How to Practice Emotional Vulnerability
Updated: Aug 18
Let’s face it. Unless you grew up in an emotionally healthy family system it’s highly likely you never learned how to be emotionally vulnerable with yourself and/or in relationship with others. In fact, some argue and I tend to agree, our society actually has had centuries in which we taught the opposite: how to be emotionally detached, how to emotionally withdraw, and how to suppress emotions. It’s no wonder we are all struggling to understand our own feelings, thoughts, and needs let alone trying to understand those around us. It is also no shock that most couples I see and encounter both personally and professionally are wondering what conflict resolution actually is. Sharing your emotions is at the root of conflict resolution and management. Whether at work, in our intimate relationships, or in our parenting roles we are need work in this area. We can all become better at practicing emotional vulnerability.
The act of being vulnerable improves our overall health and well-being. Research suggests that vulnerability is a key ingredient for fostering good emotional and mental health. Brené Brown, a fellow LCSW, conducted a host of research on vulnerability and came up with several significant findings. One that I think is crucial to understand and can help us be more aware of vulnerability is the idea that two really opposing elements of vulnerability are both true. Brown specifically shares the following:
Vulnerability is at the core of shame, fear, and the struggle for worthiness.
AND Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, and belonging. To find joy, creativity, and belonging, Brené Brown argues that we must face what it means to be vulnerable: shame, fear, and the struggle for worthiness.
After seeing what vulnerability has done in my life and in the lives of my clients I believe with great certainty that these opposing truths are real and alive in the context of our lives and relationships. It ought to be said that vulnerability requires an element of risk taking. Ultimately, relationships require risk and if you want to do relationships well you need to be willing to take the risk that vulnerability entails. Remember, it may be terrifying at first, but on the other side is the possibility of joy, creativity, and belonging. For those of you willing to explore this you may be seeking tangible resources that you can actually apply in your life to increase your comfort with emotional vulnerability. Here are some basic steps you can take to begin this practice in your own life.
Start small, start slow. Rome was not built in a day and neither is deep intimacy. Try sharing something important to you, maybe something others do not really know about you, but not something very sensitive or fragile. When sharing something small, like a childhood memory, a story about a previous relationship, or maybe describing your dream job, pay attention to how the other person listens to you. Are they giving you their undivided attention? Are they judging your experience? Are they trying to problem solve? Are they supportive and asking questions to learn more? Or are they dismissing you? If you feel safe after sharing something small try to share something a little deeper next time!
Be honest and transparent. You have the right to your feelings and thoughts, even though someone may not understand, agree, or be something they want to hear. Your genuine perspective is valid and important, so try to steer away from saying something you simply think the other person would like to hear you say. This can lead to miscommunication, further conflict, and possibly relationship demise. Transparency is the fabric of trust. Without it there is no foundation for trust.
Share feelings and needs. Too often we share our feelings by describing the other person’s behavior. This really rarely goes well. The research suggests that by sharing your actually feeling within the form of an “I statement”, such as “I feel overwhelmed when I ask for something and you say you’ll do it, but then you don’t get around to it” we are much more likely to be heard and understood. If you can follow that I statement with your specific positive need like, “I need you to let me know if you can’t get to it ahead of time, so I can prepare for that and try to get it done myself”, you are actually honoring what you really need in the relationship and this gives your partner an opportunity to actually meet that need.
Be wise. It is essential to remember that not every relationship is safe to be emotionally vulnerable in. If you have attempted to share your honest feelings and needs, but the person receiving them does not respond well as evidenced by putting you down, ridiculing you or your feelings, dismissing your needs, or laughing at you then you need to consider that vulnerability is not safe in this relationship. You may be in an emotionally abusive relationship and it would be wise to seek help through the use of couples counseling.