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Tina and Michael LeBlanc

Tina and Michael LeBlanc

In this article Michael discusses the process and benefits of sharing more of your vulnerable emotions with your partner.

Earlier this year I had a medical (and emotional) emergency where I was at a crossroads. I had to decide to follow years of childhood and societal learning to be emotionally self-reliant (a.k.a. stoic and emotionally withdrawn) or to take a risk and reach out for emotional support.

 

In a moment of what I would in the past call ‘weakness’ (now I would definitely call it ‘strength), I decided to share my pain and vulnerability.

 

My decision fell in line with what I have been experiencing when it comes to emotional intimacy: Risk-taking comes with great rewards.

 

It wasn’t easy to reach out for emotional support because there is shame attached. But what happened as a result leaves no doubt that sharing my emotional pain with someone is the pathway to personal growth and deeper, more satisfying relationships.

"Sharing my emotional pain is the pathway to personal growth and deeper relationships."

 

It was March 2021 and I was in pain with what turned out to be a herniated disk in my back. When the pain was growing in the first 12 hours my initial way of dealing with it followed my learned behaviour of emotional self-reliance: Tough it out, suck it up, and be a ‘man’.

 

Like many men (and some women) I learned young that when in pain or feeling vulnerable I should ‘shove it down’ and ‘deal with it on my own’, rather than seek support by sharing it with someone I love and trust. This learned attachment style of ‘Dismissing’ (avoiding showing vulnerability) felt locked in because it has been my way for many years of my life (See Bartholomew’s ‘2-dimensional model of attachment’ below).

But last week, at one point, I made a conscious choice to reach out for Tina.  I was in extreme pain and having trouble walking, so my ‘reaching out’ came in the form of crawling to her on my hands and knees for help. And, even though I was desperate, this reaching out was STILL a risk for me. I am not used to anyone seeing me this way and there was shame attached to my vulnerability. That shame is old emotional business that will be fodder for another blog entry.

 

But thanks to my relationship with Tina I have been learning to take the risk of sharing my inner pain and worries with her. She has taught me that inter-dependence and sharing my vulnerability can lead to a stronger connection and can allow me to be my true self with someone.

As a result of slowly unhooking from my previous learning of dealing with my emotional and physical pain on my own I am now better able to share my inner world with Tina and others. Despite what I learned growing up, I now know I can count on being received with compassion, and feel that I am not alone with my inner or outer pain. It’s a new way of being with the world. But it’s still a work in progress.

 

This learning came in very handy last week. I reached out for Tina’s support and she was able to be there for me. This was an amazing feeling: I knew someone had my back, I wasn’t alone and I didn’t have ‘look okay’ when I wasn’t okay. What a relief!

 

Each time I reach out for Tina and it is well received, it further solidifies the belief that I can do this again. I can show my pain to her (both physical and emotional pain can trigger our attachment pattern of ‘withholding’), be received with care and concern, and connect with her on a deeper level. So, in a way, we are closer because of my reaching for her and her receiving me.

 

This is a recipe for a deeper bond and trust, and paves the way for me to do it again…it’s a positive feedback loop.

 

If you have learned to not share your vulnerable self with others, I encourage you to try what I tried. Tap into a vulnerable emotion and share it with your partner. Take the risk to go against your learning of emotional self-reliance and let your partner in to see your pain. It will be uncomfortable at first – but that’s okay. Growth always involves discomfort.

Try not to bail out too early when you get started – because the benefits will follow if you see it through.

 

The goal is to be able to show our true selves (strong AND vulnerable) with others so we can be received with compassion, which grants us permission to not ‘always be have our stuff together’. In fact, it takes an enormous amount of courage and strength for emotional avoiders to show our vulnerable side. We are going against years of learning. It takes courage, practice and persistence.

HOW TO PRACTICE BEING VULNERABLE WITH YOUR PARTNER

When I first met Tina I was blown away at how easily she showed her vulnerable side to me. It seemed second nature to her to be able to process her inner emotional world (she is more in the ‘Secure’ attachment area in the chart shown at the beginning of this blog).

 

And because I loved her I was able to stay present with her when she did, and this ‘successful process’ further solidified her belief that I was someone she could lean on. It’s a positive feedback loop: Risk sharing, be received, feel safe and connected, risk more, deepen your relationship.

But when it came to me showing my vulnerable side to her it was much harder than she made it look. I didn’t have much practice sharing my shame, or my hurt, or my sadness. I grew up learning to focus on caring for others and dealing with my vulnerable ‘stuff’ on my own. I built an  ‘independent’ mindset when it came to dealing with difficulties. I learned growing up that it was okay to show my positive feelings with others – it was safer. But the deeper, more vulnerable stuff was to be withheld and stuffed away.

 

"Overcoming my attachment pattern of ‘withholding’ seemed like a large mountain to climb."

Even as an adult I am more likely to show my joy and to keep my vulnerable emotions safely tucked away. So, when it came to my relationship with Tina I knew that our emotional sharing wasn’t equal. I knew that I was eventually going to have to share more of my emotional world with her if we were to have a balanced, back and forth relationship. And my training as a therapist was also a factor in me having the cognitive awareness that it was healthy to share my softer emotions. But putting it into practice was another matter because I was working against years of ‘training’.

Overcoming my attachment pattern of ‘withholding’ seemed like a large mountain to climb.

 

But over time in our marriage I started to take more emotional risks with Tina thanks to her modelling and openness. She has asked so many times for me to share more – giving me permission to override my old habits of cutting off my softer emotions before they got ‘out of control’. I slowly started pushing myself to go just a little deeper and show a bit more emotion. It seems so simple and easy to do for those who are used to it, but it is actually one of the hardest things for me to do.

 

It’s easier for me to run a 20-miler than share my more vulnerable emotions.

What partners who find it ‘easy and expected’ to share their inner emotional world might not understand is the FEAR ‘withholders’ feel. It’s a fear of being seen as weak if we show our vulnerable selves. And it’s also a fear of ‘exploding’ if we tap into this well of un-felt emotions we have been holding back and stock piling for years.

 

That was my worry – “If I tap into this pool of un-felt emotions it’s going to be ugly”. That worry is one of the main factors that keeps my emotions bottled up. We often show these explosions when we get angry – when we ‘flip our lids’ – and we learn that explosions of emotions other than joy are bad. So we tuck them away so they don’t come out with a bang, and go about remaining emotionally aloof and safe from the deeper emotions.

 

 

Gradually building the habit of sharing your inner world

 

But I am here to say that emotional expression is not all or none. It’s not either a ‘don’t show my vulnerable side’ or ‘explosion of emotions’. There is an ‘easing in’ that can be found. There is a way to slowly build a habit of sharing your inner world with your partner – of gradually peeling back the layers to deeper parts.

 

This easing in can be found by dipping our toes into our emotional world and sharing something closer to the surface. Starting with something just under the surface gives us room to pull back if things get too scary. This sharing could be a milder emotion such as worry or disappointment, rather than a deeper emotion like shame, deep hurt, or extreme sadness.

And if we can aim to regularly and slowly dip our toes into our softer emotional world and share that with our partner, we can gradually get to a point where sharing the emotions closer to the surface becomes easier and feels helpful.

 

And when that happens, we establish a new ‘baseline’ as we build the capacity to dip in a bit deeper and still feel safe.

 

We need to structure this sharing by going deeper without getting overwhelmed and needing to shut things down. This will teach us that we can gradually risk sharing something with a bit more emotional depth without a huge amount of anxiety attached. We can teach ourselves to slowly unhook from our previous all-or-none learning about emotional sharing and gradually build safety into the process of feeling and sharing ALL of our emotions.

 

For example, I used to have a very hard time talking about my mom. She died when I was 23 after a lengthy and complicated illness. I expertly tucked the pain away afterwards and went about my life. It was a survival technique that helped me function at the time. I felt that the complex web of emotions was a large pool of pain that I worried would be Pandora’s Box if I tapped into it.

 

After I met Tina I slowly…very slowly… could talk about my relationship with my mom and my sadness over her death and how I missed her. And the truth is that I don’t talk about or feel my deeper emotions about my mom every day, but I do talk about her with Tina and my kids every now and then. And occasionally I get emotional when I do. And rather than it being ‘the end of the world’, it actually feels good to share and honour my feelings about her. And being emotional is more expected now, so I feel less shame about it. Little by little I dip my toe into deeper emotions and it becomes less scary.

 

So, how about you?

 

Practice Time!

 

The only way we get better at sharing our inner world is to…well, share our inner world! Not just talk about sharing it. Not just reading about sharing it. But actually taking the risk to share it.

Can you imagine dipping your toe into some deeper, more vulnerable emotions and sharing them with your partner?

 

Maybe it’s time for you to practice.

 

To help with this, experiment this week with tapping into a softer emotion you would normally keep to yourself and share it with your partner. Take a small step into your emotional world and take the risk of opening up and feeling the emotion in the comfort and safety of your relationship with your partner.

 

The goal is to stick with the process even if you get emotional, and allow your partner to support you through it with love and affection. Your partner may very well be waiting for this from you. This is how we deepen our bond with our partners and begin the habit of sharing our inner world – and move toward emotional INTERdependence. It will be a risk with a great reward.

 

If you and your partner think you need some help to increase your emotional connection, Tina and I can help you with that through our Virtual Couples Weekend Retreat. You can register for our next one here: https://betteryourself365.lpages.co/transformational-couples-retreat/.

 

We have a section in this weekend training where I work with the emotional ‘withdrawers’ (and Tina works with the emotional ‘pursuers’) and we have these sort of conversations. It’s very powerful and helpful to be in the presence of others who feel like we do.

 

Also, our digital program: “Taking Charge of Your Relationship” will be available on our website www.betteryourself365.com in June of 2021. This program is our Weekend Retreat in a self-paced course format that allows you to work on things in the comfort of your own home and without needing a babysitter or reserving an entire weekend.

 

So, your homework is to create the space and talk to your partner about that emotional topic – you’ll be proud of yourself for taking the risk.

 

And if the first crack doesn’t go as well as you hoped, that is fine. Emotional sharing gets better with practice. You need to stick with the process and keep taking the risks.

 

You and your relationship are worth it!

 

Michael & Tina
@BetterYourself365