The Art of Responsible Vulnerability

Vulnerability can seem like a confusing concept or even at times a loaded word.

While at first blush, it elicits visions of rolling over, submitting, and being powerless, the process of revealing ourselves to others often leads to rich experiences of empowerment and connection when we know how to navigate them skillfully.

We all have a desire to express ourselves and be received. There is a tenderness that the softer sides of us almost desperately want others to see.

So what are we afraid of?

Many of us were taught or lead to believe that being vulnerable makes us weak, shameful, and ultimately not good enough.

It requires us to risk and show parts of ourselves to others that we are afraid they won’t like and often asks us to acknowledge aspects of ourselves that we ourselves don’t like or haven’t accepted.

The trick to this is what I call “Responsible Vulnerability,” or the ability and art of expressing our emotions while also being fully responsible for ourselves and our experience. This means not expecting anything from the receiver of our vulnerability.

All too often when people are vulnerable, they do so from a place of giving to get where they share vulnerability in the hopes that the other person will fix or make things better. This invariably creates unspoken expectations and creates an imbalance in the relationship.

The noblest thing we can do when we ask for help is to be actively helping ourselves in the process. In many ways when we hold ourselves with dignity through both the sadness of grief and the ecstasy of abandon we are showing others that it is safe for them to be in it with us.

We all subconsciously and consciously resist taking on the baggage of others upon ourselves regardless of what our cultural upbringing tells us. Our bodies and hearts know better and when we are asked to shoulder more than we can or are willing to carry it often create shades of resentment and resistance which can lead to separation and loss of trust.

It is important to note that much of this happens on subtle levels that are hard to see, but the effects of these unspoken expectations inevitably strain our relationships in small but incremental ways. Consciously or subconsciously, people begin to pull away, become less available, and worse become passive aggressive because their own needs aren’t being met.

When we share vulnerability with another, we are in essence asking them to hear our story, feel, or perhaps even relive our pain.

To do this in a healthy balanced way that honors both speaker and listener requires both sides to be as present in the experience as possible.

There is a term disassociation in modern psychology that speaks to when a person disconnects from their surroundings. This is normal and a useful tactic when someone is experiencing a traumatic event or incident. The trick when sharing such experiences, is to feel fully what wants to be shared, but in doing so also to not lose our presence, or ourselves.

To be fully in our suffering and ecstasy, and also fully present in our present sharing experience. There is no loss of consciousness or a distancing away from what is happening, within and without.

I believe much of the co-dependency and other interpersonal challenges found in our modern relationships is caused by avoidance of discomfort.

As children, most of us were not taught how to process our emotions and as a way of relinquishing responsibility and coping with situations either turned them off or found ways to release them, often through aggression, dominance, or even submission.

But we are not children anymore.

Healthy, empowered relationships require us to step into a greater sense of responsibility for our experience, feelings, and the impact we are having on others. At times we may be overwhelmed, and that’s when sharing what’s on our hearts and minds or simply turning to a warm shoulder to cry on is useful. But during that process, let us not lose ourselves and forget that we are always responsible, that we are not victims.

This keeps everyone involved safe and the relationship sound.

All this said, at times, even the best of us fall apart and can lose any sense of how to hold ourselves. I know I have. And that’s ok too. As friends and loved ones, it is our responsibility to know when the limits of our emotional and mental boundaries are about to be reached and do what we can to avoid hitting our limit.

This may require a compassionate understanding that the person we are holding space for may not be resourced enough to hold themselves, and that our role in these times is to provide as much as we can, and when we are close to our limits to lovingly step away, if only temporarily to recharge and clear our space.

A simple, but potent, tool when we are being or feeling vulnerable is to place one of our hands on a part of our body that feels emotionally tender or is asking for support and presence.

Often this can be the area of the heart or even our bellies. Gently pushing against our body, breathing deeply into where our hand and body make contact, and allowing ourselves to fall just a bit into our own hands is a highly reaffirming action and does wonders for our psyche and nervous systems.

This opens a pathway of inner awareness and provides an anchor point from which we can find ourselves again even when we feel lost in a swirl of emotions, pain, and process.

This can also be something that we offer to others as we hold space for them. Simply asking them to place their hands on their heart or belly and taking a couple of breaths together can often bring someone back to presence, fresh perspective, and wisdom.

Responsible Vulnerability is a courageous skill we as a society haven’t quite learned yet.

It requires maturity and a dedication to bringing the best of ourselves into relations, even when we are at our worst. It isn’t always easy, or what we want to do in the moment, but I believe it is a vital part of having the higher levels of conscious relationship many of us desire.

When we increase our awareness and responsibility around what is being asked of us both as the vulnerable and the witness, we discover how this process can become a beautiful, integral part of how we guide ourselves, and each other, back home.

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