Popular belief is that a healthy sense of self requires good boundaries. We build a fence around our property, a wall of silence around our ignorance, an offensive tactic to hide our defenselessness. Psychological boundaries, they say, will keep us safe and sane so that one could say, "Your problems are your own; keep them out of my yard," and "Don't come any closer, you can only see what I show you." This is a model of isolation, and it's not holistic, healthy or necessary. The alternative is intentional vulnerability, which gains us closeness and authenticity.
I'm a speaker and a teacher, and I learned the old magician's trick: get the audience to look over there -- at my topic -- so they don't see what's happening over here -- in myself. Then I got some advice about speaking: "Be yourself," she said, "And just say what you know." I thought, if that works for speaking, maybe it's a formula for life. Is it possible that being myself is acceptable and saying what I know is sufficient?
What I've discovered is that it's useful to put up fences around ourselves, to define ourselves by our boundaries, but then we should tear them down again. Boundaries don't defend us; they trap us. The walls we've built so carefully are the walls of our own inner prisons. Tear down the walls of confinement and grow to the horizon. And the horizon expands further as it's approached, so there is really no limit to growth with vulnerability.
Here are five levels of vulnerability from the simple to the profound, to trace the progression and recognize the wondrous benefits of each level.
Vulnerability Is Listening From the Heart
I worked with a client who would monopolize the auditory space to protect himself from any comment or question that might make him uncomfortable. People thought he had a lot to share, but I saw his verbal screen as a defense mechanism. He was scared of silence; "It's so awkward," he said. As long as he kept talking, he had control, but what an effort! And he learned nothing about others that way.
What helped him was focusing on his breath. Even in silence, we're still exchanging energy by breathing in and out, so there's a connection beyond the words. As he got comfortable with his breath, he realized there's a lot going on between people, and he wanted time to feel that. As his comfort level increased, his need to talk decreased, and then something magical happened: he felt like he was in his body instead of his head. He could feel energy in his chest, his heart. Then the words of others impressed him deeply, and listening became fascinating for him.
It's a step in vulnerability to feel the expressions of others, and it feels good.
Vulnerability Is Speaking From the Heart
Silence can be another shield; some people clam up when they're insecure. And then there is a more sophisticated defense: to engage in conversation as long as the talk is about politics, work, sports, or anything but themselves.
Can you remember a moment when someone just smiled and said something simple, but real, with feeling and conviction, that turned the whole conversation around? I learned that if I say one word in 10, that word can have the power of a hundred if it comes from my heart. There are so many things that don't need to be said, and so many important things that go unsaid. Our time together is so precious, let's spend it being emotionally honest, as the poet Rumi said, "No more half-measures, I want burning, burning!"
The challenge of the second level of vulnerability is owning your shortcomings without shame, acknowledging your strengths without superiority, and praising others without jealousy. If you open up and speak about yourself, your open heart opens the hearts of others.
Vulnerability Creates a Compassionate Heart
There are other forms of vulnerability, such as the willingness to be with someone who is suffering. What do you do when your friends start talking about their troubles? Can you recognize any of these behaviors?
- You offer a solution that may fix the problem, as if you were an engineer offering advice on how to repair a machine.
- You tell your friend to do what you have done in a slightly similar case.
- You get angry at the third party about whom your friend is complaining.
- You change the subject as soon as possible, to talk about your own troubles.
All these behaviors are techniques for avoiding vulnerability. It might be a big surprise to learn that people do not want you to solve their troubles; they simply want you to be with them in their distress. Even if you offer the best advice from your own life, your friends may not be able to solve their problems by doing what you did, because they're working with different life lessons. The next time a friend confides in you, you could nurture your openness and vulnerability by just sitting with your friend, feeling their emotion, without trying to stop it, and offering your compassion.
Life's problems have a meaning and a purpose. The solution will come, but meanwhile we have to feel the naked reality of what's really happening. Being with a friend who needs us may be uncomfortable, but our ability to share their emotional space shows vulnerability and may be the best way to understand what is the stimulus and what is the reaction. Also, we all go through the same problems, essentially, and being vulnerable with our friend will offer us an experience we can draw upon when you encounter your version of that problem.
Vulnerability Opens the Heart to Being Loved
Vulnerability is greater when the risk of loss or hurt is greater, and the only ones who can hurt us are the ones we love. Therefore, to be vulnerable in love is a further step in vulnerability.
In love, there is no armor to protect us, no veil to hide us. Our defense mechanisms don't work here; we are transparent to our lover's glance. Our emotions are no longer our own because we share the emotional world of the hearts we share. Vulnerability at this level will inevitably involve some pain; when we enter into love openly we will find every emotion the heart is capable of, including joy and grief. Our pain in love is actually proof of our love.
Even if you have closed your heart because of damaging relationships in the past, you will find that your heart, out of its wish to be known, will draw someone into your life who is completely trustworthy, with whom you could practice letting yourself be loved. It may be a teacher, a boss, a non-romantic friend, a lover or a child. Whoever your heart invites is an opportunity to practice trusting and vulnerability. With practice, vulnerability will open you to the depth of your heart and the realization that you are already loved, unconditionally and always.
"Lovers finally don't meet somewhere, they're in each other all along" -- Rumi
For more by Susanna Bair, click here.
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