Many people don’t like the feeling of being emotionally or physically vulnerable; it can be uncomfortable and very scary. To risk being vulnerable can take considerable courage because it can make us susceptible to being hurt. In therapy, clients often say they don’t want to cry; some clients go so far as to say they hate crying. They see that alone as a sign of weakness and they don’t want to be “seen” by the therapist because it brings up feelings of shame, fear and anxiety. Many clients describe experiences in which they revealed some aspect of themselves – a fear, a past hurt, an insecurity, and later had it “thrown back in their face” or “used against them” by someone they trusted – a friend, a spouse. No wonder they prefer to be invulnerable, invincible, walled off.
However, being able to let down one’s guard, to experience vulnerability in the presence of another (e.g., the therapist), allows for an experience that can be healing and transformative. Being “seen” and “witnessed” with unconditional positive regard opens one’s heart to joy and calm. The realization that one is safe in the presence of another can be life-changing. People can begin to open their hearts to others outside of therapy, and experience deep connection…love.
But wait, that’s risky. People can profess love, but they can behave in ways that are hurtful, mean, cruel. As the eminent psychiatrist R.D. Laing said, “it’s not safe to open the door of your heart if you don’t know how to close it”. Discerning who is safe is important. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be hurt. Take the time to reveal your inner self slowly, and notice what happens. How does the other person receive you? Do they support, validate, understand, act tenderly? Or do they shame, chide, tease, humiliate, or later use your open heartedness in retaliation? If you receive support and “cherishment”, then you will feel safe and become more vulnerable. Each step of the way, notice how you are received. One definition of love is “I could hurt you, but I won’t”.
Sometimes hurt does happen. Even with the best of intentions people hurt one another by carelessness, or lack of attentiveness. But here again is opportunity for connection: you can risk being vulnerable and say that you feel hurt. Notice what happens. Does the other person apologize genuinely, make a promise not to hurt again and keep their promise? Or do they become defensive, and shame, blame, or otherwise belittle you? If the hurt is not acknowledged and the connection is not repaired, this is not a person with whom to be vulnerable.
It takes courage to risk becoming vulnerable again, after being hurt.. Brene Brown, the author of several books on shame, vulnerability, imperfection, and ‘being enough’, has written about the courage to be vulnerable in her latest book, Daring Greatly. Her ideas have resonated for many people. For example, her 2010 TED Talk on vulnerability has been viewed online more than nine million times. In Daring Greatly, Brown explores our fear of being vulnerable and our tendency to think of vulnerability as weakness instead of strength. She writes clearly that vulnerability is the “core, the heart, the center (sic), of meaningful human experiences”. She encourages us to “dare greatly” by acknowledging our vulnerability and imperfection – and, simultaneously, our worthiness. Being worthy of love and connection does not require us to be perfect. Through these courageous acts we will create and engage in connection, genuine relationships, and community. According to Brown, “owning our worthiness is the act of acknowledging that we are sacred. Perhaps embracing vulnerability and overcoming numbing is ultimately about the care and feeding of our spirits.”
Take courage. Dare greatly. Risk being vulnerable. Connect. Brown states, “Connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement”. The process of creating connection can begin in therapy.
Brown, Brene. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.
Brown, Brene (2010). The power of vulnerability. www.TED.com/talks.