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ERP 112: What Makes Being Vulnerable So Hard? [Transcript]

ERP 112: What Makes Being Vulnerable So Hard?

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

This podcast is 100% ad-free. To support this show, please subscribe and write a review today. Here is your host.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 112 – What Makes Being Vulnerable So Hard. I’m gonna be talking about vulnerability, how we are with ourselves, essentially, and also vulnerability in a relationship.

Today’s podcast episode is a continuation on topics that I have been discussing, and the conversation has been building… I’m gonna give you a recap before we go into today’s discussion. Before we get started though, if you are new to this show, I just wanna say thank you for joining us. It’s always such a pleasure for me to be thinking of you all and supporting you in developing happy, lasting love, knowing that in my mind, in my experience, in my training and my work with couples and individuals, relationship poses one of the greatest, richest sources of development, and that can sometimes look like how we expand our capacity for intimacy, as well as how we have to deal with some of the upsets, and the uncomfortability and the pain, which we’re gonna be talking about a little bit more today. So if you look over all of the episodes, I feel like I’m trying to hold both of those.

I might spend a little more time on the difficult feelings and the places that we get stuck, because that’s where people reach out to me most… How to deal with some of these relationship challenges. That’s typically what motivates us to be interested in the topic in the first place, because if we’re in a happy relationship, we might not be as interested in investing in it. It just is going well, and then culturally we get a lot of messages around finding the one, and then it should be happily ever after, right? It should just flow effortlessly.

So when we are confronted with challenges, which in my mind are likely – it’s just part of the developmental process – it’s what we do with it that’s the most important component. That’s the game changer – how we deal with the upset. Do we start blaming and shaming ourselves or our partner, or feeling like something’s wrong, or do we look at “Okay, what’s happening here? What’s getting brought up to be evolved, to be healed, to be transformed?” and to help us grow and be stronger? That’s kind of the purpose of this podcast – to help you guys understand the lay of the land a little bit more, because most of us are never taught these skills, or modeled them in our families, and most of it is pretty private, so we don’t really get the inside scoop with our friends and community. A lot of the times we feel pretty alone on this path.

I wanna just, again, give you more tips, tools and resources to do this more skillfully. Like always, I’m available if you’re wanting to go deeper. I have a Connected Couples program, and I told you guys last week that I am gonna be offering a self-study version of that. I will tell you more about that later. That will be available to you, as well as getting couples coaching, individual coaching to go deeper with these principles.

My e-mail is jessica@drjessicahiggins.com. You can also find me on my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com. Anything that I talk about will be in the show notes, and that can be found on my website as well; just click on Podcast, and then you can find the episode of interest. Click on it and you’ll have more details. There’s also transcripts. The person that does my transcripts probably gets them to me a week after I publish, so that’s a little delayed, but most of them are there. And the really early ones (I think the first 50) I haven’t yet put transcripts up, and I might be doing that in the future.

More than anything, I just want you to feel supported, and I’m available to offer guidance and just to reassure you that I’m also on this path. Everything I talk about, I practice, and I’m having to work my edges and my blind spots as well. I really believe in the rewards that come from doing this work, and I would never wanna turn back into the old way. I hope you’ll keep an open mind with me and explore some of these topics with me, knowing that it is uncomfortable and I have deep respect and deep regard for this journey.

Today’s topic, again – What Makes Being Vulnerable So Hard. Okay, so over the last couple weeks I’ve been discussing this paradox – the challenge of maintaining closeness, intimacy with your partner, as well as maintaining a sense of self in a long-term committed love relationship… That at times it can feel completely opposing, where we don’t know how to uphold the harmony and the oneness that we’re really often wanting to feel in relationship, as well as feeling that individual desire, preferences; they feel competing at times.

Last week’s episode specifically I talked about the components around seeking intimacy and validation in your relationship, and offered four keys really to consider, because this can be done skillfully or very unskillfully, and I’m sure we’ve all felt the trap of seeking validation or seeking intimacy, and it just blows up. It’s like “That was not at all my intention!”, or really wanting genuinely to feel close and connected, and it just goes awry and feeling quite the opposite: great disconnect, pain, and just like “What the heck happened?!” It just can feel very, very confusing, so I’m trying to offer some keys in that last episode.

