Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to be Vulnerable

Since becoming a parent, I have realized how much effort most of us put into trying to avoid vulnerability. Of course, once you truly love someone in an unconditional way (and especially the love of a parent for a child) it's impossible to be invulnerable.

At its core, the avoidance of vulnerability is about avoidance of pain. In fact, the word is from the Latin vulnerare, to wound. When you are vulnerable, you can be hurt.

The flip side to this is that allowing vulnerability is the only path to an authentic, intimate relationship. When you allow yourself the possibility of being hurt, you allow the fullness of yourself to be visible, to be known to another.

Being known for who you really are is a terrifying thought to most of us. Most of us go through life being told that we have to perform well and to someone else's expectations to be loved, to be given respect, and so we are trained to think of others first. To compound this, we find so many people who are untrustworthy--who take our early gifts of vulnerability and, at best, mishandle them, and at worst, throw them back into our faces in an attempt to intentionally hurt us.

So then we wonder: Who is it safe to be vulnerable with? How can we tell when someone earns (and deserves) our vulnerability?

Some of us careen in the opposite direction of hard-hearted cynicism. Instead of shutting everyone out, we let everyone in. We don't discriminate, hoping that if we pour ourselves out to everyone, we will find someone who is right for us, who will keep our secret selves safe. We give up privacy and boundaries and the right to have secret selves, in fact.

So how do we tease all this out to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, with the right people, in the right circumstances?

To my way of thinking, these aren't just psychological or sociological questions, but spiritual ones. (And if you know my blog, you already know I don't mean religious questions, but more how you relate to that which you can't know, can't control. The Universe or God or Fate or whatever you want to call it.)

I remember when I was about to be married. I had a sense of unease, and I couldn't pinpoint it. Late one night, I was talking to my fiance about our upcoming marriage, and I realized that I was terrified he might die. That one day, this person I loved and was linking myself to would be taken from me. I let myself cry and feel this fear and acknowledged how real it was. And then, I accepted it. Actually, of course he will die. Now, I might die before he does, but no one has escaped death yet.

Once I had admitted this fear, out loud, I felt better. Not because I had an assurance that he wouldn't die, but because I had allowed myself to know something that I already knew.

Of course you will get hurt by loving someone. Pain and suffering are a given of life as a human being. No way to escape it. But isn't it better to know what you already know? Can't you then make clearer, better decisions? Can't you then clear out the tightness in your throat or stomach?

Vulnerability isn’t simply a matter of “opening up” and telling someone your deep, dark secrets, or your needs and desires. Rather, it’s a matter of opening up to yourself, first. Before you can tell anyone anything, before you can be authentic and intimate with another, you first have to be authentic and intimate with yourself.

Tell yourself.

Tell yourself what it is you are scared of. Give voice to the fear, and look to see where it might come from. Tell yourself, without self-deception, what you already know about the way life works--that there will be pain and loss. Tell yourself your secrets that you have been too afraid to encounter. Tell yourself the Truth.

Will this happen in an afternoon? I suppose anything is possible, but it’s unlikely. Does that mean you have to hole up for months as you sort things out? Absolutely not. The practice you do in telling yourself these fears, secrets and dreams takes place (must take place!) in the presence of other people, as you go about living your life.

Simply -- go slowly. While you’re practicing allowing vulnerability into your own life, you can ease into it with other people at your own pace. Get quiet. Listen and watch people. Listen and watch yourself. Make a note of your feelings with people. It's my belief that we come into this world with a fairly good warning system that often gets warped by social training. Once you have a handle on knowing and trusting your feelings when you interact with someone, go slowly. Don't offer everything, and don't offer nothing. You can't dance by yourself, but you don't have to dance with everyone, either. Take a few steps and evaluate. Just as you wouldn’t practice the most elaborate dance move first, neither would you offer the big stuff to someone you don’t yet trust.

And if you have known someone for a long time, but just haven’t allowed yourself to be vulnerable with that person? Well, if you’ve been doing the work of telling yourself the things you need to know, then you don’t really know that person anymore, because the old you has been replaced.

I think most people look into questions of vulnerability when romantic relationships don’t work out and they are looking for reasons why. But vulnerability is essential to any authentic, meaningful relationship: between friends, siblings, parents and children, maybe even business partners.

You might ask, what’s the upside to taking off the armor? If the root of the word is “to wound” why wouldn’t I try to avoid as much pain and suffering as possible? Well, besides the obvious reason of having an authentic relationship with another human being, I might also add that armor, while protective, is terribly restrictive. It constrains what you can do, how you move, how you perceive your own capabilities and potential. So, besides love, you will finally have the real, unfettered freedom to be fully who you are.


arianek said...

I am SO glad you're writing again - this one was extremely timely. Welcome back to the internets. ;)

Tiffany Hamburger said...

Ariane--I'm SO glad you're here! (And especially glad this was a timely one!) Thanks for showing up as I get myself back into the swing of things. It's appreciated.

See you on the internets soon! :-)