July 25th, 2017

Relationship blog #2: The Heart of Vulnerability

Living in the intimate depths with self and others is a journey that invites us to slowly and lovingly adjust to swimming in deeper waters. ~ From Relationship Blog #1

Shallow living is easy in some ways: doing what is familiar, not rocking the boat, staying safe. This is what I call a short term nourishment: in the moment making the easier choice of not speaking up, or going with what the other person wants, or burying yourself in work (or food or alcohol or television). In the short term you will feel better (or numbed out) but in the long run your relationship with yourself and others will suffer.

When we spend our lives keeping ourselves “safe” and others “happy” we trade our integrity for our comfort. Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting comfort and harmony, and both are important ingredients for a successful relationship of any kind. What I’m talking about is the ways we neglect our own needs and wants to try and fulfill everyone else’s.

I still struggle with this sometimes in relationships, and in the past this was a big challenge for me. I so love nourishing and loving on people; it is part of my nature. When I was a little kid my mom said that I used to give my toys away to anyone I played with. And yet when that energy of giving turns into trying to please everyone it can be deeply damaging to relationships.

 

The downfall of pleasing and isolating

First, focusing on pleasing others takes you out of the equation. Since aside from your relationships with yourself all relationships involve another person, suddenly half of the relationship is missing in action as you only focus on the other. Whoops.

Second, when you can’t please someone (which you honestly never can in the long term) you often end up feeling resentful and frustrated. Not great.

Third, when you try to please habitually over time you lose connection to your own wants and needs. It takes time to then rebuild the capacity to listen and trust yourself.

The other tactic we sometimes take in relationships is to isolate, or retreat when things get challenging. Instead of bringing our concerns and needs forward we metaphorically head for the hills, putting emotional distance between us and other. This is different from consciously taking space to get grounded and clear, which is a crucial skill in relationships. What I’m talking about is when your fear of being rejected or getting hurt causes you to disengage and wall yourself in. Protecting yourself in this way will feel safe in the short run, but again it is damaging in the long run.

 

What are you asking?

One way to do a check is to explore what questions you are asking yourself internally, and if they are appropriate for the relationships you are in.

Who do I need to be so you don’t leave me?

How can I make you happy so you won’t hurt me?

What’s the “right” way to be in this situation?

How can I protect myself so I won’t be hurt?

 

And dear ones, I am talking about ALL your relationships here: with self, family, beloved, co-workers….

Now, an important note. If you are in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship I want to invite you to explore what benefit you are getting from the relationship and if it is really serving you. Put all of your focus on improving your relationship with yourself: being compassionate and kind, not judging yourself, and finding allies who support you. As your relationship with yourself improves you’ll find you either have the courage and power to leave the relationship or you’ll transform in a way that will force the relationship to transform. I”m not talking about changing the other person but changing how you relate to YOU.

In some relationships it is appropriate to protect ourselves emotionally. If you are relating to someone who is immature, highly judgmental, or fiercely negative opening up with your softest inner self might not be the best idea (and it might be the perfect action; only you can decide that. Be willing to gently explore.) And I’ve found in most cases when we bring our vulnerability forward it completely changes the dynamic and allows for connective bridges rather than defensive walls or huge chasms of silence.

 

The bravery of vulnerability

How do you be vulnerable? Start with telling yourself the truth. Be vulnerable with you. Spend time by yourself listening to your deepest heart, to the whisper of your soul. Keep going below the surface noise of your mind so you can feel what is really true for you in this moment. Name what your needs are. Sometimes this takes being willing to let yourself have needs!

Then practice bringing that vulnerability forward with someone else. Maybe start with a friend. Or practice talking in a mirror. Lead with your fear or tenderness. Ask with an open heart for what you need. Demanding or threatening are not being vulnerable, my friends! Expecting the other person to change is not being vulnerable. Blaming someone for how you are feeling is not being vulnerable. Being vulnerable is about sharing what is going on in your inner world, opening the door so someone else can see what you usually keep hidden.

 

Here are some starting lines for a vulnerable conversation:

I’m scared to bring this up and I feel it is important to share what is going on for me…

I feel tender about this and can you just listen to something I’m struggling with…

I realized when I feel you are pulling away that I get angry and start lashing out, but the truth is I am terrified you are going to leave…

 

Set the time aside with the person to have the conversation; don’t hijack them by bringing it up while they are at work or distracted. Best to do it in person if possible, and in an environment that is calm and quiet.

When I have these kind of conversations with people my heart is usually racing, I feel nervous, and I have to really hold myself with love and compassion. Being vulnerable is never easy (which is why it is vulnerable!) and yet it is AMAZING what can happen when we let someone else into our inner world. It touches their softness and allows them to meet you in that undefined place.

Intimacy is powerful. Vulnerability is beautiful. Relationships are magic. And they don’t have to look like what we think they should for a relationship to be deep and fulfilling.

 

Here’s an example.

Last year I was dating my dear friend Matthew (well, we can say we were having week-long sex dates, great meals, and working inbetween on my trips to New York). I knew that he wasn’t interested in the type of relationship I was hoping for with him, and we were beautifully loving and supporting each other as we healed from past breakups. My intent with our relationship was to practice asking for what I wanted, being clear, and bringing my vulnerability forward. In my past relationship I had gone against myself by not honoring my own needs, so I knew I needed to learn a new way.

Last August we spent a weekend in Woodstock picking mushrooms, reading to each other, and having epic sex in the spare bedroom (since the master bedroom bed would not have survived our coupling.) I had been building up my courage for weeks, and I finally said, “I want to talk to you about something.” We sat on the couch facing each other and I almost immediately started to cry. Damn. But I proceeded to open my heart and share places where I had felt dropped in our relationship, where I felt not met, and where I was struggling to stay open. Soon we were both crying and holding hands and swimming in the depths together. He listened, I listened. We both shared. I didn’t need him to be any different, but I wanted to practice being real. I was doing it for me, and that conversation rebuilt my trust in myself and showed me how far I had come.

Today Matthew and I are dear friends, he has a new beloved who is moving in with him soon, and I live exactly one block away from him. Through our deep respect and love for each other we were able to easily morph being lovers to being friends. Sometimes it is still tender, but mostly I am grateful for the gift of our friendship, exactly the way it is.

Choose which relationships in your life you want to be more intimate. Start with the most important: be more intimate and vulnerable and truthful with yourself. Then build out from there, practicing having vulnerable conversations a little at a time.

It is so worth it.

 

Photo June 2017: Matthew, myself, and our fabulous friend Day Schildkret of MorningAltars.

 

Next week’s blog: Getting Full

Note: The blogs over the next month are explorations for an upcoming relationship book with don Miguel Ruiz Jr., coming out Fall 2018.