Written by: Melissa Pilarski.
Vulnerability is allowing others to see you for ALL of who you are– including your shame. We’re talking about the parts of yourself that you don’t even want to acknowledge exist. It hurts too much. There is a real fear that if you share your shame story with someone, they will no longer accept you for all of what makes you who you are. That fear is often big enough to hold us back from sharing.
This fear of not being accepted by others makes complete sense, especially when you take attachment theory into consideration. Attachment theory explains that humans are wired for connection, especially to caregivers, from cradle to grave. Humans are social beings, and when that connection is threatened or lost, our parasympathetic nervous system signals to the body that we are in GREAT danger. It feels like life or death! In a situation where connection to a significant other is threatened, the panic signals us to either fight, flee, or freeze— just as we would if we were standing in front of a bear that’s ready to attack.
Sometimes we learn that it is not safe to be vulnerable in relationships. Maybe after speaking up for what you need from someone, they threaten to cut you out of their life altogether. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, maybe we are just ignored by others when making an attempt to share our thoughts or dreams. Our body learns to respond with the panic response. If we never address this response, our fears to be vulnerable become internalized in our bodies, and manifest as unhealthy relationship patterns.
Brene Brown is an expert on research about shame and vulnerability. She is always talking about the fact that shame cannot survive compassion. Once you take the hidden, dark shame, and share it with someone who can be trusted to engage and respond, our bodies can learn to be vulnerable again. Being vulnerable with others, and being received warmly, fosters a sense of emotional connection. Studies show that a secure connection literally improves our physical and emotional health. We feel more energized, creative, and courageous.
Being truly vulnerable is no easy task, and if it is easy, you may not be digging deep enough. The risk to share can be so scary. That’s why I try to emphasize to my clients how important it is that they feel heard and understood by me in our therapy sessions. It is not lost on me that I won’t be that safe person for everyone. I encourage clients to explore their options of therapists if they have the privilege to do so, until they find someone who doesn’t feel so hard to open up with.
When working with couples, sometimes the sharing and being vulnerable with a partner can look a bit like exposure therapy. We start slow, and eventually lean into those deeper emotions, until you and your partner trust yourselves to share and receive each other in new ways that feel entirely supportive. Once you can trust each other more, you can share vulnerably. And when shame is met with understanding, compassion, and acceptance, growth in a relationship can begin.
When describing this change experience in therapy, I like to use the analogy one of my wonderful supervisors shared with me; it is as if you and your partner have been hiking a well-worn dirt path for a long time. You both know the way, and follow the trail, but now you’re looking for a new trail with breathtaking scenery along the way. As your couples therapist, I join you and your partner in your journey. I understand that there are a multitude of paths you could take, but allow you to ultimately make the decisions. It’s going to take a lot of repetition to wear down the grass on the new path, and I assure you the journey and connection with your partner is well worth it.
For more information on our services, click here: Couples Therapy