March 14, 2012

Entering into Intimate Relationships

One of the biggest payoffs of learning to trust (ourselves and others) and embracing vulnerability is intimacy, which is something we are built to need and crave. Before we delve into the work of identifying the reasons why we avoid intimacy and how to break free of the patterns that are keeping us from experiencing all of the goodness that comes from intimate relationships, let’s spend some time considering what intimacy is. After all, if we do not know what it is, how will we know when we have it?! Once, I came across this definition of intimacy that I really liked:
"Private and personal knowledge detailed and obtained by much study or experience."
Intimacy involves both the ability to give and receive love and grows over time as we have experiences with or “study” the person we are connecting with. One of the main problems we experience having been hurt in the past, however, is that we tend to jump ship well before any of that can happen. Thus, our relationships remain superficial – never delving into detailed private and personal sharing. Why is that? Why do we avoid intimacy like it is the plague? We have a whole host of fears and false beliefs that need to be challenged and unraveled in order to break free from the isolation that occurs when we avoid intimacy, such as (from Shelter from the Storm):
  • Intimacy means that we blindly trust people.
  • Intimacy means physical or emotional isolation.
  • Intimacy means betrayal.
  • Intimacy means agreeing with another person when you know that person is not right.
  • Intimacy means disclosing private or personal information when you do not want or wish to.
  • Intimacy means abuse.
Based on the fact that we need and desire intimacy, when we try to avoid or detach from this need, we usually compensate in some way. We engage in various behaviors to avoid intimacy (adapted from Shelter from the Storm):
  • Substituting (e.g. perfectionism, false compassion, attention demanding behavior)
  • Compulsive Behaviors (e.g. eating, smoking, shopping, sex, work, religion, TV)
  • Suppressing the Need
  • Fantasy
  • Self-pity
  • Anger
  • Unforgiveness/Rigidity
  • A Judgmental Attitude
  • Over-scheduling
We engage in all of these behaviors because we are trying to avoid the loss that comes when intimate relationships end or because of the false beliefs we have about what comes along with intimacy. Answer the next question: By never entering into intimate relationships, I get to avoid… But consider this: any behavior we use to avoid losing, actually causes us to lose! We have seen time and again the costs of trying to outrun or ignore any of our basic human needs. Answer this question: By never entering into intimate relationships, I never get to experience… One of the biggest reasons we avoid intimate relationships is that we ourselves do not know how to engage in a healthy way. We either isolate ourselves or become possessive or smothering should we connect with someone.

Remember that intimacy includes the ability to both give and receive love. If we are isolating ourselves from others, there is no opportunity for an exchange. If we are possessive and smothering, then we are stuck in a mode of only taking and not giving. Our needs are center stage and the other person is being held accountable to make sure that we are constantly reassured, comforted, and paid attention to.

Furthermore, if we are engaging in any of these behaviors, we are also, once again, on the control wagon! By either managing ourselves or others, we are hoping to eliminate the risks that come along with intimacy.

To begin the process of first identifying what intimacy is for you, I encourage you to create an “Intimacy Is…” collage. You can go whole hog and whip out magazines, glue stick, and construction paper or you can create a spreadsheet. The important thing is that you spend some time reflecting on what you would like to know and believe about intimacy – e.g. Intimacy is a walk on the beach, adventure, a risk worth taking, pillow talk.

March 7, 2012

Embracing Vulnerability

"Any sign of weakness or vulnerability is unthinkable. If others discover we are weak, they will have power over us and this knowledge will be used against us." ~from Shelter from the Storm
Life can sometimes feel like a battlefield. We become like warriors, constantly striving to guard ourselves from being wounded or hurt. In fact, by definition, being vulnerable means to be capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt! Is it any wonder that we resist vulnerability with such adamant force?!

Many of us have experienced very real moments when our weakness, naivety, lack of control or power were fully used against us. Once we escaped the experience, we became determined to never be used in such a way again. In addition, we lost all sense of safety and security, which needs to be present in order to embrace vulnerability. In an effort to regain a sense of safety and security, we typically abandon vulnerability and instead take up our swords of control. Same song, different day, right?

Our need to control outcomes drives so many of our behaviors. This, however, is where we make the greatest error. Control only provides a false sense of security – an illusion! Whereas, through the openness and sensitivity that vulnerability requires, we develop deeper and stronger connections that can be relied upon and trusted.

Besides, what a false belief it is to think that we are not vulnerable? All of us, no matter what we do, are capable of being physically or emotionally wounded. There is no escaping vulnerability, so we might as well embrace it and use it to our own benefit.

But how?

First, we need to identify and challenge the false beliefs that we have developed around vulnerability. You can start by answering these questions:

If I am vulnerable, it means that…
When I consider being vulnerable, I think or feel…

Next, to be exposed (vulnerable) means to be open and susceptible to harm. But, it also means that we will be open and susceptible to many wonderful things as well! What are the good things you become open to or gain access to by being vulnerable?

I am not advocating that we let down the drawbridge for just anyone, but I am asking that we at least remove the rusted chains and locks so that we can invite others in when the time comes in order to experience these things.

Thirdly, it is important that we consider who and what we are opening ourselves up to! Many of our fears of being vulnerable (e.g. our belief that to need another person means to be powerless) have been reinforced by our own bad choices. Now, we do not need to feel guilty or ashamed about that, but we do need to take responsibility for the fact that openness and vulnerability may not actually be the culprits here. The real problem may be who or what we are choosing to be open to!  

A new skill to develop then is the ability to control for the risks involved, which I want to distinguish from “being controlling.” The former involves evaluating a situation and others and considering how we might manage for or reduce the risk. The latter involves trying to manipulate or change a person or circumstances so as to eliminate all risk. Essentially, it is the difference between being “in control” and “being controlling.”   

Finally, we need to understand, I mean really understand, that there is always a risk involved in everything we do and in every relationship. But, without risk, there is no reward. Check out this additional definition of vulnerability in the context of a bridge game:
“liable to increased penalties but entitled to increased bonuses after winning a game in contract bridge” ~Merriam-Webster Dictionary
I love that! To be vulnerable in this card game means that you will likely experience penalties but you are also promised increased bonuses after winning. In the game of life that we are playing, to be vulnerable means that we will likely experience disappointments and hurts – there is a risk – but we are also entitled to payoffs. These include intimacy, connection, adventure, authenticity, joy, and independence – lots of bonuses!

I encourage you to pick out an area of life where you are over-controlling. What would it be like to give up some control and instead embrace vulnerability? What steps would you need to take to let down your drawbridge?

For an additional perspective on vulnerability, watch “The Power of Vulnerability.”  

  • How have you avoided being vulnerable and instead used control to gain a sense of safety and security in your relationships? (Example: I always want to decide what we are going to do and when.)
  • What is the impact on you or others as a result of avoiding vulnerability and instead trying to control? (Example: There is tension, distrust, and a lack of connection.)
  • What choices have you been making, risks have you been taking that reinforce your false beliefs about vulnerability?

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