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ERP 114: : How To Develop The Strength Of Vulnerability [Transcript]

ERP 114: How To Develop The Strength Of Vulnerability

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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 114 – How To Develop The Strength Of Vulnerability.

I wanna thank you for tuning in, thank you for your listenership and joining me in these conversations about intimacy, connection and relationship… Knowing that the landscape is complicated and I’m wanting to support you in feeling more prepared to navigate those challenging spots where we sometimes feel a number of things: we feel stuck, stuff comes up that feels maybe reactive, or we feel defensive… There’s all kinds of stuff that can get brought up. If we can use that as an opportunity for growth – growth in ourselves and growth in our relationship… And also how to deepen and expand our connection, our love and our fun, right? In relationship we wanna feel happy and alive in our connection, and that it continues to evolve, it doesn’t get stagnant; that there’s opportunities, there’s new levels, and to develop that consistency, the stability and the safety of a healthy, solid relationship… That day after day we can feel that health.

The number of conversations and topics that we have on this show, The Empowered Relationship Show, supports all of that, and that’s my ultimate hope and wish – that you feel supported in your journey and relationship and love.

If you’ve been following this show, I for the last few weeks have been kind of following a thread here; I did take a break with the guest that we had last week, talking about toxic and emotionally manipulative relationships. That was episode 113.

For today, I’m gonna recap episode 110, 111 and 112, which essentially I followed the thread of recognizing in a long-term partnership we are constantly faced with the challenge of our own individual self and our own needs, our autonomy, with the also need of closeness, togetherness and unity in our partnership. Those needs at times can feel conflicting. What I feel like I need individually might be different than what my relationship needs or my partner needs, and how to navigate that without sacrificing one or the other. I talk a lot about that in episode 110.

In episode 111, I offer you four keys around how to seek validation with your partner in intimacy. Some of us get caught up there. We feel too needy or we don’t know how to do that, so I offer four keys around how to do that more successfully, [unintelligible 00:04:21.19] about safety, feeling your ground, prioritizing your safety so that you can come from a calmer, regulated place.

Being able to take ownership – second one. Not just putting it all on your partner… Really owning it, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and transparent.

In episode 112, I talk about what makes being vulnerable so hard. I talk about how we fight it, we try to protect ourselves and the ways that vulnerability provokes a lot of pain in us, and just how we handle being vulnerable. I pose the questions to think about. Can you be with your own pain? Can you make space to see it and acknowledge it? And when it comes to your partner or someone you care about, are you willing to be seen, willing to reveal parts of yourself that you’re not sure are acceptable? Will they be rejected, are they lovable, is it okay?

I hope you had a chance to think about that. If you did not catch those episodes, please feel free to check that out. Today we’re gonna go a little bit more into depth about how to develop the strength of vulnerability. If you wanna check out those episodes, find those links; they will be listed on today’s show notes, which can be found on my website which is DrJessicaHiggins.com. When you go to the website, click on Podcast and you’ll find all of the episodes there.

As I pose those questions and perhaps you had a chance to reflect on them, I have a few more just in the context of checking in, doing a little bit of an assessment around how are you with being vulnerable? Really taking an honest read. Do you let your partner in? Do you let them see your inner world? Your weaknesses, your insecurities, your dreams and your longing? Do you allow yourself to feel exposed, emotionally naked? Do you let them feel you, feel your emotion? Or do you hold it all together? Do you keep up this facade or this presence of “I am good, I’m great”, and while that might be a useful way of flowing through the world, are there things you’re holding or hiding? Do you put your hurt away, so it won’t be seen? Do you keep walls up? Do you sometimes distract yourself or make yourself busy so you avoid any opportunity of just being vulnerable, being available? Opportunity for connection… But maybe you’re not sure if they’ll meet you. Or do you stay guarded, afraid to reveal too much, hiding your most inner thoughts, feelings and wishes?

