The Role of Vulnerability in Intimate Relationships

I watched this TED talk by Brene Brown after I read her latest book “Braving the Wilderness.” I decided to write this blog for other clinicians, but it can really be applicable to everyone. Let me know what you think. Is this stuff the answer? Part of the answer? Too fluffy?

        One of the wonderfully scary aspects of being a mental health professional is that our work is intimately tied to our personal lives. If we are talking to clients about relationships, we can’t escape the fact that we have experiences, joy, and sadness in relationships as well. We’ve all had to confront whether it is safe for us to be vulnerable and authentic in a relationship and we’ve all wrestled with the fear of being rejected if we do so. Brene Brown’s (2010) research demonstrates that this vulnerability and authenticity is essential to growth and meaning in our lives. But, it’s not as easy as just doing what we know we should do. And it’s not like we can just tell our clients what they should do. So, how can we wrestle with these topics that are so universal and help others?

           First, we need to recognize that our need for human connection and safety is hard-wired into our brains (Johnson, 2004). It is not a matter of some people needing to connect while others don’t have that need – all mammals have this because it has been a part of our evolutionary process. Working together with others in tribes and societies has separated humanity from other mammals and animals and has been behind our ability to form culture, technology, and growth. Of course, there are some mammals, including humans, who may have neurological impairments that limit this drive for connection, and those clients may need to be approached differently (autism spectrum, organic brain damage, severe trauma, etc.). But for most individuals, connection, whether they acknowledge it or not, is a key part of their pursuit of meaning and purpose because it is a biological imperative.

          When connection is disrupted, that necessarily means that meaning and purpose is also disrupted. So where does this disconnection come from? Brown (2010) has identified shame as the key culprit that limits connection and comes from a person’s belief that they are lacking in some way as they are, not good enough, or don’t deserve love and belonging. According to Brown (2010), shame unravels connection because it prevents us from being authentic. We are too scared of disconnection to risk being vulnerable about who we are with others. This fear is why we can’t just tell clients (or ourselves) to just behave authentically. Fear of not connecting with others can lead individuals to numb themselves with substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.) or behaviors (eating, avoiding people, etc.) to escape this shame and fear. Individuals do this because it works – it helps them temporarily not feel shame, fear, and vulnerability. But, this avoidance is only temporary and requires more numbing to persist. We can also try to move towards certainty instead of ambiguity to lessen these fears, and try to perfect ourselves superficially. Unfortunately, that means that we are pretending, not being authentic, and only willing to present to others what we perceive they will accept. This form of “putting on a mask” ultimately prevents true connection as one can never be confident that they are accepted if they are only letting others see a certain version of themselves, not the real thing. Additionally, masking our true selves also prevents full expression of other feelings, limiting our ability to feel joy, gratitude, and safety.

            I agree with Brown (2010) when she stated that connection requires ourselves to be fully seen. In order to do so, we have to be willing to show others who we are, faults and all. We must be vulnerable and courageous enough to take the risk that others may react with disconnection. To do this, we would need to recognize that we are still safe if someone doesn’t respond to us with connection and compassion. We would have to be compassionate with ourselves and have the strength to not take others’ reactions personally. In short, as Brown (2010) stated, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging for who we are, not who we think others want us to be. Shame is the fear that we are not worthy of love and belonging, and these fears must be validated with clients (and ourselves). We may have had experiences of disconnection, conditional love, and heartbreak in the past where our brain went into protection mode saying, “this won’t happen again, it was too painful, I must protect myself from this hurt.” Individuals come to these beliefs earnestly and without choice. They needed to protect themselves often because their environment wasn’t safe. If they had been vulnerable, perhaps their parents, friends, or partners would have attacked them and reinforced the idea that they are not worthy of love when they are authentic. This validation goes a long way for clients since they may have never been told that it is understandable that they needed to develop ways to protect themselves from hurt.        

            What does that mean specifically for helping clients (and even ourselves)? First, we must accept that our fears and shame are not reflections of our unworthiness. It is okay to feel scared to open up to others. It is actually sometimes the first step in vulnerability to acknowledge, with compassion, that we have this fear (Johnson, 2004). You can remind clients that humans are born to struggle in these ways and we are all imperfect. Second, our goal is to help clients find the courage to take risks with their partners when it is safe. We can help clients identify tolerable risks that they can take with their partner and show them, in session, how to accomplish it so that is goes well for both partners. Sometimes we need to “slice the risk thinner” (Johnson, 2002), meaning that some clients will need to start with just acknowledging to their partner that they are vulnerable without describing this vulnerability. Some clients are closer to being ready for deeper sharing of vulnerability, but their partner may not be ready to receive it yet or respond with empathy and compassion. Therefore, it is crucial for clinicians to assess the readiness of clients for this kind of work and pace it appropriately. This statement is especially true when it comes to trauma survivors as their highly reactive nervous system is easily overwhelmed (Johnson, 2002). Third, we can help clients strengthen their ability to take risks by helping them learn to practice gratitude and positive affirmations. This aspect is important because research tells us that numbing vulnerability also numbs gratitude and joy (Brown, 2010). You can have clients practice gratitude most simply using the methods developed by Hanson (2013). His research is grounded in neuroscience and brain changes and suggests that we need to practice gratitude or compassion six times per day for at least 30 seconds each time for brain changes to occur. Gratitude or compassion doesn’t have to be restricted to certain things though, since it is more about the process of gratitude that matters, not necessarily the content. I tell clients that even appreciating a morning cup of coffee or getting to work on time is enough to focus on to make brain changes. These activities, which you can tailor to suit your own, and the client’s, language will help client’s feel more worthy of love and belonging, the antidote to their feelings of shame that prevent vulnerability and connection. Perhaps it is best to simultaneously work on the second and third steps I have proposed here depending on where your clients are at.

        These proposed interventions are aimed at helping clients to feel worthy of love and less scared to present their authentic selves. We know that when clients feel worthy and can be vulnerable with others, then they have a better chance of reinforcing those feelings of worth. It is important to remember though, that sometimes it isn’t safe for a client to be vulnerable, either because the client isn’t ready to deal with a negative outcome, or the person receiving the vulnerability cannot respond with compassion. Your job as a clinician is to educate your client about the research on vulnerability, validate their fears in reaching out, and work with the couple to take appropriately-timed and vulnerable risks with each other. Remember, being vulnerable isn’t easy, but it is associated with feeling connected and worthy of love, an essential element of our humanity.

References

Brown, B. (2010). The power of vulnerability [Video file]. TEDTalk.

Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and

            Confidence. New York, NY: Harmony Publishing.

Johnson, S. M. (2002). Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors:

            Strengthening Attachment Bonds. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.

Johnson, S. M. (2004). The practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating

            connection (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.

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