And just to recap that, those four keys are Safety, Ownership, Vulnerability and Transparency, and I go into a little bit more detail with each one of those in the last episode. Please check those out, and if you have any comments, let me know. Or you can always post a comment on the show notes.

Within intimacy, again, I’m talking about this constant tension between feeling secure and harmonious in relationship, with that bond – we wanna feel that bond is strong – and also staying honest and real about our individual needs and preferences, that connection with ourself is strong. So both the relationship’s security and the individual authenticity are important, and while they might feel conflicting, they actually work together, supporting the development of both.

If you’ve heard me discuss this a little bit, I was talking about developmentally we often want a secure foundation to launch from, to explore from, to take risks from… And opening up more and revealing more of what’s true and real within a safe container creates just an opening, creates more intimacy and connection and safety. So the vulnerability or the revealing or the transparency actually creates more of that connection, that safety and that security; so they work really well together, but we don’t always know how to negotiate this. It can feel complicated and really tricky, and yet it is just more or less working these principles, getting into practice… And again, if you’re looking for support, reach out to me; I would love to be able to help.

In an article by Leon Seltzer Ph.D. titled Courage in Relationships: Conquering Vulnerability and Fear he writes:

Unfortunately, in many instances we simply can’t feel secure enough with our partner to approach anything we sense could endanger this bond. And so our “security” (such as it is) is really shallow and tenuous; untested. We’re just not willing – courageously – to risk feeling refused or rejected in the effort to move toward a more genuinely secure relationship.”

I really liked this quote, just the concept of untested. Without testing, we don’t have that same strength, we don’t have that same depth, and that’s what I was talking about before, of how the authenticity and the security work together really nicely, and they develop each other, they work in support of one another, but we often don’t perceive it that way, so I really liked this analogy of untested.

Today I’m wanting to go into a little more depth about vulnerability. The topic of today’s podcast is what makes being vulnerable so hard, and I wanted to give this topic a little more attention, because I do think it’s something we typically struggle with, and I’m gonna talk about why we do that, why we struggle with it, and just how much of an impact it makes in our own transformation, individually, that transformational process of being able to grow ourselves, and the transformational process of developing intimacy with our partner. That vulnerability is really essential on this path.

In some ways, I was thinking about vulnerability as being almost as if a diamond in the rough. When we think about a diamond in the rough, it doesn’t appear to be worthy of very much. It doesn’t appear to be valuable, but really we polish, we dust it off, we work it a little bit and refine it, and it’s brilliant. It’s one of the most valuable things. Vulnerability I think gets very much a bad rep, and I think I’ve mentioned Brené Brown, who’s an expert in the field – she has done a lot to redefine vulnerability.

Without any blame or shame around this negative association that we may have around vulnerability, I wanna talk about where that comes from, and  just my own thinking about it. I was like “Yes, of course.” In life we wanna feel strong, we want to be loved and we want to be accepted. We wanna feel confident, competent and able, we wanna feel that sense of empowerment that we overcame an obstacle. We wanna feel the value of achievement, perseverance and resilience, that upward trajectory.

We’ve all heard statements of “Don’t wallow, don’t be a victim, don’t let your circumstances define you.” These statements, given an appropriate context, I do agree with the sentiment. I wouldn’t maybe use those words of “Don’t wallow, don’t be a victim, don’t let your circumstances define you”, but I think the energy of this is “Don’t get stuck there. Don’t overidentify with it, don’t make it who you are”, yet it really begs the question “Have we gone too far, giving it a bad rep and really having a preference for strength and resilience and perseverance?” Do we even allow ourselves to feel discomfort, to feel any pain?