As you are reflecting on how you are with being vulnerable, I wanna take a moment and revisit what we associate with vulnerability, how we define vulnerability. Most of us, especially in the United States, the Western culture, we get messages about being independent, capable, self-sufficient and strong. We expect ourselves to be able to solve all of our problems and be self-reliant. Asking for help, wanting support often brings up feelings of inadequacy, shame, because we should be able to handle everything. When you think about being vulnerable, what comes up for you? Just that free association. I say “black”, what do you think? Maybe “white.” I say “day”, you might say “night.”

These word associations – what’s the first thing that pops in your mind? So when I say “being vulnerable”, what comes up for you? I have clients who might say “weak”, “helpless”, “open”, “unprotected.” And while these things are true, when it comes to relationship, paradoxically, vulnerability is a huge strength. Yes, in the world, vulnerability is maybe not the most important skill to utilize. We wouldn’t wanna prioritize being vulnerable on a football field, or perhaps in a very contentious business meeting. That’s not the thing that you want to exercise the most. However, when it comes to relationship with someone you’re wanting to maintain and develop long-lasting intimacy and deep connection, emotional closeness, vulnerability is key.

In an article I have referenced already in a previous episode, by Karen Young, titled “Vulnerability – The Key To Close Relationships”, she says:

“Without vulnerability, relationships struggle. Vulnerability is, ‘Here I am – my frayed edges, my secrets, my fears, my affection. Be careful – they’re precious.’ In return, it invites, ‘Oh, I see you there. It’s okay, you’re safe. And here – here’s me.’ It builds trust, closeness and a sense of belonging. Relationships won’t thrive without it.

Vulnerability is openness to experiences, people and uncertainty. It’s terrifying at times, and brave always.”

In today’s episode I would like to offer you four suggestions of how to develop the strength of being vulnerable. I see vulnerability as a muscle. It’s something that over time, if you work it and use it, it builds and it strengthens. If it is unfamiliar to you and you are not used to utilizing it, it might feel awkward, uncomfortable, and a little uncertain. But again, I wanna encourage you to consider some of the suggestions that I have to offer you today.

The first one is Redefining Vulnerability. Brené Brown, a professor and vulnerability researcher at the University of Houston has done a lot to bring the importance of vulnerability to mainstream awareness. If you haven’t seen her Ted talks, I encourage you to go to my show notes of today’s episode – again, episode 114, How To Develop The Strength Of Vulnerability; click on Podcast and you can find the episode there at the top. My website is DrJessicaHiggins.com.

These TED talks that she’s given on vulnerability and listening to shame are two of her most recognized TED talks. I don’t know if she has other ones – I’m assuming she does – but there’s like eight million views, plus there’s a tremendous amount of people that have actually watched this, which is extremely exciting to me. I encourage you to check them out.

In her best-selling book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” That’s a very different definition than “weak, helpless, unprotected.” Vulnerability, in the context of relationship, she defines as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” It’s that feeling we get when we take a risk, when we step out of our comfort zone and the outcome is uncertain. As I’m describing this, I’m making this gesture of putting my arm forward; we’re extending ourselves beyond what we’ve known, and it makes me think about being little, a young kid, and wanting to go on a high dive, much higher than a regular diving board.

Climbing the ladder, and like “Oh, this is so scary… It’s higher than I thought”, and looking down, and everything looks smaller, and feeling my legs shake, and taking one step onto the diving board and just feeling scared and petrified, not sure if I could do it… Just that sensation of wobbliness, that shakiness; the heart is pounding, sweaty palms, yet we want that experience… I wanted that experience of jumping off the high dive, what that would feel like to feel something new and exciting and adventurous and bold. I’m sure you can relate to some version of this, whether or not it’s riding a bike…

