720.370.1800 - Intl 844.331.1993
Select Page
How to Be More Vulnerable in Relationships

How to Be More Vulnerable in Relationships

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Is It Time To Let Down Your Walls?

Not too long ago I shared some advice on Bustle.com about “What to do if you’re having a hard time being vulnerable in a relationship.” I thought this was such a great topic, and one that so many people struggle with, that I should share more advice on how to use the power of vulnerability to transform your relationships here too.

It’s easy to think of “vulnerability” in negative terms, because it conjures images of being open to hurt. However, what I know from many years as a couples therapist and marriage counselor, is that when it comes to your relationships, vulnerability is (paradoxically) the key to having closer, more intimate, and ultimately more satisfying connections with other people. Conversely, if you keep your guard up all the time, you’ll be missing out on having truly meaningful and authentic connections with the most important people in your life.

What does it mean to be vulnerable in your relationships? 

As Brene Brown discusses in her amazing TED Talk about the power of vulnerability: Being vulnerable means sharing the most important, authentic parts of yourself with someone who matters to you — and risking rejection.  Being vulnerable means “being seen” for who and what you are, and exposing yourself to the potential for hurt. While this may sound intimidating, the alternative is often worse: Being closed off can lead to loneliness, and feeling unseen, and unknown by others.

Do You Keep Your Guard Up in Relationships?

If so, it’s understandable. It is much safer, emotionally, to manage your image, keep the mask on, and not let yourself care. Particularly in the hyper-curated era of social media, there’s a strong pull to only show what is perfect or enviable about your life. But being vulnerable means showing someone else that maybe you’re not perfect, maybe you’re not always okay, and maybe you do have some worries, insecurities, or pain.

The scariest thing about vulnerability for many people boils down to this: When you really, really care about someone else, and want them to love you as much as you love them, it can be terrifying to allow yourself to be truly seen by them. Because… what if they don’t want you anymore, after they know the whole truth? Or what if you allow yourself to lean on someone else emotionally, and they fail you, or reject you?

Being vulnerable does mean exposing yourself to the potential for hurt or rejection. And, at the same time, risking vulnerability is also opening the door to the kind of relationship you long for: One built on authenticity, emotional intimacy, and a deep connection.

Why It’s Important To Open Up To Your Partner

Another thing to consider, in addition to YOUR feelings of closeness and connection, are those of your partner. As a marriage counselor and couples therapist, one of the relationship issues I most often hear about from couples having problems is that at least one person feels that their partner is closed off, and uncommunicative. They want to understand how their partner feels, what they think about, what they care about, and their hopes and dreams… and yet feel cut off from that.

I can tell you that many, if not most, relationship fights are really not about the things that people are fighting about, like how much money was spent, or whether or not someone wants to have sex, or “the tone” being used, or whether or not someone followed through with whatever they said they were going to do. Relationship fights are about not feeling cared for, feeling unheard, feeling disrespected, and feeling disconnected.

When couples are emotionally intimate and feel close to each other, they are much more resilient, more tolerant of each other, and generally kinder and more respectful. When true, deep connection is present, there’s just nothing to fight about. (Instead, you can have constructive conversations about how to get on the same page and solve problems together).

That’s the power of vulnerability in relationships.

On the other hand, when people are not able to be vulnerable in relationships and trust themselves and their partners enough to allow themselves to truly be seen, relationships remain superficial. Yes, you may have a companion and a social partner, but the core of your relationship — emotional intimacy, empathy and responsiveness — feels barren.

Over time, these types of relationships tend to become stagnant. Or, if people have feelings inside of themselves that they are not communicating about vulnerably (and consequently, the needs they have are not getting acknowledged or met) they can also start to believe that the relationship itself is not sustainable.

