How to Be Vulnerable and Improve Your Relationships (In 5-Steps)

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How ironic is it that I’m writing on a subject that I have struggled with all my life?

Let me be honest with you, Queen; writing this blog was challenging. Doing the research and coming up with the 5 steps was the breezy part (not really, ha-ha). The uncomfortable part was examining my fears attached to vulnerability and revisiting hurtful memories, ugh. I had to pause, check in with myself, and do some internal processing while working on this one.   

So, let’s talk about this big V word.

 

What Does Being “Vulnerable” Mean?

The literal word “vulnerable” means to be “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or open to attack.” – Merriam- Webster

Firstly, what kind of a definition is this? I mean, who purposely opens themselves to be physically or emotionally wounded??? If being vulnerable means to be attacked, then Merriam-Webster can keep this definition.

In all honesty, such a basic definition does not give the full context of what vulnerability entails. It doesn’t discuss the essence of what’s going on inside us when we are vulnerable.

Anyways!

I like the way Christine Hassler, best-selling author and life coach, defined vulnerability in her podcast episode, Tips For How to Be Vulnerable (and Not Get Hurt).  

Perfectly stated, “Vulnerability is our way of breaking patterns of avoiding truly being seen for fear of how we will be received “-Christine Hassler.

So, vulnerability is not about opening ourselves to attacks. Instead, it’s about feeling secure enough to share our authentic selves with the world. Sometimes, when we are vulnerable around the wrong people, we can risk being attacked. So, it’s important to wisely choose who we are vulnerable around. I discuss it more in step four below. 

 

What Causes Us Not To Be Vulnerable?

Many people have these invisible guards built around themselves to keep people from getting close. It happens when they have been deeply hurt (such as childhood trauma), let down by people, or life circumstances. Being vulnerable feels RISKY!

“Our reasons for not being vulnerable are deeply personal and specific to our unique experiences. They often tie back to very early in our lives. Children are keen observers. We learned how to relate from our earliest relationships. We absorbed how our parents saw and treated us, themselves, and others” writes Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. on How Embracing Vulnerability Strengthens our Relationships

Limitations in our environment or ruptures in our childhood relationships gave us a model for how we now see ourselves and the world around us. For example, if we had a rejecting or neglectful parent, we may see ourselves as a burden or intrusion. Whatever the circumstance, the message most of us internalize is that “it’s not okay to just be me.” As a result, we expect that we won’t be accepted and that others will fail us. We try to protect ourselves by keeping our guard up,” Firestone continues.

Those of us who were exposed to childhood trauma may have adapted to patterns of suppressing our feelings because being authentic wasn’t safe. Instead of healing, we learned to protect ourselves from further pain. Resultingly, many of us never learned how to process our emotions.  

Staying guarded and silent about things may feel right, but when we do not allow ourselves to be fully seen, it hinders connectivity, and isolates us with feelings of abandonment.

 

Why is Vulnerability Important?

When we are vulnerable, we live in a place of self-acceptance and authenticity. “It helps us to recognize our value as humans while giving us the courage to reveal ourselves in ways that will strengthen our connections,” says Firestone.

After reading multiple articles, listening to podcasts, and checking in with myself, I have gathered five steps to help us practice vulnerability.

5 Steps to Being Vulnerable

1. Identify your Intolerances:

“Intolerance is the incapacity or indisposition to bear or endure.” –Dictionary.com

There is a deeper story attached to things we are intolerant of, are unwilling to feel or accept. For example, you can be intolerant of feeling embarrassed, unimportant, needy, or weak. So, whenever you experience these feelings, you may mislabel them or avoid processing them.

For instance, saying you’re OK when you are NOT just to avoid expressing your truth because it makes you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable.

Chances are, a painful memory is (subconsciously or unconsciously) connected to our intolerance of certain feelings, people, or situations. Many times, our reasons are related to fear.  

The fear of being:

  • Weak
  • Judged
  • Teased
  • Attacked
  • Disliked
  • Etc. 

Identifying My Intolerance and Fear:

While writing this blog, I realized that I am intolerant of feeling happy for long periods, which is rooted in the fear-based belief that something bad could happen at any moment, and I will be hurt. I learned that being happy triggers feelings of discomfort and vulnerability, which causes me to feel open and exposed. Because I have an intolerance for feeling open and exposed, there are times when I self-sabotage, downplay my successes, and not fully express myself when I’m feeling excited about something.