This is really more or less the raw, immediate feelings, because when we get stuck – this can be in downward spirals or feeling like you’re in a deep hole month after month after month… That’s when perhaps we are getting stuck. But when you stub your toe and you feel pain, it’s an appropriate thing to say “Ouch, that hurt!” If we feel — I’m gonna talk about some of the things that are painful, it’s natural to feel that pain. The desire to bypass that — I think many of us feel as though we shouldn’t feel the pain, or we don’t know how to feel the pain. It’s as though we’ve seen it as a weakness, and that we have essentially cut it off; we’re trying to take a shortcut and just bypass it entirely.

In the article “Vulnerability – the Key to Close Relationships” by Karen Young, she says:

Vulnerability is the driving force of connection. It’s brave. It’s tender. It’s impossible to connect without it. But we’ve turned it into a weakness. We’ve made ourselves ‘strong’. We’ve toughened up, hardened up and protected ourselves from being hurt. We’ve protected ourselves from vulnerability and disallowed the surrender. Here’s the problem. When we close down our vulnerability we are shielded from hurt, but we are also shielded from love, intimacy and connection. They come to us through the same door. When we close it to one, we close it to all.”

Thinking about this show and how I could serve you the best, I have tips, I have quotes, and I also have a story that I wanna share with you. It’s pretty vulnerable, and I also think it will give you a real example perhaps to relate to, or just to hopefully learn from.

If you have listened to my podcast episode about my story, what got me into studying specifically intimacy, couplehood, long-lasting, committed partnership, I talked about a pretty profound relationship that on all levels felt it awakened me and brought me to a very deep, deep place. And I’m not gonna talk so much about the relationship itself, I’m gonna talk about what happened when it ended. If you wanna hear the story, I’ll make sure to put the link on the show notes for today’s episode about that previous episode.

So to give you a place to start from – this person and I had essentially looked at our relationship, we had tried to get support, we’d been struggling and struggling, and I was reading books, and we just were really not figuring out how to move forward. And we did this exercise that we were prompted to do by a professional, and we stood back to back, and we had a piece of paper that we had written either a Yes or a No, and it was essentially to the relationship. We were to then turn around and show our piece of paper; so we’d have it in front of our chest, and we were to turn around and look at each other’s paper, what we wrote. Were we a Yes or were we a No?

The professional that had invited us to do this exercise really had encouraged me to only accept a yes or a no. If it was a “Yes, but…”, it was essentially a no. And given all the things that were going on in our relationship and that were going on for me personally, I do believe that made sense.

Coming back to this moment, we’re standing back to back and we turn around. My paper said Yes, period. His said Yes, and then in parenthesis “But…” and then there was a couple dots. My heart sank, my stomach was in nods, and I was like “Okay…”, and at that moment I knew I had to really in integrity and take that as a no. And again, I’m not gonna go into the dynamics between him and I, but what I wanna gear you towards is just the grieving and the vulnerability of what I was up against, because I essentially had felt like I had found the one, and he had proclaimed the same, and we had a depth of our connection that I had thought was gonna be it.

As it turns out – during this time I was in an internship, I was finishing up my master’s program, I had actually applied to a Ph.D. program; I don’t know that I had gotten in yet or I was in the process of applying, but I was in this internship, so I had a full-time internship job. I was still finishing up some requirements for my masters program; this was in Portland, Oregon, and I remember just having to keep it together. There’d be songs on the radio (like there are) that would remind me of certain things, and I would be crying on the way home, and I just felt such deep loss and heartbreak, which I do think is normal… And I was doing my best to take good care of myself, sleeping, eating healthy food, and calling friends that I could talk to, and talking to loved ones and people that I could feel support in.

Then one particular weekend I had gone to yoga – this was a Saturday, I think – and I had gotten home, showered and had something to eat, and I was journaling… It was in my apartment, close to NorthWest 23rd, and I was alone and writing, and I got in touch, I was just willing to be with the pain, to be with the grief… And mind you, just to backdrop this with the training and psychology, but also having been involved in personal growth work growing up definitely had some framework for the importance of looking within, building awareness around what’s going on, that that actually has valuable gifts, it’s powerful information, and that it allows for becoming more whole, healing and growth. I know that bypassing it and overlooking it isn’t helpful.