It’s such a bind: On the one hand, in order to have a better relationship, you need to talk about how you feel and take emotional risks with your partner. That feels scary, and many people avoid it. On the other hand, not saying things out loud feels safer in the moment, but in the absence of communication, relationships grow strained and fights start brewing under the surface… which makes it feel less safe to talk about your truth in a vulnerable way.

The Consequences of Keeping Emotional Walls Up

Over time, in the absence of vulnerability and emotional intimacy, relationships become increasingly dissatisfying for both partners. This makes it less likely that either person will feel safe and secure enough to have heartfelt conversations that will bring them back together again. Instead, people make cutting side comments or show each other their distress through behaviors. (Behaviors and comments that are often angering or unattractive to their partner, pushing them further away as opposed to drawing them closer).

One of the primary benefits of marriage counseling or couples therapy is that the presence of a compassionate, knowledgeable couples counselor creates a “safe space” where people can be more vulnerable and open. With a third party holding open the door to communication, and shielding both parties from the emotional reactivity that will turn a heartfelt conversation into a vicious fight in a matter of seconds, couples can start seeing each other, hearing each other, and understanding each other at a deeper level.

By moving back into a space of vulnerability and authenticity (or for some couples, creating that kind of emotional intimacy for the first time) partners can then establish a stronger connection, empathy, and emotional safety that will help them solve problems together and increase their love for each other.

6 Tips To Help You Be More Vulnerable In Your Relationships

1: Self Awareness. The most important first step in creating a more emotionally intimate relationship, based on authenticity and vulnerability, is knowing yourself. You cannot communicate your truth if you yourself don’t know what it is. It sounds odd, but many people are awash in nebulous feelings or have core beliefs or automatic thoughts that never fully enter their consciousness as coherent thoughts. They just react. Understanding how you really feel is a prerequisite for being able to communicate it to others.

2: Clarity.  Until you have language for your inner experience, it remains unknown — even to you. If your relationship is currently in a space where it feels fragile, it may not feel safe enough to talk through your feelings with your partner until you arrive at the truth. In these cases, you might consider journaling, letter writing, or talking with a counselor or coach until you’re clear about how you’re feeling. Then, you can express it to your partner in a way that they can hear.

3: Timing. If you are already clear about how you’re feeling and what you want to express, the next most important step in helping yourself be vulnerable is, believe it or not, timing. Too many people experiment with vulnerability at a time when their partner is not expecting it, in the same mindset, or even in a place where they are present enough to be responsive. For example, someone might see their spouse in the kitchen, alone, unloading the dishwasher, and take that opportunity to start talking about something really important to them (often to their back). The preoccupied spouse may not understand the importance of this disclosure, or respond in a thoughtful way. Consequently, many people feel rejected and hurt, and come away thinking that their “vulnerability experiment” was a bad idea.

4: Be Explicit. If you want to talk about something important, make it known. Invite your partner to sit down with you, without distractions, and then let them know that you want to talk about some important things. Let them know that you feel apprehensive about being vulnerable before you start sharing. Talk out loud about your emotional process, and how important it is to you to feel emotionally safe with them. Say things like, “Just the fact that you’re sitting here looking into my eyes while I’m talking to you means the world to me,” so they know how to be present with you in a way that feels good to you.

5: Fight The Fear. If you start feeling apprehensive or like shutting down when you’re talking about your feelings, you can say that out loud too. Remind yourself (and perhaps, even your partner) that as hard as it can be to “go there” it is also the path to a deeper, more intimate connection. Be brave and honest. You might even consider saying out loud that what you’re saying feels scary or hard. Even disclosing that to your partner can make you feel less alone, and help them help you be more vulnerable.

6: Help Your Partner Be a Good Listener.  Most importantly, ask for what you need. (As much as we’d like to wish that our partners could or should “just know” how to respond to us perfectly… they won’t unless you tell them.) When you share your feelings, let your partner know that you don’t need to be “fixed” or have your problems solved. The goal is not resolution, but connection. Communicating openly with your partner about what helps you feel safer to share will pave the way for easier, more heartfelt communication and the emotional security that you both desire.

