At our core, we are all vulnerable. It doesn’t matter how tough, sarcastic or stoic we’ve learned to be. We can’t be authentic but not vulnerable at times. In relationships, vulnerable feelings like sadness and fear draw us into connection with others. They create our appetite for closeness.
But without the proper attention, our vulnerability can drive communication missteps that cause hurt feelings or arguments. When we’re feeling more vulnerable in our relationships, we may have many expectations of the other person: care, concern, specific answers or help. But humans cannot mind-read and we are separate beings with our own individual needs. Sometimes the desire for connection matches beautifully in a moment. But sometimes it doesn’t. It is for those moments that we must be prepared to oversee and care for ourselves in the ways that only we can.
Some people may easily remain at a “safe” distance in their relationships, but never allow real vulnerability. Others may go too far in the other direction, completely spilling their every thought and feeling without healthy and respectful containment of their communication. Striking the right balance is tricky.
In my own life, there was a time when I struggled to pick the right time and right amount of vulnerable communication. I could be so distracted that I had no idea what my vulnerable truth might be. Or when I felt overwhelmed or lonely, I could abandon all oversight of myself and emotionally spill into the arms of other people in my life. It was all quite reactionary and mindless. I wasn’t watching over myself and choosing my actions. That disrespected my own power and sometimes wasn’t fair to my loved ones.
We may learn to shy away from communicating our vulnerability because we’ve had some painful experiences where it didn’t go well. We got a “no” to our request for support. Maybe we met anger. Or worst of all, maybe we got no meaningful or satisfying response at all. Nothing feels worse than opening up and being left exposed.
We can also get a little black and white in our thinking about vulnerability. Unconsciously we may imagine only two options: Stay really protected or gush about nearly all of our feelings without taking responsibility for their care. But there is a middle option.
You can be vulnerable and strong at the same time. It is possible to share your authentic vulnerable self AND maintain appropriate care and protection for yourself. That’s what my water and bucket metaphor is all about. It’s fine to pour some of yourself into vulnerable communication when you have good boundaries keeping you in the choice rather than reaction state-of-mind. But that state of mind requires good habits of self-awareness and care, so you are consciously contributing the right amount of yourself in your communication instead of spilling the whole bucket entirely.
We all deserve to ask for support and share ourselves with our loved ones. That’s the great thing about relationships. But we can’t stop carrying ourselves through the moments of our life – particularly the difficult ones.
Sometimes we’ll need a lot of support and may pour quite a lot of ourselves into our relationships. Life can knock you down in moments. Thank goodness for the support of loved ones. But it can disrespect others if we regularly gush about every feeling and need in our relationships. (Counseling or coaching are the notable exceptions here.)
Awareness of your feelings, self-compassion skills and a daily practice of personal connection to your own vulnerability and strength are your best guides. In the right measure, a consciously chosen moment of vulnerability in a relationship can be incredibly powerful and rewarding. I would even say that you can’t experience the full joy of healthy relationships without vulnerability.
But strong and wise vulnerability is cultivated in the privacy of your inner experience. We have tremendous strength when we stay lovingly connected to the self within, and we have a responsibility to use that strength to honor our own vulnerable truth on our own. That is self-compassion. And that is our safety and wisdom in any relationship.
When you remember and embrace your separateness as a unique individual, you can share yourself and your feelings in a healthy and mindful way that honors your needs and those of your loved ones.
For more free resources on cultivating good boundaries in your relationships click here.
Jessica is a psychotherapist, relationship and addiction expert, and creator of The Visible Self ® and VisibleU™ system. Over the last 17 years she has helped hundreds of busy adults create healthier habits and more satisfying relationships.
Jessica received her Master’s in Applied Psychology from New York University, and completed mediation training at the Columbia University School of Law. She has held numerous clinical roles, managed clinical operations for a national EAP, and advised executives on employee-relations concerns at Fortune 1000 companies. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and a master instructor of mindful living …their Border Collie/Pointer-mix “Abby”.