On Vulnerability and Relationships

Vulnerability is the ability to take risks. It's the ultimate bullshit detector, the ultimate litmus test of inner security. Vulnerability is a measure of resiliency. It's a subtle form of self-contained power which can become apparent in how much or little, and how mindfully it's practiced.

Like a musician who practices their instrument - vulnerability is both a skill (albeit culturally reinforced to neglect) and an indicator of how much goes into this paradoxically powerful and profoundly inspirational act.

Relationships of an intimate nature require vulnerability. An important nuance to be aware of is the quality of the vulnerability. Not all vulnerability is created equally. Healthy and robust relationships require practicing mindful or conscious vulnerability of an emotional nature.

If you don’t take risks that leave you emotionally exposed and unprotected in at least one significant relationship, I question what you’re really made of inside. On the outside you may have an impressive stature, attained outward success even. Yet, I start to suspect these as layers of disguise or layers of emotional armor if accomplishments are done in the pursuit of invulnerability.

Under these layers is often a delicate energy that's invisible but highly inflammable. I'll name this energy as shame.

For some, stagnant anger is often a sort of flame-retardant. Although, the more shame you have, the more anger you depend on as a part of your armor. This often takes on an identity of its own that you may even confuse as "you". Habitually reactive anger is often vulnerability-armor. When feeling shame brings an intolerable sense of vulnerability; a blazing sense of pain from emotional exposure - this can feel so threatening that bouts of rage become a fire extinguisher. The thing is, it also extinguishes intimacy. When we didn't have emotionally supportive or protective adults growing up we became more armored for means of survival. We were truly more vulnerable while young; emotionally isolated and left on our own to deal with intensely uncomfortable (but 100% human) feelings.

I'm intimately acquainted with this phenomenon. I refer to this as having unresolved emotional trauma resulting from chronic emotional neglect and/or abuse. When the invisible but accumulative impact reaches a sensitive unconscious tipping point in the young child due to the parents/caregivers not having a relational repair kit, a shame-based sense of self is conceived. This is involuntary and unconscious. This shame-based self requires heavy armor and effective disguises that often shield itself while hiding from conscious awareness at the same time. It's important to understand for a grounding in self-compassion, that this often forms very early in life for emotional survival, before conscious awareness exists. It's an adaptive way for a child who's dependent on their caregivers for survival, to cope with emotional neglect and/or abuse, while developing their sense of self. This isn't to shame or blame the parents, but to name the affliction so healing can occur. Often, parents were unaware of the emotional harm they caused their children, though sadly in some cases I find it hard to believe they were unaware. Regardless, they didn't have enough conscious awareness of their own inner world, and how to heal.

A lot of energy goes into constructing and maintaining the armor. This is survival. The energy of this armor can often create a personality of its own. This is often what I think of when studying the Enneagram personality types. Personality types like the "Perfectionist", the "Helper", the "Overachiever", the "Maverick", the "Hermit", the "Loyalist", the "Enthusiast", "Mr. Machismo" or the "Boss", and the "Peacemaker", etc. And it works, until it doesn't. It often takes a crisis or some kind of painful experience to evoke deeper awareness into this very nuanced and complex phenomenon.

Vulnerability feels incredibly counter-survival. And, that's the point. How you've survived up until a crisis or tipping point usually involves some form of unconscious hiding, some form of "performing" to get by in life. The symbolic fig leaves we wear start to feel suffocating on your soul, while still providing a semblance of protection. This protection starts to unravel later in life, and reveal itself as self-sabotage. By hiding core aspects of ourselves, especially our hurting and lonely parts that make us feel pain and discomfort - this actually colludes with the shame. It reinforces the notion that these aspects of you are truly unworthy of being seen, let alone felt and integrated.

Mindful vulnerability takes risk into consideration. There isn't a compulsive disclosure that indiscriminately exposes yourself to anyone without self-awareness and lacking safe-enough boundaries. It's a mindful - not mindless practice, that starts with checking in with yourself, taking stock of where you are, and honoring what arises. The conscious intention to make forward movement imperfectly can easily be forgotten when we encounter discomfort while exposing ourselves to emotional risk. It's helpful to have outside support that can help remind and guide us when we feel overwhelmed. We might, no - will, feel discomfort and some temporary pain, but not in vain. The intention behind taking emotional risk is a validating of our human need and capacity to experience intimate connection with those who are important to us, including ourselves. There are no guarantees other than the guarantee of not going anywhere when we don't risk a thing. Knowing this we stretch our limits of comfort, bit by bit beyond uncertainty and into risk - and possibility.

Do you see how much courage and strength this takes? To disrobe your armor and decades-old protective layers and take a risk requires a certain level of self-honoring and self-trust that despite how uncomfortable this may feel, you've got your own back. You may fall apart, and yet rise again and stand tall.

You may want to start in small doses. Taking baby steps are progressive movements while honoring that this is indeed new and risky. This is where therapy or coaching comes in very handy. Coaching can be a smart start and it's where I have practiced a lot of my own vulnerability. Sessions can be looked at as vulnerability dress rehearsals in a safe enough space. This "private practice" is where you can emotionally unarmor, and explore your unexplored parts that arise in the process.

It feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but empowering. You're reinforcing through actions that you are worth the risk. Stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone slowly builds resiliency.

This is a practice, not a performance. In sessions, you learn it's safe enough to let down your guard and see what's on the other side. I'll spot you, and your confidence to take risks and manage vulnerability will get stronger over time.

As that saying goes, "practice makes progress" - and we are all in progress.

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