Or even recently, I’ll just share… My husband and I moved – you guys might have heard a version of this story before. We were moving from Boulder, Colorado to Santa Barbara, California; this was in 2014, and it was about September, fall. My husband and I had a huge love for beach volleyball already, although we couldn’t call it beach volleyball when we lived in Boulder, Colorado – it was sand volleyball, hence no beach, right? So here we are, in Santa Barbara, California, where they offer a huge opportunity for beach volleyball. Obviously, right on the beach there’s 20+ courts, and it is full of people playing high-level volleyball. My husband and I are just thrilled about the potential, the excitement of being able to play beach volleyball all year round, and just seeing how vibrant the community is. It’s full, there’s tons of people on the beach, and people are, again, playing at a high level, and we’re really excited. Yet, we don’t know anyone.

We are anxious to meet people, but how do you break in, how do you meet people? If people are playing, they’re already occupied. It’s difficult to interrupt a game and say “Hi, we’re new…” and people will tend to have some preference for playing at a high level. If they’re good players, they wanna play at a high level; they’re not always super welcoming to someone who is new who might be a newbie (a new beginner) and not very skillful. It’s not as fun.

We were not new, and we were not beginner-beginner at all; we were probably intermediate players for sure… So my husband and I were like “Okay,  we wanna get in on this scene”, and we had talked about it – my husband had expressed the interest and had gotten a tip from someone that a good time to go perhaps would be on the weekend, late morning, when most people have gotten their more competitive set games already finished, and are just a little more receptive, a little more open to playing more recreationally or casually.

So this particular Sunday morning my husband and I get dressed and we’re getting ready to go down to the beach, and we have our volleyballs and we park, and it’s crowded. It’s a beautiful day, the courts are full, and we’re not even sure where to go. There’s women’s courts, and we knew we wanted to go to a co-ed, which is the men’s height net, because we were gonna play together. And we’re just looking around and we’re kind of trying to see who’s playing at what level, and trying to see if there’s a court that might be a little more open… And it’s difficult, right? It was a little intimidating, yet we really, really wanted to be there. We were both a little nervous… It’s a huge opportunity to get rejected, right?

Basically, it reminds me of being very little again and seeing a group of kids playing, and they look like they’re having a blast, and it’s like “I wanna play… Can I play?” It’s that same feeling; it’s that shaky kind of excitement of an opportunity, but it’s an emotional risk. It’s putting yourself out there. You don’t know the outcome, it’s uncertain, and there’s some level of emotional exposure, because you’re saying “I want”, “I would love”, “Can I…?” You’re putting yourself out there.

To wrap that story up, my husband and I ended up meeting some really friendly — well, the first court that we “challenged” and got word that there was a challenge court, we challenged, we played a few games, and they were nice enough, but they weren’t super welcoming… Then we ended up meeting some other people that ended up being a huge source of connection; they ended up introducing us to tons of people, and fast-forward, we’re three years in and all of our friends are volleyball friends. We play several times a week — I think I play sometimes like five or six times a week, and it is a huge source of fun, recreation, health, socializing… Again, it’s a huge part of our life, so I can’t imagine not taking that risk, but I can remember that it was a little vulnerable.

Through Brené Brown’s research, she teaches us that while doing something new may feel uncomfortable, it also opens up the door to new opportunities. Conversely, turning away from the discomfort and challenge can perpetuate feelings of loneliness, disconnection and dissatisfaction.

The second recommendation I wanna offer you is learn to accept some level of discomfort and uncertainty. As I just discussed, we had to get over that hurdle of being intimidated, and actually just work with it. It’s gonna be uncomfortable, there’s no real other way around it. It’s just part of the process of being a new person, having to introduce yourself and try to make connections where you don’t have any. That’s not a comfortable thing. So reframing that discomfort is a part of the natural process. There’s nothing wrong with you, the fact that you’re feeling uncomfortable.

