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decide to follow years of childhood and societal learning to be emotionally self-reliant (a.k.a. stoic and emotionally withdrawn) or to take a risk and reach out for emotional support.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.