But that’s not the only thing. After digging deeper, I found that one of the reasons I am intolerant of feeling happy is due to something I experienced when I was around 10 years old.

I was at my grandparents’ house with my father, his then girlfriend, and her sister. Whenever together, my father regularly styled me in what many would call “boy” (non-feminine) clothing. But on that day, my mother (who was not in a relationship with my father) styled me in a red dress that I thought was so CUTE!  

While entertaining his girlfriend and her sister with my corny 10-year-old little girl jokes, my father interrupted our conversation and scolded me for wearing what he called a “too little dress.” He then immediately made me put pants on underneath the dress.

This is just one of the many times I was scolded during my care-free moments of being vulnerable.

I didn’t think the dress was too short, but of course, I had no say in the debate! I remember being embarrassed and feeling as if I had to hide parts of who I was.

That day, I became INTOLERANT to feeling exposed and ashamed. I was deeply hurt and traumatized but didn’t know how to process feeling exposed and embarrassed. I smiled and said “yes sir” externally, but I cried and felt alone internally. The shame I carried from this moment unconsciously stayed with me well until I was 26 (writing this blog).

I didn’t know this back then, but that was the moment I began building a guard around myself, and my fear of being vulnerable or happy was born.

Are you intolerant of something that prevents you from being vulnerable? “Understanding your intolerance will help you reveal the blockage that stands between you and your unwillingness to open up to yourself and others.” 

Nick and Todd, two clinical psychologists, talk about emotional vulnerability and intolerance in their podcast episode, How To Be More Vulnerable.

***Note: You may have one or more intolerances. Identifying each of them will help you dive deeper into your being. *** 

2. Let Yourself Feel:

Being vulnerable is directly attached to the extent that we allow ourselves to feel. Sitting with the physical sensations in our body without analyzing or judging our feelings is one of the most empowering gifts we can give ourselves.

But it can also be challenging. When discomforting feelings arise, we may want to escape, control, or reduce them, especially if we believe that feeling makes us weak.

From personal experience, my initial reaction to uncomfortable feelings was avoidance, and the reason is that I had no clue of what to do with them—as if feelings are problems that need to be solved.

I am learning that we don’t have to “do” anything with our feelings as they are neither good nor bad. They are based on our interpretation of the world around and inside us, and once they flow out of our body, we become more empowered and confident to handle our emotions.

When you accept your feelings, you permit yourself to feel without judgment. It makes you less ashamed to be vulnerable about your feelings with others and serves as an initial step towards healing.

Victoria Lemle Beckner, Ph.D., shares four steps to skillfully feel in her article, The Key Skill We Rarely Learn: How To Feel Your Feelings.  

 

Here’s a snapshot of the four steps:

1.      Name the feeling

2.      Allow the sensations in Your Body

3.      Mindfully Investigate what’s in Your Heart

4.      Bring Compassion to Your Experience

3. Share Your Feelings:

“The key to vulnerability is being authentic and honest. When we open up, we bloom like a flower”, says – Sam IV from PRA PODCAST.  

One of the ways to practice vulnerability is to share your feelings exactly how they are, without any sugarcoating or worrying about what people think. I’m not advocating being rude or cursing everyone out, but assertively sharing your true feelings without the need to sound perfect.

Here’s the thing: Experts say that we need to use real emotional language when sharing our feelings. So, instead of intellectualizing things or speaking from our head, speaking from our heart will help us be vulnerable.

Dr. Susan Heitler, clinical psychologist and TEDx speaker, wrote, “Words that label the vulnerable feeling optimize the likelihood you will be heard without defensiveness. If you spring on someone that you’re angry, chances are they’ll want to defend themselves why they didn’t make you feel that way. But if you use more vulnerable language, they’ll want to help you fix your problem.”

For example, If someone hurts our feelings, and we say things like “I am so angry!” or “you only care about yourself!” it will only reflect a small fraction of how we really feel. A more vulnerable response may sound like “that really hurt me” or “when you did _____, I felt abandoned and unloved.” The latter sentence reflects words that express vulnerability and can help the other person understand you.

