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When I encourage clients to be emotionally vulnerable, I usually get a response such as, “Why would I want to bare my emotions?” or “If I do that, I’ll get hurt,” or “That will give people too much power over me.” They don’t realize that being open and authentic has nothing to do with what other people might say or do to us. Rather, it has everything to do with who we want to be and who we want to share our intimate lives with.
Expressing emotional vulnerability may be useful in helping others engage more fully with us, open up and share their hurts, be less defensive and combative, and improve communication. In business or politics, exposing your tender emotions may be done to get others to let down their guard, to take them off guard, or to strategically shift the balance of power toward ourselves.
But none of that is the goal of vulnerability in intimate relationships which are about sharing, not seeking, power. Intimacy involves loving with lowered defenses, being ourselves without fear of reprisal, and knowing without a doubt that we’ll be loved and accepted. In intimate relationships, we aren’t vulnerable because we want something from someone, but because this is what love is all about or why bother.
Listen up: Openness of the heart has two virtues: to access our deepest feelings in intimate relationships and to assess if another can do the same. Vulnerability with intimates is the only way to test out if we want someone in our lives. When we’re open and honest, we set a standard of what is expected between two people. We’re saying, here are the ground rules: I’ll be authentic and expect that you will be too. We’re showing someone what’s required of them in terms of honesty and courage and observing if he or she has what it takes to respond in kind.
If we say, “I’m hurt,” will he think this is a statement of weakness and try to hurt us more? Will he think we’re spineless and can be easily manipulated? Will he take advantage of our honesty and show us what he perceives as his power by shaming us? If she responds to our “I’m hurt” with a sincere apology and offers up her own hurt out of a desire to match our vulnerability rather than one-up us, the relationship stands a chance. If she can’t or won’t do that, we haven’t lost a thing, but have gained the knowledge that she will not make us happy because we’ll be forever trying to teach her to be real so that we can be real too.
We must dare to be vulnerable because authenticity and emotional closeness and bonding simply won’t happen any other way.
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