energy back to you so you can safely explore more of yourself.
Expand Your Vulnerability
Once you know more of yourself then it’s practicing sharing your findings emotionally with your partner. When you truly understand who you are, your wants and needs, then you know how to speak up and express those desires to your partner. When sharing and they understand, then there is self-calming, which allows for even more internal exploration and sharing. And keep in mind you don’t need to know your heart fully and completely before sharing with your partner. We will never know ourselves in totality because we are always evolving and there’s new facets and nooks and crannies that can be discovered. You want to always be continuing the journey of being vulnerable and curious with yourself and free of judgmental thoughts.
When sharing with your partner a good place to start is to be curious about how you best feel loved by your partner. If you haven’t yet checked out the 5 Love Languages this is a good area to help you know you more and then you can practice vulnerability by sharing your language and what that would look like with your partner. It is also important to share vulnerable regarding our values in relationship when making your Unity Vision Statement for your relationship. You can also practice sharing more of your heart by reaching out in slightly less scary places. For example, sharing that you want sushi rather than that burger place for dinner is sharing your wants but not in an arena that is perhaps a level 10 scary share. Start lower on the scale and build up.
With a foundation in emotional intimacy, you can then build your strength of vulnerability into physical and sexual intimacy with your partner using things likes Intentional Intimacy time and making sure there is no pressure on you or your partner. Especially for women, but also many men, it’s important to feel safe in emotional vulnerability before sharing your body. Your body is an extension of your heart and to get there it is important to build a foundation of internal intimacy with yourself and an emotional bond with your partner and then add in the layers of physical and sexual intimacy.
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