What does being vulnerable mean to you? Many women associate being “vulnerable” with feeling uncomfortable, exposed or even scared. Pioneering vulnerability researcher Brené Brown describes vulnerability as expressing our true selves, rather than the selves we believe we “should be,” to intimate partners. Vulnerability does not guarantee that each partner’s needs will be met, or that the relationship will last, but we also can not have lasting intimacy without it.
If you struggle to express your true self in intimate relationships, consider these three common myths that foster and maintain avoidance of vulnerability:
Myth #1: “Being vulnerable means that I must share my deepest and darkest secrets.”
Many women believe that being vulnerable requires that they unveil deep thoughts and personal experiences with their dating partner, often early in a relationship or in an intense “let it all out” fashion. Women who carry this belief often avoid self-expression altogether, due to the burden of vulnerability feeling too overwhelming. Here at CTWPS, we support the concept that healthy vulnerability involves doing so with someone who has gained your trust over time. The ways that you express vulnerability can grow as that trust grows. In therapy, we work with women to build efficacy and confidence in expressing themselves (e.g., being vulnerable) in ways that are tempered and intentional.
For example, consider a woman who is uncomfortable expressing preferences with her girlfriend when planning activities to spend time together. In therapy, we may first challenge her to take more tolerable risks, such as practicing communicating these preferences (e.g., restaurant preference) to her partner. As she develops confidence, we may then work toward increasing her capacity to tolerate more intimate disclosures, such as desire to feel more connected in the relationship, or readiness to take the next step in the relationship.
Myth #2: “Being vulnerable is a sign of weakness.”
Our culture perpetuates the myth that “not being vulnerable” is a form of strength that protects one from getting hurt, and that, conversely, being vulnerable is a sign of weakness. By contrast, here at CTWPS, we view a woman’s capacity to be vulnerable with those that appear worthy of her trust, as a sign of strength. It is ironic that it is women who avoid vulnerability who often experience their relationship needs not being met, as they may avoid all sorts of assertions within their relationship.
In therapy, we may ask a woman to track her thoughts and beliefs regarding what it means to be strong and weak in an intimate relationship. We would then specifically focus on beliefs that may be leading to unhealthy behaviors. For example, if she believes that being strong in a relationship means hiding unpleasant emotions (e.g., sadness or anger) from her partner, we would then explore ways that hiding those emotions may make her feel distanced and unheard by her partner, and ways that avoiding the expression of these emotions may lead to increased frustration and resentment. As she develops an understanding of ways that these thoughts and behaviors make weaken her, rather than strengthen her, in the relationship, we may then work toward increasing her confidence in sharing her emotions, appropriately and effectively, with her partner.
Myth #3: “To show vulnerability is to be needy.”
There is a difference between “being needy” and “having needs” in a relationship. Everyone has needs in a relationship. Vulnerability then is the honest expression of one’s genuine, legitimate, and healthy needs in a relationship to a trusted partner.
For example, consider a client who wants to feel more connected in her relationship, but is fearful of being perceived as “needy” by her husband. Because she is afraid to honestly express her desire to feel more connected in the relationship, she may end up feeling frustrated and isolated. Then she may pick a fight with her husband because he spends too much time on his phone, nag him about the amount of time he spends at work, or complain when he starts watching television after dinner rather than pitching in with household chores. Ironically, while she is fearful of being perceived as needy, these indirect attempts at communicating her desire to feel more connected are likely to be perceived as needy or aggravating to her partner! In therapy, we would help this client develop tools and confidence to communicate in a way that is directly congruent with her goal of getting her needs met in the relationship.
While there is fear and risk associated with being vulnerable, there is also potential for the reward of deepening intimacy. In therapy here at CTWPS, we work with our clients to create a more flexible definition of vulnerability, and provide tools to build safety, confidence, and efficacy in being vulnerable in intimacy.