How To Get Your Partner To Open Up To You

Sometimes in relationships, you’re not the one that needs to open up. Instead, you’re feeling frustrated because your partner feels closed off to you. You try to get them to talk to you about important things, or share their feelings… and it’s like talking to a wall. Here are a couple of tips to help your partner feel safer and more comfortable to talk authentically to you. [Also read: How to Communicate With a Withdrawn Partner]

If someone isn’t “opening up” with you, one of two things is typically happening:

1: They don’t feel emotionally safe with you. This is a hard one to consider, but it’s easy to unintentionally come across as an emotionally unsafe person, especially if you’ve been feeling frustrated or hurt by your relationship. When your partner does tell you about things that are true for them, are you meeting their disclosures with caring and empathy? Or is there a chance that you are judging them, and imposing your values on them? (This can be true if their truth is something that you disagree with, or wish were different.) Show your partner that they are safe with you, by accepting them for who they are.

2: Their inner experience is not the same as yours. People differ in their personalities, in their emotional awareness, in their desire for emotional intimacy, and propensity for psychological-mindedness. Not to bring gender into this, but many times women feel frustrated with partners who they perceive as “not opening up.” When truthfully, men don’t relate the same way women do. Women establish an emotional connection in relationships by deepening, reciprocal layers of personal disclosure. Men don’t always do that. [More info: “Understanding Men,” on the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast]

Furthermore, many men are socialized out of having feelings and thinking too deeply about their emotional process. They may therefore, genuinely, not have as much to say about their inner experience. They may be happy and content in “doing” life rather than talking about it. In order to have an emotionally safe relationship, that needs to be okay too. Emotional intimacy and vulnerability can be expressed in many ways besides face-to-face conversations. Sexuality, sharing finances, making sacrifices for each other, developing shared priorities, and committing to your partnership are also all expressions of vulnerability — many times, even more powerful than vulnerabilities disclosed in words.

When you practice tolerance and acceptance for the way your partner shows vulnerability and intimacy, it increases the emotional safety in your relationship. Emotional safety creates an environment that cultivates vulnerability and intimacy, helping you continually grow closer and more connected.

I hope these ideas help you and your partner create the kind of strong, satisfying relationship that you both crave.

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Let Go of Unhealthy Guilt

Let Go of Unhealthy Guilt

You Shouldn’t Follow Every Feeling

I’m a big fan of feelings. Feelings carry important information. Feelings help us understand ourselves, have empathy for other people, and feelings can help us live a values-based life. However, some kinds of feelings are more complicated than others. Sometimes we need to figure out if our feelings are worth listening to and taking guidance from, or if we need to override them in order to be our best selves. 

Like feelings of depression or anxiety, guilt is one of those potentially confusing feelings. Believe it or not, some types of guilt are actually healthy and good; healthy guilt can help us be better people. However, some types of unhealthy guilt are not at all useful or constructive,  and can even trap us in bad situations; stealing our voices and our power.

Unhealthy guilt, and it’s even nastier sidekick shame, can lead you to beat yourself up for everything. Or take responsibility for things you shouldn’t. Or heap more and more onto yourself until you buckle under the pressure. Or fail to set boundaries with people who want more from you than it’s healthy for you to give.

So figuring out the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt is essential, in order to stay in a good place mentally and emotionally. How can you tell whether your feelings of guilt are something you should listen to, or whether you should push them away?

Understanding, and Embracing “Healthy” Guilt

First of all, what is Guilt? I think of “guilt” as being that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you that you’re wrong. You’re out of line. You screwed up. And sometimes… it’s right. We all mess up sometimes.

Healthy guilt is the voice of your conscience, letting you know that you need to do better next time. In fact, responsible, caring, hardworking people tend to feel guilty on a regular basis. Conversely, people who don’t struggle with guilt often don’t have inner emotional brakes that tell them to “stop.” They may even have difficulty empathizing with others. As they sail through life, guilt free, they may never fully understand the consequences of their actions…. and hurt others in the process.