Recently I’ve been working with a young client of mine who has been interviewing for her first job out of college. She’s actually got a year in-between a graduate program and her undergrad. So she’s not only waiting to get acceptance letters to her graduate program, she’s also looking for a job, so she’s really up for evaluation in many forms. She’s hoping to get into a program she’s been working extremely hard on, had to take tests to get into, and has just really been trying to gear her professional career towards this track.

So she’s got that nervousness going on around “I’m not gonna get accepted.” She actually already had the experience of not getting accepted, so she’s had to revamp and really work and up-level her materials so that she could get accepted, so that’s something she’s been really striving for.

Simultaneously, she’s got this space in between undergrad and graduate school, and she’s looking for a job. It’s a new experience for her to actually look for a more substantial job, and she’s talking about feeling uncomfortable, she’s talking about feeling nervous… And as she was talking, it was becoming clear to me that it was like “She hasn’t done a lot of this. She doesn’t know the landscape, she doesn’t know the people don’t sometimes call you back when they say they’re going to.” Sometimes you don’t even get a call back, and it’s a lot of uncertainty. And you’re getting evaluated, right? A lot of interviewers won’t actually give you a lot of positive feedback or much response at all. They’re trained to be pretty neutral, so you can feel like you don’t have much to work with in the interview.

If you’re talking to somebody who’s extremely neutral, you don’t know where you stand. You’re essentially saying “I wanna work here” or “I’m interested in working here”, so you’re putting yourself out there. And as she was talking about her discomfort, it was almost as if something was wrong with her. She wanted some tactics and some strategies around how to not be uncomfortable, and more than anything I was trying to help her validate and acknowledge that this is part of the process, this is what it’s supposed to be like; this is part of the territory, and as she gets more experienced, she’s gonna get stronger and more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Going for an interview is not something most people are super excited about and feel super natural with. It’s okay to be nervous, it’s okay to feel scared. There’s nothing wrong.

So helping her shift the goal from not being uncomfortable – if the goal was to not be uncomfortable, the goal is “How do I support myself to get through this? What do I need to help tolerate some of this  discomfort?” Because when we start thinking something’s wrong with us because we’re uncomfortable, that’s when we start hiding and feeling shame and feeling some level of self-rejection, like “Something’s wrong with me.”

Brené Brown says “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences.” I’ll read it again – “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences.” This comes from a lot of her research. If you choose or have listened to any of her TED talks, she talks about her research, and asking people to talk about love and connection, and what people end up talking about is vulnerability.

Again, number one is Redefining Vulnerability. The exposure, the risk – yeah, it’s a little uncomfortable, but that’s part of the process.

Number two – suggesting to learn to accept some of that discomfort, some level of discomfort and uncertainty.

Number three – Get connected with what’s true for you. So often we are looking ahead, moving ahead and forward-thinking that we’re not orienting, we’re not originating our interactions from a place of centeredness. We don’t even know how we feel… So the encouragement here, as far as developing the skill of being vulnerable, is actually checking in. Checking in with yourself, getting honest, getting connected with what is true. How can we be vulnerable if we don’t even know how we’re feeling? And again, taking that honest look, the willingness to feel. Again, tolerating some of that discomfort. It might not feel easy, it might not feel like the warm, fuzzy, positive feelings that maybe we continually strive for. But again, there’s value in dropping in, connecting to what’s real, because that’s the truth. Whatever’s going on for you is real. No good/bad, right or wrong, it just is. So being able to feel your heart, feel what you’re feeling, know what you’re wanting, know what you’re needing.

When I was writing these notes, I thought of a client who I had just worked with, and she was describing a point of contention with her husband, and it had to do with their in-laws. She was describing that they typically have a reoccurring conversation that sometimes will turn into an argument, sometimes it just feels sticky, sometimes a fight, and it’s not something that she’s feeling great about. As she was talking, she was describing a lot of her complaint, and I was encouraging her to get in touch with — can you help me understand what you’re wanting? What would you really love in this situation? What are you needing?

