VULNERABILITY & INTIMACY
You’re probably sold on the power of vulnerability.
Brene Brown alone has made it a household word these days.
Vulnerability is understood to mean giving someone else the power to hurt you.
You “make yourself vulnerable” to them. And then you brace yourself to see how they respond.
But I’m not convinced we understand vulnerability correctly.
We commonly think of vulnerability as the process of exposing parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of or are afraid to share. Of sharing our mess with someone.
We ALSO think that in order to be vulnerable, we must give someone else the power to hurt us, emotionally or physically.
To see our mess and reject us, abandon us, or confirm our worst fears about ourselves.
When we think of vulnerability that way, it’s no wonder we feel anxious!
But what if that’s not what vulnerability is about?
Thought work teaches us that nothing can emotionally hurt us but our own thoughts.
Other people’s words and actions are neutral circumstances.
Our brain interprets them and decides what we will think and feel about them.
Which means vulnerability and the fear of being rejected or hurt by others isn’t as intuitive as it seems.
It’s about more than the fear of what other people will think of us.
True vulnerability comes from a fear that our own thoughts will hurt us.
That we will reject ourselves.
Because we are the ones causing our emotional pain.
Let’s prove it with an example.
What is something about yourself that you share all the time and never feel vulnerable about?
Your name, for example, or your eye color.
If you were to tell someone about your eye color, would you feel vulnerable?
What if they said, “oh, I don’t date people with hazel eyes?”
You’d probably just think “that’s weird!” and move on with your life.
Now, think about something you feel vulnerable about. Imagine telling someone about it, and then hearing them reject you for it.
What’s the difference?
Your thoughts about the information, thoughts, or feelings that you shared.
When we feel vulnerable, it means we are disclosing or sharing something about which we feel anxiety, shame, distress or fear.
We don’t feel vulnerable about things we feel good or neutral about – like our eye color.
We only feel vulnerable about things we already have negative thoughts about.
So what’s our discomfort really about?
It’s a fear that someone is going to confirm our negative thoughts about ourselves.
That’s why it’s so scary.
When we worry that sharing with someone will drive them away, we’re really driving ourselves away.
When we fear their rejection, we’re really fearing our own rejection of ourselves.
This is the danger of outsourcing your opinion about yourself to someone else.
And this is tied to the exact reason vulnerability can feel so great – because when we share something we feel ashamed of with someone else, and they are kinder to us than we are to ourselves about it, then we can sometimes borrow their kind thoughts, and think them, and feel good.
Of course, the flip side of this is that if they react negatively to our vulnerability, then it feels ten times worse because we bolster our own negative thoughts with this new “evidence.”
The truth is, the only person we are truly emotionally vulnerable to as adults is OURSELVES.
The only person you are emotionally vulnerable to is YOU.
Vulnerability is rightly defined as sharing yourself with someone else when you feel scared to do so – but it’s important to understand that what you fear is YOURSELF, not them.
It’s showing up to share with someone despite your own discomfort about doing so.
True vulnerability isn’t giving other people the power to hurt you.
It’s giving YOURSELF the opportunity to hurt you.
It’s being willing to be uncomfortable and afraid of that experience, and showing up for it anyway.
Being willing to let the truth of you, messy or ugly as you may think it is, and being willing to be seen – by others, but more importantly by yourself.
Being willing to admit that you don’t have it all together, that you have negative emotions, that you have parts of yourself you fear or are ashamed of, and yet you are still worthy of love and support.
And this is how vulnerability leads to intimacy, a word we use to describe the love or affection we feel about someone when we think we are truly seen and known and accepted by someone.
Many people believe intimacy is contingent on vulnerability because in order to feel “known” you have to give someone the power to hurt you.
But I don’t think that’s quite right.
True vulnerability isn’t about sharing our thoughts and feelings with someone else so they can fix them or hurt us.
They can do neither.
We share our thoughts and feelings with someone so we can experience the willingness to show up as ourselves.
Relationships with others are how we learn to deepen and mature our relationship with ourselves.
Because it’s all, ultimately, about our relationship with ourselves.
Vulnerability isn’t about passing the responsibility for your emotional experience onto somebody else by expecting them to validate you or reassure you.
It’s about learning to be present in your relationship with yourself at a deeper level.
It’s about learning how to share what you think is shameful and love yourself through that process.
If you’re lucky, the person you’re sharing it with will model that love for you by holding space for the parts of you that you aren’t proud of or want to reject.
But even if they don’t, you can learn to do that for yourself.
Because your relationship with yourself is the longest and most important one you’ll ever have.
So the next time you feel vulnerable, ask yourself:
How can I hold space for myself?
How can I accept the parts of myself I want to hide from?
How can I be vulnerable with myself and more fully love myself through this human life?
Answering those questions will change your relationship with yourself, and others, forever.