A nugget of wisdom: “Sometimes people don’t really care about your feelings. They might get mad at you for having and sharing them. They might dismiss them by saying you are too sensitive or are being dramatic. These people are not the people you want to share your feelings with, and you might what to reconsider how much you let them be a part of your life.” – Krista and Mark, founders of Psych Company, a psychotherapist and life coaching company. 

 

 4. Choose wisely and set Emotional Boundaries:

Being vulnerable is a gentle emotion that can’t be shared with everyone. While it’s nice to share your feelings with people, wisely choosing your inner circle can protect you from the risks that come with vulnerability. It is important to set emotional boundaries by only being vulnerable with people you feel comfortable and safe around.

A safe person is someone who makes you feel comfortable, supported, loved, and accepted, regardless of how you are feeling. They bring out the best in you and makes you feel valued and secure in the relationship.

However, an unsafe person is the total opposite. They are usually self-seeking, toxic, energy-draining, judgmental, or discouraging. Being vulnerable around them can cause emotional pain and make you feel worse about yourself.

You may have been exposed to an unsafe person in your childhood through abusive caregivers, being abandoned/neglected, or many other factors that cause childhood trauma and requires healing. 

Our hearts will almost instantly put up an invisible guard / emotional blockage if we feel unsafe or uncomfortable. This emotional blockage protects us from hurt but also prevents us from being vulnerable.

When you intentionally set emotional boundaries by choosing who you will be vulnerable with (i.e., a therapist, friend, or partner), it will protect you from being vulnerable around those who will take advantage of it.

A SAFE PERSON WILL:

  • Accept you.
  • Support you.
  • Believe in you.
  • Embrace your flaws, fears, and failings.
  • Love you unconditionally.
  • Be honest with you even when it’s difficult.
  • Listen and perceive the truth.
  • Work towards personal improvement.

A SAFE PERSON WILL NOT:

  • Compete with you.
  • Say things to purposely puncture your self-esteem.
  • Require you to be perfect to be loved.
  • Attack you when you are vulnerable, sad, or open.
  • Try to control you or your thoughts.
  • Use what you share in confidence against you.
  • Mentally, emotionally, or physically abuse you.
  • Use their words or power to intimidate or belittle you.
  • Dismiss or downplay your feelings when you confront them about something they’ve done to hurt you.

5. Redefine what “Weak” means:

We have been indoctrinated into thinking that being vulnerable is “weak.” Many people downplay their feelings, suffer in silence, share inauthentic versions of themselves, and live in an ever-evolving state of guardedness to avoid feeling weak.

As self-learners, we get to redefine what the word “weak” means and break dysfunctional thinking patterns and beliefs. By definition, being “weak” means “to lack power, strength, and energy.” Weakness is not associated with being sensitive, emotional, or gentle with yourself, although culture may say otherwise.

While being vulnerable can make you feel exposed or emotionally fragile at times, it is the farthest from weakness. Being vulnerable requires strength and courage. It takes ownership and self-acceptance to show all aspects of your humanness.

If we always live by this state of “not wanting to look weak,” we will forever hold back in conversations, hide our feelings, or fall into the strong woman prisons—which is enough stress on its own!  

5 Reasons To Be Vulnerable Even After Having A Traumatic Childhood

  1. Being vulnerable empowers you
  2. Healing happens in your vulnerability
  3. Being vulnerable fosters connections
  4. Your Vulnerability is A Gift to You
  5. Being vulnerable helps you grow.

Journal Prompt for Vulnerability:

Was there ever a time you were deeply wounded while your guards were down? How did this experience impact you? (Feel free to write about it in the comment section (in respects to your comfort level) or in a private journal.)

Disclaimer: The information on this website is a product of Shyteria’s research and personal experiences. Shyteria develops written, and spoken materials based on her interpretation of the research on each topic addressed. By consuming the content on this website, you acknowledge that her comments, written content, spoken topics, and any additional materials are expressions of opinion only. The purpose of Shyteria’s provided perspective is to educate, inform, and encourage her readers on the insight she has gained and practices she has developed. This does not promise or imply a complete guarantee of any specific results.

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About

I am a passionate writer, speaker, and poet. If you’ve found this blog, there’s a good chance we share something in common – a bond of emotional pain that way too many women experience, combined with a shared desire to figure out what got us here.

I’m here to share my story so you too can begin disconnecting from your pain. I hope my content has found you at the right time and is able to offer guidance and support if you find yourself experiencing something similar.

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