Why is Vulnerability so Important and Why do so Many People Struggle with it?
Last week, Huffington Post Relationships ran a wonderful piece about vulnerability. Spencer Northey was one of the quoted experts and here’s a more thorough look at her thoughts on the topic:
1. Why is vulnerability an important quality in a relationship?
Vulnerability means putting yourself out there for connection. It means being seen and appreciated for the core parts of who you are, and likewise seeing others in this way. It means reaching out for secure attachment. In other words, vulnerability in relationships means taking a risk, big or small for love. It is essential if you want a genuine, lasting, and secure relationship. When we talk specifically about emotional vulnerability being essential, this is because failing to connect over a range of emotions dulls positive feelings. In order to fully experience joy, you must honor pain.
Vulnerability may not look the same across cultures. It does not always mean we share everything that’s on our mind or confess our deepest darkest secrets – as is currently hip in American pop culture – though it can mean doing this if it feels right. Vulnerability does not always mean speaking up, it may mean staying quiet until the right time for your words to be heard. Vulnerability may be expressed through actions; showing up time and time again, for example, or following a path of faith, or working hard to make a better life for your family.
2. Why do you think so many people struggle with vulnerability?
How to, or how not to be vulnerable is most often taught to us first by our families of origin. If your parents modeled and supported secure connection and authentic expression, you have a good chance of being able to connect in this way with others. If showing vulnerability at an early age meant you got hurt, it is more likely you will struggle around opening up. Often when people find each other as adults, “water seeks its own level;” meaning that people tend to pair off with others at their same level of tolerance and ability for secure connection and vulnerability. This is why in couple therapy, both clients are often challenged in similar or complementary ways.
Also, going to an even deeper systemic issue than one’s family of origin, I think unequal power dynamics in our society have made us feel like we must push against each other for survival. When our cultural practice and consciousness is that some people get marginalized, our mindset is to scramble not to be considered the “less than;” building up ladders and walls to protect ourselves. How this plays out in a relationship is that instead of stating our specific needs, which may expose our shortcomings or insecurities, we criticize failures to meet our needs as objectively “wrong;” implying we are objectively right. Of course, then the criticized partner goes on the defense, and then we’ve got two people opposing each other when they could be resolving things.
3. What are 2 to 3 practical tips/pieces of advice for people who want to foster more vulnerability in their relationship but don’t know how?
Build your emotional muscle not your armor. The best type of vulnerability for connection acknowledges both your strengths and weaknesses, with emphasis on the strengths. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you just put yourself out there unprepared. I think this why we have associated vulnerable with seeming “weak” because sometimes it really is if you do so forgetting your strengths. For example, if your partner makes a comment that hurts you, bursting into tears and desperately declaring your injury is honest and vulnerable, but it is also reactive. You are taking your emotions and hurling them like dead weight at your partner’s feet. The strong response would be having the wit to say, “I am not sure what your intention was with that comment, but it hurt me, so we need talk about that.” With this response, you are acknowledging your pain, but also your strength in your compassion for your partner and curiosity – leaning in to the hope that with an honest conversation, you two can work things out. Wit is the reason so many great comedians are able to illuminate truth. They are so charmingly vulnerable. Wit takes work. Responding instead of reacting is a major life skill that builds with lots of practice. This is why therapy lasts many sessions, you have to build the muscles to be vulnerable.
Create a safe space for vulnerability by practicing compassion. Become a supportive and safe person for others to be around. Trade in negative judgements of others for gratitude and focus on others strengths. Take care of others when called and able. Become part of the movement to make the world safe for all people to let their lights shine. In this way you will attract others who are safe and supportive to be around, and benefit from the security you and they are creating.
If you need a very concrete tip:
FAWN is the mnemonic I use to help couples remember Dr. John and Julie Gottman’s “Gentle Startup” technique. When you need help finding the words for how you really feel and what you really need you can use the sentence “I Feel (F)_________ About (A) What (W): ______ and I Need (N).” The emphasis is the need, however, to communicate clearly with ourselves and others we need a bit more reflection about how we really feel about what is really going on. Make sure you are expressing about what not about you, since the goal is to bring the other person in for support, not to push them away in opposition. The Gottmans emphasize that “Gentle Startup” in this way is the antidote to criticism. So when you feel like shutting down your own vulnerability by criticizing someone else, use FAWN. In my work, I have found that criticisms are almost always needs in disguise.