But sometimes when we’re not aware of it, we don’t know that we’re overlooking it, where it’s kind of our blind spot. So I think in relationship, prior to this person, I had been in relationship with people that I didn’t feel maybe were the right match, or — I hadn’t fully said Yes in every part of my being. We had drama, or I had issues with this, or I didn’t feel like they were fully available, so in some ways I believe that I hadn’t actually chosen somebody that I had my arms fully wide open and I chose fully in. This was the first relationship that I had done that.

So when I was journaling here, I was recognizing that there was something deeper going on. As I was journaling, I was starting to become aware of prior loss, losing my biological father when I was three months old, and granted, I don’t have memory of that, but just the kinesthetic bond or connection of not having that – it hooked a deep grief and a loss of not having the father figure, or having a father figure and losing that, or having a father figure and it not being a healthy one… And just really feeling that sense of loss and abandonment… And I tell you, as I was dropping in and really taking a look at how deep this was running from me, I began to feel overwhelmed. I felt as though I didn’t know if I would be able to tolerate the pain. I was feeling that this was going to such a deep place that I was like “I don’t even know what to do right now.”

So I chose to just go with it, and I remember I was like “Okay, I’m just gonna go and lay on my bed, and I’m gonna surrender.” I’m not gonna try to fight it, I’m not gonna try to analyze it, I’m not gonna try to do any of that. And to tell you honestly, I thought it could kill me. I thought that I would perhaps die. It was that overwhelmingly strong that I was like “I feel like I’m being overtaken or it’s gonna annihilate me or destroy me.”

I remember saying “Okay, I’m gonna just lean into this” and I remember laying on my bed, and kind of just in that very open — just my legs and my arms wide out, just releasing and surrendering, and immediately I felt this spiritual, divine warmth holding me and surrounding me, and just feeling that sense of care, that sense of holding, that sense of soothing and loving. To be honest, it was a complete shift and wash over me. It’s like there was nothing else in me that felt alone, that felt scared, that felt abandoned or any of that; it was just a connection of, like I said, spiritual, divine warmth and love.

I remember just being like “Whow…!” Obviously, it felt really beautiful and graceful and amazing; I think words are failing me here, but it was profound.

As I look back on this experience, I can see that this was a huge risk for myself, to be with this emotion – this sense of loss, this sense of grief, and to not fight it. It immediately felt the very opposite; the thing I was fearing was very opposite. I was scared to take that step, I was scared to lean in, and it was actually what brought a sense of deep connection and love and soothing on a very, very deep level.

As I’m sharing this, I realize this is not a unique experience. I do think this is a human phenomenon or thing that happens. There’s been movies about it, and stories after stories of people that have been experiencing something so deeply painful and uncomfortable and then are willing to surrender into it and feel this sense of grace.

I even think about the notion of when we’re hurting and we’re crying – maybe not something so big as what I’m describing… Or even as a child – if a child is upset and they seemingly look like they’re gonna cry, and you want to embrace them and hold them and give them the experience of feeling held and to be, like release… It’s almost like you wanna encourage them to let go and let it out, right? But sometimes kids will fight it, or hold it, and that can depend on a lot of variables, but essentially that feeling of being able to fully release and let go… Sometimes we can’t do that. We’re afraid to go there, we’re afraid to have that release, that full cry. This is the vulnerability. This is the willingness to be vulnerable.

What makes being vulnerable so hard? If pain is a natural part of life, why do we fight it so much, why are we so afraid of it? At times it can feel overwhelming. Like I talked about in my story – it was such a deep-seated thing for me, I felt as though it was gonna annihilate me. The way we are with pain sometimes, the way we believe about ourselves, the way we talk to ourselves makes it worse. Feelings of shame, “I failed, I screwed it up.” Feeling insecure, “Nobody really cares about me.” Feeling unworthy, “I don’t feel good enough…” or “If I was smarter, more successful, more attractive, then I would be worthy.” Feeling unloveable, feeling toxic, somehow deficient, inadequate… “I’m not good at relationship.”

