“The quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally”.
Oxford English Dictionary
Vulnerability is often confused with weakness. They are linked, but they are not the same. As I see it, to be vulnerable is to open myself and reveal my inner world – my tenderness, my weaknesses, fears, mistakes, hopes, and dreams. It is this revealing that is being vulnerable. Showing my vulnerability can be a huge strength as it shows my humanity and willingness to be seen. There is a risk, of course, but in taking this risk I will likely increase trust, closeness, connection, care, support, safety, authenticity to name a few.
There is also the possibility that the other may use my vulnerability for their own gain by taking advantage of me. I want, therefore, to be selective but rather choose vulnerability in most situations instead of the alternative which is to portray a false veneer of strength and omnipotence.
In my close relationships, the quality and depth of the relationship is directly influenced by how much vulnerability I bring. Revealing my fears, or the things I feel uncomfortable or guilty about, is a sign of trust in the other and in the strength of the relationship.
Maybe this is not the kind of relationship you want. It could be that you’re happy with the strong boundaries you both create between you. Boundaries keep you safe by keeping people out.
Personally, I want more from my relationships – especially the intimate ones. I want to talk not only about safe topics but to explore the messy, the ambiguous and the scary. I want to let others inside and not cut myself off and live as an island. I want to show all of me, and be as real and authentic as I can which means showing the fallible side of who I am.
And yes. It is scary.
The scariness is because I open the dark corners of myself to the light of the person who knows me best of all and who is most likely to know my hot buttons and how to press them. Yet when I am vulnerable with my partner, I let him or her inside my boundaries – they come closer and we become more intimate.
How to Foster More Vulnerability
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
What are you most afraid to tell your partner right now?
Build in regular and frequent sharing moments where you consciously choose to reveal something about your inner world.
Of course, if you are not used to this then it will scary at first. And that’s the point. You are facing the fear and speaking up, trusting that it will bring you closer together – even when it might seem to be the opposite initially. The more you do it, the more trust you will build in yourself that it is ok to expose parts of yourself you normally keep to yourself. And your vulnerability will encourage other to do the same.
I suggest you tread carefully at first and don’t suddenly dump on your partner all your shameful secrets in one giant, self-indulgent truth-fest. Your partner may not be ready or willing to hear you and this is something that needs to be built slowly and patiently.
Here are some tips:
- Speak in the first person so you own everything you share
- Acknowledge when it is difficult for you to speak up “I’m really nervous about telling you this because I need safety”
- Be clear about your intention to connect and don’t just dump stuff on your partner so you feel better while causing them to feel worse
- Often check with your partner what they are hearing – to be clear you are being heard and understood
- Often check how they are reacting so you don’t overwhelm them
- Don’t overdo it but take it step by step.
What About With the Kids?
Don’t restrict being vulnerable to your partner but do it with your kids as well. I suggest, though, you are more careful about what you choose to reveal. I firmly believe the best we can do for our children is help them learn how to build deep and trustful relationships by demonstrating vulnerability to them. They also need safety and to feel secure in your care. So it is a fine art to show enough vulnerability and imperfection so they see the power of it, but not too much they feel unsafe.
Here are some easy ways you can start:
- Admit your mistakes quickly and from the heart – and do this by briefly telling them what you did, how you feel about it and what need your regret comes from.
- Talk to them about some of your own fears and how you handle them.
- Create time and space to talk about what is on their mind, what they worry about, what they are preoccupied about. It is important to keep balance – so don’t overdo it.
With all of these you need to sense into where the limits are. If you admit mistakes or fears all at the time then your kids might start to feel unsafe. They will also feel unsafe if you don’t admit mistakes because they know (on some level) when you screw up or when you are afraid.
Hearing the Vulnerability of Others
In my previous article ‘The Art Of Listening Well’ I wrote about how to really listen. The ideas there will help you when you are hearing the vulnerability of others. After all, they are now revealing more depth to their inner world and you owe it to them to listen more deeply.
I want to hold vulnerability as precious, with empathy and care and not with some of the ways I might habitually block it such as giving advice or minimising. When my daughter expresses some fear or nervousness I want to acknowledge that and validate her experience.
I want to connect on her terms and not jump into fixing it. I may choose to say nothing but simply listen. I may reflect back what I heard to check if I got it.
If I don’t hold her vulnerability with care then it is unlikely she will continue to trust it is safe to open up. The same with my partner. Whenever I am vulnerable and it is received with care, trust is built. And when I close down vulnerability in some way then trust is destroyed.