I asked this question several times, and emptying the cup of that. Part of what she was wanting was to feel validated, that some of what she experiences with her in-laws wasn’t ideal… For her husband to say “Yeah, I get it. Yes, they’re my parents, yes, they mean well, but I get how it’s difficult.” Another layer was wanting to feel his support. It would be natural for her husband to feel divided. If his parents are not getting along with his wife, the loyalty is there, but there’s no need to take sides per se, but how can she feel supported? How can she feel that he is with her?

Or perhaps they’re talking about having a child, and maybe at some point setting boundaries in how they do that skillfully, set limitations… And another layer was grieving. When I envisioned my marriage and my husband and extended family, this isn’t what I actually was hoping for. I was hoping for a close relationship, where there was a sense of warmth and bond.

Okay, so this is an example of a client that I have that’s struggling with an issue. It could be any issue, but I’m just using her as an example, that if as she was talking to me about a reoccurring issue she’s had with her husband over a couple of years, that for her she wasn’t even entirely clear or hadn’t fully connected with what she was wanting. She was clear in her complaints, but she wasn’t necessarily clear on what makes it vulnerable, what’s meaningful for her.

The encouragement here is to really connect, instead of sweeping things under the rug, because most of the time this does not go away… It just finds another place to pop up. So if we can connect with what’s real, then we actually have more to work with. It’s a little counter-intuitive; we would think that “Oh, I don’t wanna have to deal with something upsetting, so I’ll just kind of move along and push it aside and focus on what I wanna put attention on, and prioritize that.” I think there’s some use to that, but when we continually ignore something that’s true and real, we’re actually not giving it any space to actually transform it or work with it.

Again, if we can get connected to what’s really real and true, open our heart, be willing to feel and be vulnerable inside our own being, then that’s an opportunity to see as a gift, to have our own back, see it as something really valuable. And truthfully, the more you can connect with what’s real, the easier, the more clear and concise way you can deliver it to your significant other, and they’re more (exponentially) more likely to get you, to feel you and to wanna help you. When we complain, they don’t know how to interpret. As much as we want them to be skillful and be able to recognize “Oh, they’re not happy with this… Let me imagine maybe what they’re needing, and let me try to figure that out. And let me help them try to recognize ways that we can get support for them and make this better.” Most people do not know how to do that.

Even with all of my training and skill, I can’t always do that. I get caught up in my own stuff and my husband’s complaining to me, or if he is taking issue with me… Sometimes I can say “Can you tell me what you are wanting? I’m hearing what you’re not wanting, but can you tell me what you are wanting?” Sometimes that’s helpful, sometimes it’s not, but again, coming back to you, if you can connect with what’s real, and let your partner see that, they’re gonna be much more likely to respond to you and support you and help you.

I can tell story after story after story about how that has been true for me. If I come at my husband with complaint, I don’t feel him lean in. But when I get vulnerable, he is right there.

My fourth recommendation to you is to really set yourself up for success. If this is something that you have not done a lot of, I would actually take some extra care and consideration when experimenting with this, or getting into practice. So I actually have more to offer you than what I’m gonna share in today’s episode. This is just the first part. Next week’s episode I will be able to offer you even more in how to develop the strength of vulnerability.

For today, my last recommendation to you, number four, is to set yourself up for success. This is to be mindful of some of the logistics or some of the aspects of who and how you’re doing this. Choosing an appropriate time and place – you wouldn’t wanna start talking to your partner about something that is super sensitive and tender for you as they’re walking away, they’re rushing and they’re running out the door. That’s not the best space and time; they’re not really available to show up for you. So for you to take a risk and expose something vulnerable isn’t necessarily giving yourself the best opportunity to feel their care with your vulnerability. So you wanna be choosing an appropriate time and place to share and to really be in this more dropped in, vulnerable place.