So, in that sense, guilt can be a very positive thing. Guilt helps us monitor ourselves and do well by others. However, that’s not the whole story. In addition to good, appropriate, or “healthy guilt,” there is also inappropriate guilt.

Understanding Unhealthy Guilt

Did you have one or more parents who tended to blame others for their problems, or make other people “responsible” for their actions or feelings? Blamers tend to raise children who are little guilt-factories. Even if your parents were lovely, at some point in your life you might have been involved in a relationship, or social system that was highly critical of you — leading you to doubt yourself or blame yourself for everything.

Another thing that can be true is if you are a highly conscientious, responsible, and competent person, you may tend to take on more than you can carry. When you inevitably fail — because you’re trying to do more than anyone possibly expects of you — you might feel guilty that you couldn’t do it all. (And if this is sounding familiar please oh please listen to my “perfectionism” podcast.)

If you’ve lived through these life experiences: having blaming parents, critical partners, or just being a supernaturally competent person, you may be more likely to feel inappropriate guilt, accept inappropriate blame from others, and criticize yourself for things that are not your fault.

The Consequences of Unhealthy Guilt

Toxic, unhealthy guilt bubbles up when you feel responsible for other people’s feelings or misfortune even when, logically, you have no control over the situation at all. This kind of guilt leads you to “help” others by trying to solve their problems or sacrificing your own needs in favor of theirs. Unfortunately, this only serves to enable bad behaviors, which paradoxically perpetuates long-term suffering.

Inappropriate guilt disempowers you and can lead you to stay in abusive or unhealthy situations. Guilt can tell you that standing up for yourself or setting healthy boundaries is “being mean.” Guilt can tell you to try a little harder and heap more on yourself, even in situations where you are being mistreated.

In fact, guilt and depression often walk hand in hand. This team can easily trick you into believing that everything is your fault and that you are a terrible person. Guilt may even metastasize into shame.

This kind of negative self-talk can breed an avalanche of consequences because when you genuinely feel like a horrible person you will make choices that will often lead to negative life experiences. Then when you get “evidence” that you are awful, inappropriate guilt and depression become that much harder to fight back against and a downward spiral of shame begins.

But Brene Brown is here to save you from shame. Seen her amazing TED talk about shame yet? Check it out:

 

 

Healthy Strategies to Handle Unhealthy Guilt

Don’t let unhealthy guilt grow into soul-crushing, toxic shame. Instead, try these strategies to bounce unhealthy guilt out of your life for good:

Get Some Perspective: One trick that works well is to think about the guilt-inducing situation as if it were happening to a close friend. Imagine your friend living through the same experience, and how you would feel about your friend under the same circumstances.

Would you feel legitimately annoyed with your friend for doing what they did? Would you want them to try a little harder next time? Or would you look at the situation they’re feeling bad about, and think to yourself that they didn’t do anything wrong and they shouldn’t be so hard on themselves?

When in Doubt, Ask For Perspective: This might sound weird, but there are situations where it can be confusing to figure out if you’re in the wrong or not using the above strategy. Uncertainty about whether your guilt is legitimate or not is more common when you feel guilty a lot; it’s hard to know if you’ve actually messed up, or if you might be taking responsibility for something that you shouldn’t. In this case, run it past a friend, your coach or therapist, or anyone who you trust to give you truthful, yet non-judgmental constructive feedback.

Cultivate a Growth Mindset: When you really do mess up (and not if, but when — we all do) do not engage in inner verbal abuse, and beat yourself up. That’s not constructive. Instead, recognize that mistakes are precious learning opportunities, and give yourself the same reassuring or motivating pep talk you might give your friend.

