Deeper intimacy in our relationships is within our grasp if we can just accept our own vulnerability
We all want to feel a part of the fabric of life. We want love and intimacy rather than the grinding pain of loneliness. But how to create closeness remains a frustrating puzzle until we deeply realize that being intimate with others is not something we can control; we can’t bend people toward our will.
Being human means being vulnerable. How many times have we pursued contact, only to have our sensitive heart met with the rough shards of shame and criticism? As our overtures for connection are met with rejection, we may keep ourselves hidden to protect our tender heart. Or we try to override our vulnerability through displays of anger, blame, or manipulation.
The desire to stay safe and avoid danger is governed by our amygdala(link is external), which is a part of the “old brain.” It scans the environment to dodge threats to our safety and well-being. Modern-day threats are not wild beasts, but rather the indelicate ways we treat each other, which lead to a painful isolation and the shame of feeling badly about ourselves.
Growing up, if we felt repeatedly unsafe to show our true feelings and desires, that vulnerable part of us went into hiding. We may have become avoidantly attached in our relationships—tentatively reaching out, but staying well-defended and not allowing others to get close. Or, we may become anxiously attached(link is external)—scanning for any hint of discord. When trust with ourselves and others has been frayed, then even the slightest misunderstanding or friction may be experienced as a tsunami-like disruption of trust, which may lead to rage or running away.
Misunderstandings and friction arise in even the best of relationships. Uncomfortable or difficult feelings are often the result of unmet longings for love, connection, and understanding. We receive a harsh word or insensitive response; a phone call is promised but not received. Trust gets disrupted. A longing arises…but is not satisfied.
When things don’t go our way, we may feel a sudden vulnerability—from the exposure of a desire that is not fulfilled by the other—that we don’t know how to soothe. Rage and blame are common reactions when we’re unable to soothe the beast within.
Making Room for Our Vulnerability
Life and relationships go better as we make room for our human vulnerability, not shut it down. When our self-protective instincts try to safeguard us from emotional pain, we attack, accuse, or withdraw. Rather than gracefully dance with the fire(link is external) of our discomforting emotions by engaging with them skillfully, we fan the flames of mutual discontent, which further incinerates the trust and connection we long for. Practices such as meditation and Focusing offer a way to be present with our feelings without being overwhelmed by them, which allows for self-soothing. We discover that feelings come and go as we develop an inner way to hold them and hear what they might be trying to tell us.
Our task is not to transcend our humanity in a misguided effort to ease our pain or polish some favorable self-image. Nor is it to take flight into some transcendent, spiritualized state that leaves our humanity in the dust. Emotional and spiritual maturity rests upon the wisdom and ability to welcome our vulnerable feelings and engage with them wisely. A climate for love and intimacy is created as we mindfully notice, embrace, and befriend what is vulnerably alive inside us—and being willing to take intelligent risks in revealing that to people who we trust and want to feel more connected to. By mutually sharing the tender places inside us, we offer a precious gift to each other.
Periodically pausing during our day can help us notice what we’re actually feeling inside. Rather than clinging to how we’d like to feel or to what we want, we simply allow ourselves to be present with what actually is. It can actually feel good and empowering to allow ourselves to have our experience just as it is–honoring ourselves and loving ourselves just as we are, regardless of others’ responses to us.
Here is an exercise adapted from the approach of Eugene Gendlin(link is external), who developed Focusing:(link is external) When you feel a sudden sense of vulnerability (perhaps a fear, sadness, or hurt that arises from some interaction or pops up randomly during your day), take a moment to pause before responding. Notice how you are feeling. What do you notice inside your body right now? Is your stomach tight, chest constricted, breathing constrained?
Simply allow yourself to feel whatever you happen to be feeling—with some sense of spaciousness around it. You may need to find the right distance from the emotions so that you don’t get overwhelmed by them. You may want to visualize yourself putting your arms around the feeling, perhaps gently saying to this part of yourself: “I really hear that you are hurting right now (or sad or afraid). It’s OK to be feeling this way.” If it feels like too much, you may try putting the feeling some distance from you and observing it—or being with it as you’d be with a hurting child.
Being gentle with our vulnerability rather than being ashamed or afraid of it can help it settle. Or just notice how scary it is and be gentle with that. If a particular feeling is especially troublesome, you may want to get some help from a therapist to explore it.
Developing a relationship with the place in us that sometimes feels insecure and vulnerable helps us become stronger and more secure. Paradoxically, we find security and stability not by avoiding or denying our basic human vulnerability—or feeling ashamed of it—but by engaging with it in an honest, gentle, skillful way.
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships(link is external), which won the 2014 Silver Independent Publisher Book Award in the relationship category. His other books include The Authentic Heart(link is external) and Love & Betrayal. (link is external)He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy.