Vulnerability… it is both something that many of us are fearful of, while also being something that is the crucial to our overall wellbeing. While listening to a TED Talk by vulnerability researcher and story teller, Brené Brown, it’s easy to understand why this particular talk has attracted over 50 million views since it was shared 10 years ago. I only came across it in the last month, but the message shared was one that resonated with me and my own wellbeing journey.
In the nearly 8 years that I have been in a relationship with Liam (4 years dating and 3 and a half years married) we have both shared many vulnerable experiences. From my perspective, I’ve raised personal issues such as debt, insecurities about my faith journey, doubts about my career prospects, physical “flaws” that began to weigh on my self-confidence, issues that stem from childhood, experienced child-birth (basically the HEIGHT of vulnerability) – and that’s just naming a few real-life examples! The fact is, life is full of experiences that call for vulnerability in order for you to be able to manage in a healthy way, but often we struggle to embrace this necessary aspect of our relationship.
If we don’t feel like we can be vulnerable with the person that we married, then we are missing out on all that marriage was intended to be.
Remember when you both repeated those wedding vows to one another? You didn’t say, “for better or for best” or “in wellness and in health”… so why do we treat our marriages like this is the case? In truth, your relationship already came with the worse and sickness-related issues (both mental and physical) long before you said “I do”. It’s just that your marriage becomes the environment for these issues to show themselves in sometimes very unexpected ways, but this is often due to our lack of understanding on how our personal baggage can rock our marriage.
So why is vulnerability such a challenge for some? Maybe you have reached a point where you feel like your spouse has just put up an emotional wall, and your frustration is boiling over as to how you can get through to them. Maybe you are feeling overwhelmed with your personal challenges, and feel like your spouse just won’t understand if you try and talk to them about what is really going on. One of the main hurdles that is most likely preventing a true sense of vulnerability between you as a couple is the feeling of shame.
Brené unpacked how “shame is easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”
She goes on to say, “The only people who don’t experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this “I’m not good enough,” — which, we all know that feeling: “I’m not blank enough. I’m not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough.” The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
Shame is a reality that we all experience one way or another. For some of us, we address the shame as it comes in healthy ways and learn how to manage the related emotions so that it becomes something we can build from and use to inform our thinking. For others, it keeps us chained to our mess, as the fear of disconnection is too much to bear. What if the person you love finds about about your stuff? What if your mask slips and your cover is blown, revealing how much mess you are actually in right now? The idea of sitting them down and coming clean would be the last thing you would be thinking, when in truth, the ability to confess (as hard as it may be) and allow your spouse the right to react will give your marriage more of a fighting chance than for the truth to be discovered because you were ‘caught out’.
The ability to be vulnerable is a journey, and one that requires you to overcome the fear of disconnection – shame. If the person you married truly loves you, then that love won’t be limited to your ‘good days’. They will be there for you when you are struggling, when you are at your weakest, and even when you feel completely broken. True love is not shallow, and it will withstand the difficulties that are inevitable in this life.
What a sad shame to miss out on experiencing the extent of what love can be, when we allow shame to limit love in our marriages.
“There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it”, Brené continued, ” And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy. And to me, the hard part of the one thing that keeps us out of connection is our fear that we’re not worthy of connection.”
So let me ask you – yes you, reading this right now. Are you worthy of love and belonging? Do you believe that you deserve love and purpose in your life? If your entire life was to unravel before the world right now, would they see this worth reflected in the way you are currently living your life? It all comes down to your perception of your value. If you don’t believe that you are worthy, then everything else will be impacted – from the things you say to the actions that you take.
After sending something out on Twitter and on Facebook that says, “How would you define vulnerability? What makes you feel vulnerable?”, Brené shared how within an hour and a half, she had 150 responses. “Having to ask my husband for help because I’m sick, and we’re newly married; initiating sex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife; being turned down; asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying off people. This is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.”
This is the root of so many destructive habits and addiction issues. We are trying to do anything but face the shame that can lead to the freedom of vulnerability. In a world where we put our best Instagram foot forward, is it any wonder that mental health issues seem to be spiralling out of control, especially among the younger generation that are born into this social media culture?
If you were never told that it was okay not to be okay, then today is that day. It is okay for you to admit to your spouse that you don’t have it together. It’s okay to let out your emotions and not be the “strong one” for your family. It’s okay to ask for help, and see a professional about the issue you are battling that may be decades in the making.
Brené ended her talk by sharing the following:
“To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, “I’m enough” … then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”
When you learn that you can be vulnerable AND still be worthy, it is one of the most freeing places you can be for your mental health and wellbeing.
Your issues will no longer limit your ability to give and receive love, and you will begin to better appreciate that life will always come with its treasured moments as well as excruciating challenges. The issue isn’t the shame, it’s what you do with it when it arrives. To be vulnerable is to be accepting of all of who you are, and that includes your strengths as well as the parts that still need work. Remember that you can be worthy AND be actively working on your marriage. Embrace your journey authentically – for better or for worse.
If you have never been allowed the space to open up and recognise your vulnerability, then this can feel like a difficult prospect. The first step is to recognise if something is difficult, and to seek appropriate help where possible to work through this. Sitting with your issues will only add fuel to the problem, and there has to come a time where you face the problem if you no longer want it to suffocate your marriage. Have a read of the following questions to hopefully help get you started on exploring this in more detail:
- What did your upbringing teach you about vulnerability?
- Looking back on past relationships/encounters with the opposite sex before marriage, how willing were you to open up and be vulnerable?
- On a scale of 1-10, how vulnerable are you towards your spouse right now? Why?
- How do you deal with shame in your life?
- How can you deal with shame more effectively together in your marriage?