Vulnerability isn’t weakness and it isn’t giving in. Vulnerability is a way of relating to life that keeps you open to what each moment presents — and smart vulnerability requires a lot of backbone. It is also very attractive and a key to unconditional love.
Early in our 38-years together, every cell in Donna’s body — as is true for many women — had been trained to please me. If she wasn’t feeling particularly well, she would keep it to herself. If she disagreed with me about something, I wouldn’t have a clue. If I wanted pizza and she wanted sushi, it was pizza. Frankly, I could get away with almost anything.
Inside, however, Donna would feel vulnerable to my whims. While this is a common type of vulnerability, it is not the kind of vulnerability you need for unconditional love.
In a viral Ted Talk on vulnerability, Brené Brown speaks about the need to let go of who you think you should be in order to be who you really are.
While this “to thine own self be true” advice may seem obvious, for most people it calls for a profound shift.
For starters, it requires you to attune inwardly to even know your deeper nature, and then to have the courage to express your truth rather than to say what others expect or want to hear from you. Being true to your deeper (and thus higher) self in that way is the essence of vulnerability.
Brown offers examples of what we call “smart vulnerability,” such as the willingness to take on a worthy challenge with no guarantees, to say “I love you” first, or to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. Taking a risk makes you vulnerable.
Taking a risk to get something that is important to you is also often the only way to get it. No risk, no vulnerability; but also no risk, no prize.
Smart vulnerability doesn’t, however, mean showing your deepest and most tender sides to someone not worthy of your trust. That isn’t smart at all. But smart vulnerability does mean letting yourself be seen, deeply and vulnerably, by those who matter to you. It means full engagement. And full engagement can lead you out of, as well as deeper into a relationship.
It’s a way of sorting through who you can be with while still being yourself.
Take a look at these three ways smart vulnerability can lead you to unconditional love:
1. Being open and honest about what you want will contribute to a deeper, more meaningful partnership.
Donna’s wedding vows revealed a shift from her early programming — rather than automatically putting me first, her vows affirmed a new way of relating to her inner needs, desires, and wisdom. Along with, “I surrender with you, David, into this magnificent love space,” she added her firm intention that our marriage "will not diminish, but enhance our individuality." She pledged to be fully her own person and to do her best to speak the absolute truth.
Donna learned that not taking the risk of making me uncomfortable (or even irritated) was hurting — not helping — our marriage. As she began to express her needs and desires, our relationship became richer, juicier and more fascinating.
Even if I had, in any moment, preferred her wholesale support and agreement, that perk doesn’t begin to match the emotional benefits of having a partner who is stronger, more confident and who expands me rather than simply echoing what she thinks I want.
2. Telling your partner your fears allows them to bond with you on a human level.
Like all creatures, we are wired to feel fear in the face of physical danger, but only we humans can envision all the things that could go wrong — and worry about them.
Our most intimate relationships are, in fact, magnets for our fears, not only because we want to share our fears with those we trust, but because of the paradox that the more fully we love, the more vulnerable we are to being hurt.
Our fears bring us eyeball to eyeball with our vulnerability. No one likes that feeling, and we create all kinds of ways to avoid it. Some people try to protect themselves by closing off to their joy and the sense of vulnerability that comes with it, but this dampens their happiness and prevents them from loving as fully. Start feeling too good, and on go the brakes.
Others “catastrophize” — vividly playing out in their minds terrible scenes that could happen, as if this will somehow prepare and protect them if something awful occurs. Neither strategy works.
In fact, Brown advises that you “can’t prepare for tragedy and loss.” But there is an antidote to the fears that intrude into our psyches and our relationships.
Rather than turning “every opportunity for joy into a test drive for despair,” we can train our minds to cultivate gratitude for what we have. Let your moments of fear become cues to shift your focus to what you have to celebrate. This re-trains your mind, and with gratitude, we build resilience. According to Brown, “the joy becomes part of who we are. And when bad things happen — and they do happen — we are stronger.”
3. Leaving yourself vulnerable to the person you trust opens you up to receive their vulnerability in return.
I did all in his power, in our early days, to reinforce Donna’s style of supporting my every whim and feeling. I would subtly withdraw if she showed signs that she disagreed with me or was going to inconvenience me or wanted something I didn’t want. If heavier tensions began to build, I would calmly retreat into my proverbial “cave". Managing differences this way kept me from experiencing how vulnerable it felt to be at odds with my beloved.
Over the years, we've both learned that it's exactly the times that we are wanting to retreat from one another that we have an opportunity to engage more deeply. By leading with our vulnerability — disclosing and attending to the pain of the disconnect rather than resorting to blame, or even attempting solutions — we find the bridge back to one another.
Vulnerability has received bad press in our culture. But it is the key to telling your heart’s truth, navigating your fears and engaging your partner deeply.
Donna Eden and David Feinstein, Ph.D. are co-authors of the book "The Energies of Love." They have been forging their own personal and professional partnership since 1977, and have dedicated their lives to empowering people using the most innovative cutting-edge tools available for transforming energy and consciousness.