“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” – Brené Brown
When it comes to having healthy personal relationships, vulnerability is the name of the game. Unfortunately many of us aren’t very good at it. We live in the most medicated, distracted and numbed out society in history. Alcohol, drugs, food, the internet, television, etc. are all ways that we avoid our feelings and our vulnerability. According to anthropologist, Helen Fisher, over 100 million prescriptions for anti-depressants are written every year in the United States. When we suppress our feelings and avoid dealing with them, we can get emotionally blocked which can lead to depression and anger issues.
In our families of origin, many of us have been conditioned and programmed to avoid our emotions. As children, many of us were raised in families where it was not safe or acceptable to be emotionally vulnerable. Growing up in my family was kind of like being in boot camp. My dad, for example, was an ex-RCMP officer and a strict disciplinarian. One of his favorite messages to me when I was being vulnerable was to say, “I’ll give you something to cry about…” I learned very early on that it was not safe to be emotionally vulnerable. I realize now that my father wasn’t comfortable with his own feelings and therefore wasn’t comfortable with anyone else’s, including mine. Thankfully my mother was the complete opposite!
Vulnerability means being aware of how you feel and expressing and dealing with those feelings in appropriate and responsible ways. This is especially important in personal relationships. Most conflict and drama in intimate relationships is an avoidance of vulnerability. Patterns of criticism, defensiveness and withdrawal are indirect and dysfunctional ways that couples avoid being vulnerable with each other. Anger, for example, is a secondary emotion that masks the more vulnerable feelings of shame, fear, sadness and loneliness. The emotion of anger is not meant to be vulnerable and for good reason; it’s nature’s way of mobilizing our resources for survival. When your spouse makes a critical comment and you “trigger” into a defensive response, that’s really nature’s engineering that is designed to keep us safe. However, this kind of emotional reactivity in intimate relationships, is usually overkill and ineffective. A common example of this is when your partner is angry and says, “You don’t care about me and you never spend any time with me!” What your partner is really trying to say is, “I’m lonely, I miss you and I’d like to spend more time with you.” The latter is vulnerable and honest; the former is critical and will likely lead to conflict or emotional withdrawal. Anger is easy and automatic but it takes courage to be vulnerable.
“You can’t heal what you don’t feel but what you can feel you can heal”
Feelings are not selective, that is, we just can’t avoid the negative ones and have only the positive ones. Shutting down one’s feelings can result in numbing out all of them. In the extreme, some people are not even aware of what they feel at all. They just don’t feel anything. Of course this makes people susceptible to using substances and seeking unhealthy experiences that make them feel alive. Look at examples in your own life when you shut down your feelings, “bite your lip” so to speak. How does it feel? It’s likely that the emotional energy in your body feels “stuck” and you end up frustrated. In order to be fully alive we must embrace all of our feelings including the negative ones.
When we have a negative feeling, we need to get in touch with that emotion so that we can understand where it is coming from and what it is really about. This is the pathway to emotional intelligence. Suppressing and avoiding our feelings doesn’t make them go away; on the contrary, it keeps them stuck and we end up acting out those feelings indirectly. Passive aggression, sulking, pouting, anger, blame, criticism, etc. are just some of the ways that we do this. When you think about it, it’s child-like. Children blame, pout, sulk, have temper tantrums, etc. and it’s our job to teach them healthy ways of dealing with their feelings. Isn’t it time that we all grow up? A fabulous book on this subject is Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence.”
In the next Relationship Essential, I’ll be talking about practical tools and strategies for communicating and relating from a place of emotional vulnerability. Stay tuned!
Happy relating……from Sig Taylor