How to be vulnerable and strong at the same time
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 balance, uncontained vulnerability can drive patterns of "playing small" or arguing.
When we’re feeling vulnerable in our relationships, we may have many expectations of the other person: care, concern, specific answers or help. Sometimes these expectations align beautifully. But sometimes they don't. So we must be prepared to oversee and care for ourselves in the ways that only we can.
Balance isn't easy. We may prefer to stay at a “safe” distance in relationships, and avoid vulnerability. We may have learned to shy away from talking about more vulnerable things, because we’ve had experience where it didn’t go well .... Maybe we got a “no” to our request for support ... Maybe it met anger ... Maybe we didn't get a response at all. Nothing feels worse than opening up and being left exposed.
it's easy to get a little black and white in our thinking about vulnerability. We may imagine just two options: Stay really protected, or share everything.
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. Balance is more about staying out of the extremes.
So let me share part of the VUM metaphor, to help you see those extremes a little bit more clearly.
It’s not fulfilling
Have you ever noticed that there are a lot of ways to talk about our inner experience as if it was something “fluid” like water?
Our experience of “reality” is constantly ebbing and flowing between objective reality and fear-based, virtual reality. In objective reality we can empathize, connect and negotiate with other people … no problem. But in fear-based reality? The stakes seem very high.
We can over-focus on our vulnerable feelings … so we “puddle” in a moment of conflict or stress, and feel paralyzed to take action..
Or we over-focus on strength (and "getting it all done" at the end of a long day) … so we "freeze" into rigidity and upset when our partner doesn’t match our expectation of how the dishwasher should be loaded.
When we feel intimidated or spent, the matching dynamic kicks in, trying to help us simplify things: Match someone else or get them to match us. It’s the result of stress ... which deserves our compassion.
But if we don’t hold onto our boundaries, relational stress can blind us to our own vulnerability, or possibly that of those who don’t agree with us.
It collapses our perspective down to a two-dimensional, virtual reality of just one "right" way … you vs. me … win or lose.
We feel like your agreement about the way to do or see something is definitely required … so we puddle into pleasing mode.
Or it seems like my way of doing or seeing something is the only right way … so we freeze into persuading mode.
And all of this constricted, two-dimensional thinking happens because of relational stress. You deserve to ask for support and share authentically with loved ones. That’s the great thing about close relationships. But we can’t stop carrying ourselves through the moments of our life – particularly the difficult ones.
In the right measure, consciously sharing about a vulnerability can be powerful and rewarding. I would go so far as to say that you can’t experience the full joy of healthy relationships without vulnerability. But contained vulnerability (the kind I teach with the VUM) is cultivated in the privacy of our inner experience. We have tremendous strength when we stay lovingly connected within, and we have a responsibility to use that strength to honor and care for our own vulnerable truth.
If you'd like to learn more about balancing your authentic strength and vulnerability in relationships, sign up to get a free toolkit with resources to counteract relational stress, ==>click here to take the quiz and get your free toolkit.
Jessica is the creator of The VisibleU Method. Over the last 20 years, she has helped hundreds of busy adults create more balance within and with others. Jessica received her master’s degree 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.