We all have a story about feeling vulnerable. For many, the experience of vulnerability conjures a great deal of fear (even terror), and a history of avoiding situations, conversations, and interactions that invoke intolerable. For others, sharing their vulnerability is a persistent driving force in their lives, bordering on an obsession, as they constantly seek out people and opportunities with whom they disclose their hurts, fears, or sense of helplessness. Our culture has betrayed us with messages that feeling vulnerable proves we are weak or defective, and in fact in many ways has created a crucible around a feeling that is shared by every single person.
Vulnerability at its core is our sense of feeling exposed, dependent, or threatened. This is a natural state of being human, living in a universe we do not control and will never remotely come close to controlling. When feelings of vulnerability arise, we struggle to make sense of them when so much of our thinking has been shaped around being in control. Tapping into this reality can be terrifying, and we have developed a myriad strategies to avoid getting to close to such feelings. We feel helpless when we touch into such states within ourselves and in response our bodies, minds, and actions all conspire to move us as quickly away from them as possible. We throw ourselves into some distraction such as work, a project, or some banal entertainment. We justify our distraction as necessary and justified, even morally or ethically the “right” thing to be doing. We start an argument with a loved one, or we might focus our attention on someone we perceive needs our help, support, or assistance. Whatever our habits have been, at their core they are motivated by our deep need to avoid our feelings of vulnerability.
These strategies might be so long-standing in our lives, so ingrained in the fabric of what “has worked” for us, that it is difficult to acknowledge they are problematic. Yet we find ourselves constantly wishing that something were different in our lives, slowly waking up to some nagging sense that we are never fully satisfied. We have no idea exactly what is missing or how to go about finding it. We feel we have no choice but to continue doing what we are doing, unconscious that it is our strategies of distraction and avoidance that are the very force keeping us trapped and stuck. As much as we may hate to acknowledge it, we feel out of control, helpless, and controlled by this something we cannot name. We feel victimized, defective, and alone, convinced that something is seriously wrong with us or our life. When we compare what we are feeling inside to what we perceive about others, its impossible to imagine anyone else is feeling like we are, and we conclude that our struggle is uniquely ours.
In this space we are forced to acknowledge just how vulnerable we are, and we begin tapping into the feelings we have avoided feeling for so long. We recognize we need someone else to see us in this place, and courageously take the risk to seek out a loved one, a therapist, or a community that supports the process of sharing that deep sense of vulnerability. If we are lucky enough to find someone who is able to hold us in this place, we discover incredible safety, relief, and healing. Our walls of isolation come tumbling down and we discover, perhaps for the first time, the flood of what it is like to feel seen, heard, and held.
For many, this wonderful new experience too easily creates another story, a belief that allowing (and sometimes pushing ourselves) to share our vulnerability with others is the mechanism through which we will feel whole. This amazing feeling of connection with others through feeling vulnerable takes on a life of its own, and we come to believe that this is the source and foundation for all connection. We move from feeling we can’t be vulnerable at all to believing we must share our vulnerability at every opportunity. We shift from holding everything in to sharing everything. It’s all too easy to wind up replacing one fixed belief with another.
Essentially, we have made in this shift a gigantic pendulum swing from one end of the spectrum to the other. We have gone from black to white. For many, this is experience of falling in love, finding that one person who “gets” them so completely that they feel lost without them, like they can’t live without them. For others, it is a mentor, pastor, or therapist who provides them with unconditional support and safety. Still others find it in a community of openness and acceptance. The feelings of this place are so overwhelmingly good in contrast to what they have lived with, they cannot see how they have replaced one version of victimhood for another. They have moved from “I don’t need anyone” to “I can’t live without this person”. They have moved from “I can’t depend on anyone” to “I can’t depend on myself.”
This is a very unstable place to be, as much as it can initially feel amazing and liberating. As much as the openness of feeling vulnerable with another can lead to feeling deeply connected and bonded, it all too often opens up a sense of dependency. As long as the connection is being felt, all is good. But as soon as you perceive some distance, old fears and reactions to vulnerability come flooding back in, along with the old terror and hurt. Old strategies for staying in control end up taking over again. Demands and expectations that the other person make it safe for you to be vulnerable again hijack your thinking and actions. Conflict and deep rifts open up where once there was ecstasy and deep joy. You are plagued with thoughts that things are wrong because you no longer feel safe enough to be vulnerable, and you are terrified that the relationship is unworkable because of it.
This is the sweet spot for us all that calls us to the next level of growth and healing. For it is here that the real work begins. It is here that we must acknowledge that in opening up and in sharing our vulnerability we have simply been passing through a phase in our awakening and growth. It is a rude awakening having already navigated one radical transformation, to realize that another gut-wrenching transformation is required.
For it is here that we must dig deep to discover our own power, the power of our choosing. It is a challenging and slow-wrought journey to acknowledge that we have replaced one form of victimhood for another. We started off the victim of being confined within our incapacity to share our vulnerability with others, incapable of believing others would hold us in our fragility, fear and hurt. Then we ended up being the victim of our dependency on others to hold us, see us, or hear us deeply. Neither one allows us to connect with our power to choose; neither state connects us with our inner well being for very long. We are doomed and addicted to acting in one way or another, feeling either way that we are still not in control.
We must discover that we can hold ourselves in our vulnerability, and that doing so is what unlocks our full potential to move into and out of connection with others without loosing control. Rather than feeling simply we can or can’t share our vulnerability in an all-or-nothing fashion, we begin to understand we always have choice about the degree to which we share it, if at all. We discover the world of our power to choose how much and with whom we share our feelings of hurt, fear, and pain; and even further, we can determine if now is the right time, or whether we can wait for another time. We discover our power to withhold our sharing or to offer our sharing, depending on how safe or ready we feel in this moment; and we can recognize that this may, and likely will, change in the near or distant future. We take ownership that it is our choice whether and how to share ourselves, and we are no longer constrained by a particular formula we have to follow.
Ultimately, we learn that our power lies within the capacity inside of us to choose what is the right amount to share or not share in every moment. We no longer feel trapped within a set of rules for our interactions, formulas that rigidly predetermine what is healthy or unhealthy, right or wrong, shoulds or shouldn’ts. We are liberated in every moment by accessing the freedom of knowing and choosing what is right for us, without a preset story and obligations to abide by it. We are free to reach out as we need to, and we are empowered to withdraw as we need to. It is our choice. And this choice is our power.
When we are connected with this power within us, we no longer see our well being as dependent on the response or availability of others, because we have come to trust we will always be there for ourselves to make a choice in our own best interest. Our choice to be vulnerable with others is exactly that: a choice; not a reaction, a reflex, a demand, or a need.
When we share ourselves from this place of choice, in fact, we may no longer recognize our vulnerability as once we knew it. Vulnerability was once contacted without any sense of choice. Yet, now, we are never far from the place of choice within us that previous did not exist. As it was previously, our vulnerability felt so terrifying and overwhelming risky precisely because it was absent our choosing whether to involve others or not. Now, we come to know our sharing as the manifestation of our power. It is our freely chosen gift we offer not only to ourselves, but also to those we love and care about. We take ownership from deep within us that sharing ourselves is an act of our deepest power. It does not matter whether we are sharing our accomplishments, desires and dreams, or our perceived failures, hurts, fears, and confusion. We do so knowing that we have already accepted ourselves fully, and when we do this, we encourage and inspire others to join us with their own power to see themselves as good, whole and beautiful as well.