Relationships

... on Vulnerability

When I was younger, I used to think that the best, deepest way to connect to people was through pain. I thought this because it was my painful experiences that often allowed the type of deep connection that I so much enjoy with other people. But even more than associating pain with connection, I also associated pain with depth. If I was to be deeply connected to anyone or anything, I had to be in pain, or have suffered pain. Don’t ask me how I got to that conclusion. I actually can’t pinpoint any moments from my memory bank. I feel that it might have been a series of moments, both experienced and witnessed, that slowly moved me towards this narrative.

Interestingly, there is a spiritual component of law of attraction at play in this narrative, whereby the belief that connection and depth were dependable on pain, meant that I was open to pain, and by being open to pain, I would actually invite more pain into my life. In hindsight, I can recognise the part of me who thought that the pain I was feeling at any given moment was somehow good, because it would enable me to connect to people in a deep way. I was watching a HBO documentary last night about Jane Fonda and she says something towards the end that really resonated with me: “I was very old at 20 years old. Very serious.”

This somewhat twisted relationship with pain always made me a bit too serious, a bit too old for my age. I’ve always had people tell me that about myself. “He’s so wise for his years.” “He’s an old soul.” That’s all nice and great, but actually, I was a child, and then a teenager, and I’m now in my early 30s, and I still don’t know the right balance between seriousness and fun. This has always been me. I was either experiencing pain or processing pain. The in-between is often a blur, and not very interesting. When my clients in addiction used to struggle with the concept of fun without substances, I used to think to myself: “I also don’t know how to do that.” It’s either all or nothing, which from the prism of pain, means that I’m either having fun to such an extent that will lead to pain, or I am doing absolutely nothing, and am instead trapped in a never-ending spinning wheel of self-analysis. And as author and teacher Jeff Brown says: “excessive analysis perpetuates emotional paralysis.”

I can’t change the past, but I can also say that my relationship with pain has allowed me to become a pretty good therapist. My threshold for emotional pain is very high, and I have helped individuals through some very complex life experiences, and whilst maybe I don’t know the nuances of many life experiences on this planet, I’ve always understood the nuances of pain. When I wasn’t feeling it myself, I used to observe it in others, drawn to its intricacies, and manifestations, its different forms of expression. But as it often happens, and as I often write about, I had a powerful insight yesterday, whilst conducting a therapy session. As I explored pain and sharing painful experiences with a client, it dawned on me: I don’t think it was pain in itself that allowed me to bond with others, but vulnerability. My insights usually come in the form of a powerful sentence that I hear, or that flashes somewhere in front of me: “It wasn’t the pain, it was your vulnerability”, it said. I’m sure that there is plenty more to unpack from that, but in these first 24 hours post-insight, this is what is coming to me.

Looking back, I can tell and pinpoint that in the moments I shared my pain with others, the connection and depth resulted not from the pain itself, but from the act of sharing it. The connection and depth emerged from that place of great discomfort where I allowed myself to tell someone: “This happened to me” or “This is how I’m feeling”. Because in all the other moments, and there are many, where I have not disclosed or shared pain with others, there is still a weight, there is still emotional paralysis, there is still stuckness. And there is no connection, not in a deep sense of the word, at least. You can connect to others’ pain by reading about it or watching it on TV, but the act of sharing something with someone, particularly someone you know, is much deeper.

I had never thought of vulnerability like this before, but yesterday I understood it as a bridge. A bridge between human beings: a moment and act of sharing, of receiving, of connecting. A two-way channel of emotion, thought, and feeling.

I often discuss vulnerability in therapy sessions, in the context of encouraging people to change their individual, and our collective, paradigm of vulnerability as weakness. I’m very inspired by the work of Brené Brown who has studied vulnerability for many years, and to this day, her TED Talk on the subject is still one of the most viewed talks of all time. She says that vulnerability is “the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change”, that it “sounds like truth and feels like courage”, and that “staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection”. I try to live this in my own life, and I try to encourage others to do the same. The problem sometimes, is that the world is still deeply stuck on the notion that being vulnerable is a weakness, that sharing our feelings is bad, and that being strong means being emotion-less. That’s why I always tell clients that even though vulnerability is essential to deep connections, that not everyone is ready or capable of being vulnerable, and so it may actually be dangerous to be vulnerable with the wrong person.

Knowing who to be vulnerable with is tricky, sometimes difficult, but always possible. I see it every day, I live it every day. It doesn’t happen overnight, but there are many people out there who are ready. The learning process of discovering them is often a very personal one, and a process that above all else, requires courage. Being vulnerable and connecting to people requires great strength and courage. I remind my clients of this all the time. I often need to remind myself of this as well. And I wanted to finish by reminding you that being vulnerable requires courage, and therefore is a sign of great strength and power. It’s an opening of the heart, therefore a reaching out, and within, to love.