It’s a scary word with so many negative connotations. Most humans, I feel, try to avoid feeling vulnerable. We’re scared of what could happen if we allow ourselves to feel any hint of vulnerability. In my non-therapist opinion, I believe that vulnerability is the start to every argument, disagreement, hurt feeling, and stubbornness.
I know that I tend to push back when I feel vulnerable. I prefer strength and courage over vulnerability, but unfortunately, what I think are showing as strength and courage actually present as stubbornness, closed-mindedness, and pigheadedness. Typically, I end up looking foolish instead of strong and courageous.
Through therapy, I’ve learned to recognize the triggers that cause me to feel vulnerable, and along with my therapist, I’ve developed strategies to help me lean in, instead of stepping back in fear. Because what better way to master vulnerability than to practice being vulnerable?
This hasn’t been an easy practice – and I falter … often. Luckily, I have an all-star team of supporters around me, from my therapist to Tyler, and I get to work at perfecting being vulnerable more times than I’d care to admit.
Recently, a friend sent me the following text message:
“I’m going to need those tricks you know about how to not put up walls […] What do you do when you start putting up walls to protect yourself from vulnerability?”
I chuckled to myself. I found it amusing that anyone would feel that I am the appropriate person to ask such a question.
I thought about her text for a while. I thought back to the person I was when Tyler and I started dating – how insecure and controlling I was. And then I thought about where Tyler and I are now in our relationship – how I am still quite insecure, but how I’ve been able to recognize the signs of insecurity and my need to control, and how I’ve learned to work through and talk about those feelings with Tyler.
Maybe that’s a sign of me allowing myself to be vulnerable, I thought to myself.
My friend had included a long list of things she was doing and feeling that were causing problems in her relationship. I used this list to bring myself into similar situations in my own relationship, to allow myself to think about how I work through them.
What works? I asked myself.
After some careful consideration, I came up with the following process:
Please note, what follows is a strategy that I use for myself. Others may or may not find this to be helpful. The information that follows is not intended to take the place of the advice of a licensed professional.
How to allow yourself to experience vulnerability:
Determine how “your walls” cause you to act.
When my mind gets stuck in a negative loop and I feel my walls going up, it usually shows up as snippiness, resentment, frustration, and anger. How do negative feelings present in your life? What behaviors do you recognize in yourself? How do YOU act? Don’t worry about what others have done to cause you to act that way. Think solely about what you do or say when you are feeling vulnerable.
Awareness of how those walls present in your life is important. You cannot stop it if you don’t see it. So try to figure that out if you don’t know already.
Remove yourself from the situation ASAP.
I don’t mean end the relationship. I mean that when you recognize those behaviors in yourself, take a step back immediately. This is why we have a safe word in our house. The second any one of us is feeling a negative way, we use the safe word. The safe word is a silly word – something that wouldn’t be used in every day conversation – that is intended to stop a pending argument in its tracks. It lets the other person know, “Hey, I need a minute. I am recognizing feelings in myself that are preventing me from hearing you. I am going to walk away to catch my breath, organize my thoughts, and process my emotions. I will come back. We will continue to talk about this. But for right now, please respect my need for space, quiet, and time.” One word says all of those things. We recommend that you put a safe word in place. It feels funny at first – unnatural. But the better you get at recognizing your own triggers and behaviors, the easier the word becomes to use.
Go for a walk, sit on the balcony, journal, take the dog for a walk, put on your headphones and listen to music. Do whatever it is that you like to do when you check out. Do not check out with alcohol or drugs – those simply mask your feelings and prevent you from processing your thoughts with a clear head – and will usually create more problems in the relationship than it will help. The goal here is to clear your mind, to remove distractions and to get in a place where you can be with your emotions and work through what is going on inside.
Recognize what you are doing.
When you hear yourself saying things like, “you aren’t pretty/smart/tall/handsome/whatever enough,” try to stop yourself mid-thought. Recognize that these thoughts are a symptom of you shielding yourself from potential hurt, embarrassment, shame, etc. Take a deep breath to attempt stopping those thoughts – at least long enough to get yourself through the process.
Counter the negative thoughts you’re having about yourself.
Everybody experiences some sort of negative thought about himself or herself at one point or another. What you are feeling is OK. Do not try to convince yourself that you are different from everyone else around you. No one has their shit together – I promise you this. Remember that you offer a lot to the world around you, and that you have people around you who love you, care about you, and enjoy your company. You may be struggling with this one thing – whether it’s work, a relationship, parenting, whatever it is – it is one thing, and it does not define you. You are enough. You are exactly where you are supposed to be.
Determine what feelings are coming up for you.
Once you have calmed yourself down – which sometimes can take minutes and others can take days – identify what is coming up for you. Why are you angry? Frustrated? Resentful? What past situation has been triggered? What did the person do that is making you feel a certain way?
It is important to identify actions, not what you think they are thinking. Our minds like to play tricks on us and like to convince us that we know the exact intentions of someone else. We do not. So you need concrete behaviors. What tangible thing did he or she say or do? Why did it make you feel the way that you do?
Counter the negative thoughts you are having about that person/relationship/situation.
Once you have been able to identify the past situation that is coming up for you, and what has been said or done that is causing you to feel a certain way, it is easier to counter the panic and vulnerability. Instead of falling into the pattern of, this thing happened and thus this will be sure to follow, you will be able to take a step back and say, “This situation is different because of A, B, and C. And this thing was said, and I interpreted it to mean this other thing.”
If you are still unclear or upset about something that someone did, bring it back to them. Talk about it. Bring it back and say, “You said/did this one thing. It made me feel like this and it brought up these emotions for me. I’d like to be able to work through it, can we talk about it?”
This all takes practice, and it is never seamless. I always fuck something up, and my feelings still get hurt. I will still act like a petulant child from time to time. But it gets easier, and our fighting has essentially stopped. There is still anxiety, but it is typically minimized and I am able to talk myself through it using these steps 90% of the time. Five percent of the time, I will need Tyler to walk through this process with me, and the last 5% of the time, I will start an argument.
Hopefully these steps help you to recognize when you’re feeling vulnerable and to identify how those feelings show up for you. Awareness is always the first step.
How does vulnerability show up for you? What are the signs?