I have a client I’ve been working with only for a few weeks, and she’s in relationship, and it’s a relatively newish relationship; they’ve been together for a couple of years, and they’re still negotiating some of the way they express affection of one another… And she’s got this story about herself, that she hasn’t had a lot of experience, she’s not good at expressing herself and she’s not good at relationship, so she tends to have this inner voice of not feeling good enough, so we’re working on that… But that’s a way that she’s participating perhaps in feeling pain – the story, the narrative, the way she talks to herself.

I know some of this is uncomfortable and is a little heavy, and I think we all have had moments, whether or not we spend a lot of time here or little time, I think all of us can relate to at least some of this.

Another big part about pain is we fear our partner’s response. We yearn for connection, we want that belonging, that love and we fear rejection. “You don’t know what you’re talking about”, or “I don’t feel the same way about you.” Criticism… “You’re too needy!” “That’s ridiculous… You’re just being selfish!” Abandonment, “I don’t feel how you feel or what you think!”, or your partner shakes their head and turns away. Feeling attacked… “Stop being so selfish!”, or in response to you sharing something you would love, or something even like a sexual — something that feels really genuine for you, and you get a response “That’s perverted!” Betrayal, “I don’t need you. I don’t want you anymore.” Just that feeling of feeling uncared for, dismissed or even humiliated. My heart hurts when I’m talking about these things, and yes, it’s not my favorite topic and I can feel my desire to wanna shift it, but again, there’s a time and there’s a place, when it’s immediate, when it’s current, when it’s just happened, allowing yourself to not bypass, to recognize the fear… Or if you are looping, what’s creating that? That’s important too, to have that awareness (“What’s causing pain?”), and to be able to look at it.

Another thing that contributes to pain is previous hurt, pain and trauma. In my story, I was talking about something that came to my awareness through my journaling and processing and being willing to feel, my willingness to surrender and be vulnerable. I got in touch with some very early, early pain, that then gave me insight to propel me on the whole self-development part of that, which I’ve actually shared with you, and that’s been in Honoring My Darkness, or something — I can’t remember… It was about the Shadow Series. I’ll make sure to put the link on the show notes for today if you’re interested.

But had I not been willing, I could have just been continuing to run my pattern without this awareness, having that blind spot, having that shadow and not having a life that’s fully fulfilling. I’m cutting off certain parts of myself and I’m wounded and I’m walking around wounded but not looking at it; I don’t even know that I’m wounded, and that’s maybe limiting me. What makes being vulnerable even harder, if it’s not hard enough as it is?

We wanna protect ourselves, right? I think we’re wired up biologically to protect ourselves, to avoid pain, to seek pleasure – that’s just a given; so when we feel a threat, we’re gonna try to minimize that, we’re gonna protect ourselves. When it comes to relationship and emotions, although there’s great cost, as we’ve been talking about in the last two episodes, and I’m talking about today, and will be talking about in my next episode… This idea that we’re protecting the relationship and we’re seeking that harmony and that oneness, but we sacrifice; we don’t rock the boat, we’re afraid of upsetting that harmony or perceived harmony, so we don’t go there…

In the article “Yes, Being Vulnerable Is Terrifying—But Here’s Why It’s So Worth It” by Katherine Schrehber, she’s quoting Jeffry Simpson here:

We’ve all struggled to open up to others at some point in our lives, says Jeffry Simpson, Ph.D., a social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. If you’ve ever balked at the mere thought of getting close to someone new, rest assured: That’s normal. It’s instinctual and natural to avoid situations where we might get injured, he explains, even if that injury is “only” psychological.”

This is, again, normalizing that it is natural, instinctual to wanna protect ourselves. We wouldn’t survive if we didn’t have that mechanism, yet do we let that be the primary and only agenda? We don’t wanna get stuck and hardened to this protective shell that we’re not open and experiencing life and connecting with others; we can’t just have that protective shell.

