It’s the key ingredient to a healthy relationship – and the hallmark to a healthy intimate relationship.
I know this.
I’ve personally experienced the deep connection and sense of belonging that comes when I’ve taken down my wall and allowed another person to see who I truly am – flaws and all.
And as great as it may feel on the other side - when the person with whom I’ve been vulnerable responds with kindness and compassion and says they care about me even more because I’ve been real with them – no matter how good this new bond may feel, I never get there intentionally.
It is generally my conscious intent to avoid that very dynamic: the one where I’m exposed to personal judgement or rejection.
Suffice it to say that vulnerability does not come naturally to me. Maybe it did years ago – before I felt the pain of betrayal, before I saw my name written on the middle school bathroom wall in less-than-flattering terms, before I felt the self-loathing that follows shame. But who the hell can remember that far back?
My brain, like yours, hangs onto the painful moments. Those are the images that are branded into my nervous system’s memory network in such vivid detail that I can still hear the song that was playing when I discovered my high school boyfriend was cheating on me (Prince, The Beautiful Ones). I remember how he pretended not to hear the thump on his dorm room door when the other girl repeatedly knocked, and if I close my eyes I can still see how the color drained from his face when she pushed the door open and walked into his room to find us together. I remember how shapes and colors morphed into each other and became distorted as I stumbled down the hall, looking for my friend Julie, who’d taken the ride to his college campus with me.
We remember these experiences in such detail because it’s our nervous system’s way of latching onto a takeaway, a lesson learned, all in a futile attempt to keep us from feeling the same level of pain again. That lesson learned (all men cheat, that’s what happens when you don’t make them commit, [insert your takeaway here]) becomes a piece of armor that we carry into adulthood, and it’s that armor that keeps us from engaging in vulnerability.
We think the armor is protective, but research has shown us that there’s no such thing (it’s called Joy Foreboding and it’s ineffective in protecting us from pain. We used to call it ‘catastrophizing). What’s worse: The armor is a bitch to peel off once you’re an adult. The longer it stays in place, the firmer it gets, the more resistant it becomes to even the most skilled shrink.
If you’re to have any success with intimacy, that armor needs to become less like a kill switch (binary functions of either On or Off) and more like a dial that you have control over, so that in the right moments, you can dial it down, allowing a partner to feel connected.
Because as it turns out, the very thing that gives us the illusion of protection is seen by healthy partners as a barrier from intimacy.
It’s true: The only way to achieve real human connection is by engaging in vulnerability.
This Valentine’s Day, I invite you to celebrate by beginning to build your vulnerability muscles.
Start by engaging in small acts of vulnerability. If you’re in a relationship, practice on your partner. If you’re single, practice on friends, colleagues, or loved ones. Hell, you can even practice on strangers.
Vulnerability is subjective: What feels vulnerable to you won’t to me and vice versa. But in the interest of time (I realize I’m too late for that), vulnerability involves behaving in any way that would cause you to interact in your world differently than you normally do. Bonus for tolerating greater levels of discomfort as time goes on.