Being mindful of whom you wanna share – your trusted inner circle, your partner, perhaps your best friend or close family member. These are people that you wanna invest into the relationship. You want the relationship to develop, you want the level of intimacy to deepen and to build that connection and have that connection be even stronger. We invest in the relationships that mean something to us because we want them to continue and we wanna continue to develop them. So maybe you wouldn’t drop into the most vulnerable place with a stranger… Not to say that you couldn’t, but to be mindful of that. If this is new to you, if you’re just day in, day out and you’re just kind of talking to a co-worker and maybe over-sharing and you’re saying something super vulnerable, they’re not prepared, they’re taken off-guard, and you’re probably not gonna feel that sense of connection that’s available, because of the time and space, and as well as maybe who – the appropriate people.

Even when I’m saying this though, if being vulnerable is something that you’re gonna develop and just wanna be a part of you, and it’s just your presence, you can drop into vulnerability with a stranger. This is sometimes why people love traveling the world – you’re gonna have these connections with people that you may never see again, and you’re maybe on a similar journey of traveling, so you drop into a place of connection and you share. Maybe you share a good time together, maybe you share personal things and vulnerable things, and there’s a connection built, but it’s just being able in yourself to hold that and then allow somebody to see you.

I’m sure there’s some unique things about traveling that make that different. I’m just pointing out that there are ways to be vulnerable with a stranger, but I’m just saying day in and day out, it’s likely that you’re gonna wanna choose people that you wanna deepen your connection with. Not to say, again, that the vulnerable moments of sharing with someone, you might choose to do that, and there’s reasons for that… I’m just talking bigger picture here.

And to what level? With your intimate partner, you might wanna share everything. That’s sometimes the encouragement – to share the things that we’re ashamed of, or the things that we feel like we can’t share. They may get the full, whole story, where perhaps somebody that you care about will get a shortened, abbreviated version of it, where you’re capturing the emotion, you’re being vulnerable, but maybe it’s not to the same depth. So I really wanna encourage you to be aware that you have some choice points here: the degree in which you share, when you share, the time you share and with whom you share. You have some parameters here to experiment with, and also just your own space. I know for myself, if I’m super busy and got a lot on my plate, I’m more likely to not want to be vulnerable. It’s like a different channel almost.

There’s gonna be some things you’ll learn about yourself, that I’m much more able to connect with my heart, have a heartfelt conversation, be vulnerable when I have some space. Or have a little unplanned time, so there’s a little bit more opportunity for me to be present and be vulnerable and allow myself to be real and transparent.

And really truly, I wanna say vulnerability isn’t necessarily like vulnerable, I’m sharing, and I have to tell you something super hard; vulnerable can be in the joy, feeling moved. Vulnerability is actually just being willing to be seen, and it’s richness and it’s fullness. Being emotionally open, allowing somebody to really fully see you, and the more experience you get with this, perhaps the more expressed you can be, but that it’s really connected to what’s authentic and true, and that’s where  vulnerable is – we’re willing to show and expose… Again, we don’t wanna lose the ground of our centeredness, but also being able to show and show up and live fully.
I’m gonna talk more about this in the next episode, which is gonna be part two, and I wanna just leave you with a quote, with Brené Brown. She’s obviously somebody I’m referencing highly today:

“What makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful.”

Thank you for listening and thank you for sharing this time with me. From my heart to your heart, I just acknowledge this path of really wanting to do relationship more intentionally and mindfully, and I have deep regard for you and your journey.

Today’s episode, again, is episode 114, How To Develop The Strength Of Vulnerability, Part I. I look forward to sharing more with you in our next episode. I would love to hear from you if you have a comment or anything you would like to share about this episode or this topic. I encourage you to go to the show notes, which can be found on my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast, find episode 114, and click on the comment section, which is below the show notes. I would love to hear from you.

You can also reach me via e-mail, jessica@drjessicahiggins.com. If you’re looking for a little more support and you want to go deeper with some of this, please feel free to reach out to me.

Until next time, I hope you take great care.

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