Shrink Rap: The Strength to Be Vulnerable

Raise your hand if you enjoy being vulnerable.

I thought so.

Most people believe that vulnerability is a weakness, something dangerous that can come back to bite them. Growing up, being smaller and less powerful than the older kids and adults in our lives, we were often hurt when we exposed vulnerability. Even when we grow larger and more powerful, people who are consumed by a win-lose approach to life often try to discover our carefully hidden vulnerabilities in order to exploit them.

But, as those of you who raised your hands already know, vulnerability is the key to both emotional and physical intimacy. Let me translate emotional and physical intimacy for you: love and sex. Obviously, love is not always sexual. In fact (hold onto your hats!), love is rarely sexual. But (cue the violins) the most fulfilling sex almost always includes love.

It can be scary to be vulnerable, even with people with whom we want to be emotionally and/or physically intimate. It takes a strong person to be vulnerable in healthy, connected ways. We need inner strength to be comfortable with who we are and to trust another person with who we are. Trusting somebody enough to be vulnerable allows us to reveal and share our true selves–our dreams, fears, anxieties, silliness, wounds, strengths, joys.

Warning: Sometimes we screw up our courage and get vulnerable, only to discover that we are the only one in the relationship who is exposing our emotional belly. That can be scary, painful and embarrassing. If one person or the other throws up defenses to protect against vulnerability, emotional intimacy scurries away in retreat, tail tucked firmly between its legs.

Likewise, sexual intimacy can sometimes trick couples into believing they are both emotionally intimate when one of them is not. Sometimes both.

Intimate relationships are not built on one person winning and the other losing. Intimacy disappears when one or the other person in a relationship throws up protective or defensive emotional strategies–anger, secrecy, lying, avoidance, acting out, and/or blaming.

When we defend ourselves from another person (and all of us do at one time or another, even in our most inimate relationships), we should learn to be conscious of what we are doing. Defenses can be a little like wearing emotional sunglasses; they keep us from being blinded by another person or by the relationship itself. These emotional sunglasses make it possible to look comfortably at whatever it is in the other person or in the relationship that has triggered a fear of vulnerability. Emotional sunglasses allow us to explore what we see. Do we see ourselves being teased when we were six? Do we see ourselves being picked on for some talent or flaw? Do we see ourselves being coerced by “truths” that were not our own? Do we see ourselves looking “different” or thinking and acting “differently?”

When we get to that place where we are strong enough to be vulnerable, we are able to honor those things that make us special and unique. This, in turn, makes it possible for us to share ourselves with somebody else in healthy, intimate ways.

Raise your hand if you enjoy being intimate.

I thought so.

Repeat after me: Intimacy requires vulnerability. Intimacy celebrates vulnerability.

Vulnerability and intimacy go together–like friend and friend, sibling and sibling, parent and child, lover and lover, spouse and spouse.

Now go out there and pump some emotional muscle! Work hard to grow strong enough to be vulnerable and intimate with Life itself.

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