From our first choked exchange of words to boldly asking him to be my husband, my heart has been at risk. Part of being vulnerable is accepting the unknown and relinquishing control. It’s a challenge at times but believe me it’s worth it.
Even writing this piece about vulnerability has required me to be just that…vulnerable. What will people think? Am I any good at this? What if no one likes it? As much as I intellectualise what vulnerability means…it is asking more from me. It requires getting out of my head and into my heart. And this process can feel scary and uncertain so unbelievably different to my rational, control-all-outcomes self or even that funny joker face who plays to avoid having to go ‘there’.
Why is being vulnerable hard? Because even though we are hardwired for connection, we are scared to death of rejection. We are afraid that if we expose who we really are in all our complex humanness, we will be left alone. But the vulnerability we desperately try to avoid is paradoxically the glue necessary for successful intimate relationships.
The Oxford dictionary definition of vulnerability is the quality or state of being ex-posed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.
Does this sound enticing? No thanks. Vulnerability has been framed in the past as something to be avoided or seen as a weakness to be concreted over quickly before we come undone. Is it any wonder we find it hard to live?
I remember when I started to be more open in my relationship I had to overcome this lumpy prickly feeling in my throat whenever I wanted to express my true feelings. I’d have this negative doomsday voice…tut tut if you say that, he will laugh/be angry/repulsed/hate and run away. It seemed like this entity was always waiting in the wings to say I told you so. But as with many of my greatest fears, this didn’t come about. And the more authentic I became in expressing my emotions, the calmer I felt and the stronger I became.
So up yours doomsday, I no longer need you. Probably in your misguided way you wanted to keep me safe. But whilst I’m listening to your cautious, over-protective advice I am missing out on opportunities for connection and intimacy. Sure vulnerability can lead to hurt…sometimes it does. Some love affairs last a growing season, others possibly a lifetime. I remember an old boyfriend quoting Leunig to help with healing after our break up:
When the heart
Is cut or cracked or broken,
Do not clutch it;
Let the wound lie open.
Let the wind
From the good old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt,
And let it sting.
Let a stray dog lick it,
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a tiny bell,
And let it ring.
I didn’t really get it at 23 when distractions seemed easier but I now see the wisdom of leaning into pain. This can feel counterintuitive at first but by stopping long enough to feel and let it hang out, we overcome emotions quicker through acceptance rather than denial. And that is a real gift and a skill to cultivate over our long, inevitably challenging lives.
There are opportunities for vulnerability every day, not just in our intimate relationships. Making a phone call to someone in grief or taking responsibility for something that went wrong at work. As I sit by my father’s bedside in hospital, uncertainty is palpable and life feels fragile. There is nothing I can do to change his trajectory just sit here holding his hand and rub lotion on his feet when he feels up to it. We haven’t always gotten along and we’ve done things we regret. But as he lies groggy from illness, things come into laser focus, what’s important and how precious time really is.
Through practicing vulnerability I’ve found the courage that lives in my heart. It’s no coincidence that when a warrior needs to find courage, he/she pummels their chest. It lives in our hearts, not in our minds. It’s an unlimited reservoir that leads to compassion and love for ourselves and others.
If we are willing to be vulnerable we are capable of true empathy. Empathy is very different to being in advice giving mode or veiled pity (sympathy). These responses are driven by our mind’s needs for outcomes or an unwillingness to connect on a deeper emotional level. I find that when I am in this headspace I want the exchange over as quickly as possible. It feels awkward and uncomfortable. But as I’ve become more open to simply listening without fixing or filling up the silence with my chatter, it’s become easier. I don’t have to have all the answers and can sit with uncertainty. All I need to do is show up in a heart-led place and hold this space without judgement.
We all start out trying to protect ourselves but love cannot bloom with walls. It’s liberating to live on growth’s edge, cutting our own path. As my partner reads my frown after my repeated requests fall on our son’s mute ears, we smile and his arms envelope me. We are in this together, sharing the load of a life lived connected. It’s an illusion that we will lose in being open, it is actually the opposite. Love without expectations is infinite. It’s not a weight to carry, it goes on and on filling us up.