Tuesday, June 24, 2014


How can I become more connected and vulnerable and still feel safe in relationships?

This is a complicated topic with a web of feelings and issues interconnected. Among them are deep emotions and past experiences. When I talk to clients, friends and others I hear about self esteem, shame, courage, wisdom, boundaries, childhood wounds, relational experiences, as well as cultural expectations and messages.

Often I hear things that have a negative connotation attached to the definition of vulnerability. A colleague said, “Vulnerability feels like an open wound”. Someone else said, “I feel weak. It’s like I exposed too much of myself”. Why does vulnerability get wrapped up so much in feelings of weakness?

As I’ve worked on being a healthier person in relationships myself, I’ve come to view vulnerability quite differently from where I began as a young person. I’m suggesting the idea of vulnerability that is associated with high self esteem and confidence - the courage to be seen.  I propose a model of vulnerability as strength of emotional maturity. And that is what we need to love well and to be open to receiving some of life’s most connected relational gifts.

But what gets in our way? And why do women fear vulnerability in special ways that may be different than men’s fears? Because if you haven’t noticed, many men fear vulnerability and some go to great lengths to protect their “soft underbelly”.  Sadly this is what we largely teach men and boys to do. But that’s another story. Thing is, most of us are deeply confused about all of this.

We as women also fear seeming too “soft”.  So how can practicing something so open and as emotionally intimate as vulnerability be a strength?  Because when practiced with personal integrity and self respect, vulnerability is courage, it is compassion, it is wisdom, it can be nurturance and it is being human and real.

So the task is to parse out the difference between for lack of a better term, needy – and being vulnerable. When we are needy, it certainly is a vulnerable feeling. When we seek love for instance, from a place of fear that also makes us feel vulnerable and we are indeed in many way at risk of being taken advantage of, hurts or even exploited.  So we have to learn the form of connection and intimacy that comes from a place of self knowledge and strength. Practicing vulnerability in healthy ways is about sharing yourself and your passions. It is about allowing others to meet us where we are and seeing parts that may otherwise stay hidden. Doesn’t that sound courageous?

Culturally women are often sent contradictory messages that place us in what feels like a double bind around this practice.  One message we get is that as women we should be accessible emotionally, lead the way toward openness and nurturance of others. But we also get messages that we must protect our softer and more feminine selves lest we be exploited in ways emotional, sexual and physical. What is missing in this dialogue (well there is a lot missing) is the factoring in of boundaries.

To be vulnerable in affirming and healthy ways, we need to be able to set boundaries, choose and create respectful relationships. With the basics of this life template, we become free to be open and to do so in appropriate ways with appropriate people and for the right reasons.

So here is my proposal: Connect the goal of healthy boundaries with the goal of empowered openness. This is hard work for most of us. And doing so often requires assistance, good resources, role models and lots of practice paying attention to what we fear and how to move past a need to please and focus on self care instead.

Check in on your motivations for sharing, intimacy, connection and attachment. Look closely at when, where, and with whom you seek to be seen and heard. Why do you want to reveal parts of yourself? Under what circumstances does disclosure feel great? With whom do you find it reciprocated?  Are you able to feel ok about yourself if it is not? What do you seek from different relationships and situations? What do you need to alter or who might you need to limit your exposure to in order to create more health in your life? Might you tell your stories of fear, passion, excitement, mistakes and accomplishments with courage?

Once we have become clear that we deserve respect, and we have become comfortable with our boundaries and willing to be honest and judge the responses of others, we can more easily determine who we allow into our close circles.  With this framework for our social and intimate lives, we will feel much more confident to be open, vulnerable and accessible with the good people we hold dear.

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