Karen Young, in the article I mentioned earlier, “Vulnerability – The Key To Close Relationships” writes:

Somewhere along the way, the need to protect ourselves from being vulnerable has trumped the need to connect. I understand that. Few things hurt as deeply and completely as the heartache that comes from relationships. But heartache and uncertainty is part of being human and it’s avoidance is getting in our way. In response to this, we’ve stopped allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We’ve toughened up. We’ve turned vulnerability into a weakness and guardedness into a strength.”

What makes pain even harder is this idea of fighting against it, whether or not it’s a sense of avoidance, spinning, staying busy, distracting ourselves, like I said, choosing a partner that isn’t available or is perhaps not interested in real, authentic love… They maybe have stuff they’re struggling with, that they’re not interested in working on, like addiction issues, or you name it.

Or perhaps we create distance. We pick fights, we choose somebody that lives at a distance and we don’t ever look to resolve that, or perhaps we avoid certain topics with our partner.

Somewhere along the line I came across this concept that the definition of suffering is trying to fight against the pain. Pain in and of itself is hard, but when we fight against it and try to push it away and make it go away, or try to push it down or however we’re trying to fight it, it creates suffering. I googled it and I came across this article by Brent Menninger, it’s titled Radical Acceptance. He’s saying something along the same lines. I’m gonna quote him:

Pain can be almost impossible to bear, but suffering is EVEN MORE difficult. When you refuse to accept pain, you will suffer. Fighting reality, opposing the inevitable or struggling against what is creates suffering.”

He actually has an equation: SUFFERING = PAIN X NON-ACCEPTANCE OF THE PAIN; I’m using the language “fighting against” – same thing.

He gives three myths about acceptance, and I kind of like it, so I’m gonna share this with you as well. Three myths:

1. “If you don’t accept something, it will magically change and you won’t have to deal with it.” I love that… So true. I’m sure we have lots of examples we could think of there.

2. “If you accept your painful situation, you will give into it, or it will take over your life.”

3. “If you accept your painful situation, you are accepting a life of pain without end. (actually, with acceptance you can move on to problem-solving)”

As I mentioned earlier in my story, I got in touch with some really deep stuff about myself in my early childhood, that I knew about intellectually but I hadn’t fully connected with emotionally. What this did for me is it allowed me to then pursue it more directly and actively, and work towards gaining more information. I went on a whole journey that I talked about in the episode I mentioned earlier. It really gave me a huge amount of healing and transformation and wholeness that I would not have had otherwise. it allowed me to have a different life experience, essentially.

Karen Young – I’m gonna quote her one more time here. She says:

Occasionally we get hurt. Relationship pain is an unavoidable part of being human. When it happens it can steal you. I know. But we can see this for what it is – a mismatch of people, a redirection, a learning, a happening – or we can take it as a warning and protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt again. In this case, we make the decision to not be vulnerable. We shut it down. By shutting down to the risks of being vulnerable, we also shut down to the possibilities – the possibility of joy, intimacy, closeness, gratitude and connection.

As we are wrapping up, I would like to invite you to consider how handle being vulnerable, how you handle yourself – can you be with your own pain? Can you make space to see it and acknowledge it? How are you with others, your loved one, your significant other? Are you willing to be seen, willing to reveal parts of yourself that you’re not sure will be accepted?

I just would love for you to consider how you are with vulnerability. Is it something you have no clue about, or is it something you’ve learned about intellectually and dabbled with, or is it something you actively practice in your life and you know the power of?

I would love to hear your comments. Feel free to e-mail me, jessica@drjessicahiggins.com. Feel free to also comment on the show notes. That’s on my website, www. DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast and you’ll find the episode… If you’re listening to this when it was more recently released, it’s towards the top. Again, this is episode 112 – What Makes Being Vulnerable So Hard.

Stay tuned, next episode will be “How To Develop The Strength Of Vulnerability”, and then we will be moving on. It’s so funny… I actually will prep for a podcast, and I think I’m starting just to do notes from one podcast, and sometimes it develops into like four… So those of you that are interested in this, I’m hoping you’re getting value out of it. Those that are maybe not their favorite topic, I appreciate your openness and willingness to consider some of what I’m sharing. Until next time, I hope you take great care!

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