For example, help yourself to learn and grow by saying “You can do better than this.” Or, reassure yourself by saying, “You did the best you could, and it really, genuinely wasn’t your fault.”  Good guilt will have done its inspiring job and led you towards positive change, and unhealthy guilt will be shown the door. Either way, you get to say good-bye to guilt, and start feeling better again.

Work on Boundaries: Lots of people are very pleased to hand over their issues, feelings, bad habits, expectations, and needs to a competent, loving person like you… and have it all be your problem to fix instead of theirs. If your guilty feelings are usually attached to having to be a certain way or do things to make sure that nothing upsets someone else in your life, you might want to do some personal growth work around boundaries.

Learning how to set healthy limits with loved ones is good for you, and it’s also really good for them too. Especially if you’ve been “over-functioning” to compensate for someone else’s “under-functioning.” When you lay down the load you’ve been carrying on their behalf, they’ll be more motivated to pick up what’s theirs and start moving forward under their own steam. And YOU, my friend, will be released of your unhealthy guilt. (Cue choir of angels).

There’s light and dark in everything. Though it often feels unpleasant to be in a state of “guilt” it’s an invitation to evolve. You’re being challenged to do better next time, or become more compassionate towards yourself. Either way, you grow.

All the best to you on your journey!

xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Vulnerability: The Biggest Risk, The Greatest Reward

Vulnerability: The Biggest Risk, The Greatest Reward

What’s the big deal about vulnerability?

Have you ever seen the movie “What Women Want” starring Helen Hunt and Mel Gibson? There is a moment at the end of the movie (after a rollercoaster-ride romance) where Mel Gibson’s character says that he needs to be rescued, and that he needs Helen Hunt’s character to help him do it.

I felt a sense of uneasiness when I first watched that scene because of the depth of vulnerability that Mel Gibson’s character expresses.  Since then, as I’ve grown as a person, a therapist, a couple’s counselor, and a life coach, I’ve come to feel respect and admiration for his vulnerability… and how much strength it takes to go there.

What is vulnerability? Vulnerability means opening yourself up to another person, which means risking being hurt by them. Vulnerability is difficult and often does not come naturally, however it is an essential part of healthy relationships.

Why Being Vulnerable Feels So Hard

I’ve noticed that oftentimes there is a fear of vulnerability within relationships that is coupled with shame. Brené Brown defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”  Has shame ever kept you from expressing your deeper thoughts and emotions to someone you care about?

Although it is difficult, allowing yourself to push past you shame and open yourself up to another being often results in a more fulfilling relationship.

Three Reasons Why Vulnerability is Essential:

  • Vulnerability Fosters Connection: We are made for connection with each other. If we weren’t, we would never experience loneliness. Vulnerability allows our relationships to be more fulfilling because it allows for more depth. Even though it feels uncomfortable at first, a relationship that is safe allows room for vulnerability that deepens our connection to each other.

 

  • Vulnerability Leads to Opportunity: When we are vulnerable, we get to share our lives with another person as well as give them the opportunity to share their life with us. Vulnerability is risky, however, it is often a risk worth taking as it allows us to experience community with others in a way that goes far beyond the surface level.

 

  • Vulnerability Brings Healing: Lastly, vulnerability is often associated with healing. When we are able to let someone else into our dark and hidden places, and have them let us into theirs — and feel loved in spite of our flaws — something wonderful happens. All of a sudden, those dark and hidden places don’t seem so bad, and our shame can be replaced with joy. We are able to experience a sense of freedom and deeper intimacy with someone we care deeply about, all because we took a risk and allowed ourselves to be vulnerable.

I hope these ideas help you cultivate the power of vulnerability into your life, and your relationships.

Anastacia Sams, M.A., LMFT-C

PS: For even more inspiration on the importance of authentic vulnerability, check out this Ted Talk by the thought-leader on this subject: Brene Brown.

The Power of Vulnerability: Ted Talk | Brene Brown

 

Growing Self Counseling & Coaching
Growing Self
Loading...