Vulnerability, The Last Taboo?

1024px-Forbidden_fruitIn fragile times, it’s often our most intimate and close relationships that suffer. Intimacy is the glue, the enhancer that gives us the drive to connect, and in many situations, also the factor that can be a passion killer for some and the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

I have been reflecting a lot recently on what it means to be intimate with someone, what vulnerability is and how honesty plays a role in all of this. This of course in turn affects the way we can approach sex, but of course not all of our relationships are sexual or erotic, but that doesn’t have to mean they lack intimacy. Intimacy has many faces which can be misunderstood or worse still, ignored when we only relate to intimacy as something sexual or erotic. Intimacy is the essence, the determining factor that decides how close someone gets to us and what we’re prepared to do or share to maintain it.

Intimacy comes from sharing and bonding. People share and bond in hundreds of ways; from a drink at the pub, to a long lazy dinner, a friendship that has been cultivated over years, a cry on a shoulder, a rewarding hug, a sporting win  or a love of the same activities, revealing a truth about yourself that you trust another person to take care of, asking for help , asking for attention or allowing yourself to be seen as you really are, flaws and all, in the hope that you won’t be judged for it.

Whilst most of us have these requirements at different stages in our lives, very few are able to acknowledge this need within ourselves, let alone share it with others. It can often be the core of a nagging internal voice that manifests as only a hum or faint murmur rather than bolt of clarity. It can also be the trigger that releases aggressive outbursts, where words said, are later regretted because it’s easier to cast the uncomfortable sensation / feeling out and onto another, than to claim it as our own. It’s easier to blame others than to take a little agency, and while at times this is effective; what is the long-term cost? When this is the perpetual default setting, there is no recourse. Your default setting is powerlessness.

The rise of anxiety among not only Australians, but Westerners in general as a primary emotional default saddens me, but does not surprise me. We have become less and less intimate, less and less able to acknowledge our own feelings and thus less able to share with others, or learn how to listen to others without judging, being judged or feeling attacked.

While I generally tend to avoid binaries of any kind as a measure for looking at the world, it seems when it comes to emotions, we have only two options. We either allow them to be there, accept them, in all their discomfort and learn to work with them rather than against them; (thus having control over them or even better still, a relationship with them), or we can ignore them. (The latter in my experience can only last for so long before manifestations of ill health become apparent; excessive anxiety, delusion, sleeplessness, depression and a general corrosion of relationships as a result of any one or all of these things).

Shakespeare grasped the ultimate quandary: To Be Or Not To Be, that IS in fact the ultimate question, the question that hundreds of years later we still philosophically ponder, yet most of us avoid answering for the sheer terror of facing our internal truth, our shadow, that which makes us vulnerable.

So what is this vulnerability that can make even the most mighty a quivering wreck, or the mostfeeble a guilt-ridden avoider, keen to maintain the facade or status quo at any price, even their own well-being?

Vulnerability for many may be the shadow, the hidden that which dare not be revealed, OR it may also be the default, wherein manipulation and carelessness can take centre stage to avoid speaking a truth that is more confronting, potentially freeing but also downright terrifying to the inexperienced.

The vulnerability I am talking about here is the genuine kind, not the ‘tantrum’ or ‘drama’ kind where the protagonist is actually quite capable of helping themselves, but prefers instead to use manipulation or passive/ aggressive tactics to get their needs met consciously or unconsciously. True vulnerability  is acknowledging what is actually going on in the relationship in question, whether the relationship is with the Self or another. Vulnerability is a resource to actually achieve a mutually beneficial outcome rather than as a tool to wage messy, dirty conflict.

Vulnerability needn’t equate to meekness. Being vulnerable is actually one of the most assertive things I for one have ever done. Having the gumption to tell someone I love them, to tell them I miss them to tell them I am angry with them is absolutely fucking terrifying when I don’t know whether or not I will be heard or acknowledged. (This of course requires that such statements are made as declarations rather than ultimatums or any kind of manipulation). Acknowledgement of another person’s feelings is a vital part of communication and creating intimacy through vulnerability. If / when you acknowledge that you are actually valuable in another person’s life, you are then compelled to be responsible for your own responses and behaviour toward them. Acknowledging responsibility is an act of both vulnerability and power. Pretending it doesn’t matter that someone you’re close to just told you how they feel is not only inharmonious, it’s also a form of rejection and an inhibitor to intimacy. They wouldn’t have been close to you in the first place if you didn’t actually care about them.

For example, we can all think of situations where for one reason or another we have wanted, or even needed to be taken care of in some way, shape or form, to be soothed if you like, or just supported and appreciated for a day, a night, a month, a life time. Where a need to be understood was crucial, but where the ability to recognise that need was impossible because the mere thought of allowing such a realisation was too much to bear. It was only with hindsight that we realised what we needed, but were too fearful to acknowledge it; instead judging our own feeling for example as ‘weak’ or ‘inappropriate’, rather than seeing it for what it is, a basic human desire to be understood and acknowledged. Somehow to admit our humanness is weak, animalistic or  dangerous. My belief is that not acknowledging our feelings is far, far more dangerous. As my dear friend Cath says: What you resist; persists! I can think of few cases where this is not a universal truth. When your strongest motivator is actually also your blind spot, communication can get very very messy.

So where do we go from here? The concept of acceptance has been around for a long time, thousands of years in fact. Buddhists cottoned-on to it millennia ago, and have been its greatest advocates ever since. Recently psychologists have decided it’s OK too, even beyond OK, downright effective! Good stuff! So we finally have science and spirit intersecting. (For the atheists who walk among us, substitute the word ‘spirit ‘for ‘feeling’ instead). So, what does this mean for us lay-people? It means two things that I can see so far. One is, we have one of the most powerful tools available to us to give ourselves the leverage to get a bit real with ourselves and stop pissing-about on the edges. And two, it enables us to understand that being honest with ourselves first, and then with others (whilst being a bit scary at times), is actually a very assertive practice, and at times a whole lot harder than running in on the defensive, but ultimately more fulfilling and anxiety reducing.

Are you more powerful when you act or re-act? Who is more powerful,  the initiator or the reactor? When it comes to relationships (not just sexual ones, remember?) the most effective work can be achieved when we take action, rather than just re-action. When our default is thoughtful, emotive and inspired rather than an act of defence strategy and one-upping, we are operating from a place of creativity and agency.


Here’s the thing a wise teacher once asked me and I will ask you:

Do you want to be right? OR Do you want to be close?

Depending on your values, you may struggle with choosing between what may seem to be opposing alternatives. Sometimes (but not always) you can’t be both. Sometimes you just have to accept what is there, without judging it. Your answer to that question may actually be a cause of vulnerability for you… and so the cycle starts again.

The old adage we teach what we most need to learn rings absolutely true. I have spent years working through issues of accepting and embracing my vulnerability. It’s still a challenge for me, but I’ve been practicing for years and it gets better and easier. Believe me. I spent years feeling nervous, anxious and profoundly deranged trying to keep all the plates spinning, while trying to look cool as a cucumber. Will I ever have it totally mastered? Probably not! But then again, I don’t know that mastering emotions is the kind of goal I am looking to achieve anyway. Emotions by their very nature are erratic and arousing. Some are pleasant, others are not. But emotions in their essence are a necessary part of life, as necessary and water, air, food and sleep, yet these things are not judged as invalid, in the way that emotions often are.

Feelings add value, colour and texture to what would otherwise be rather rudimentary and cardboard lives. Why would anyone want to dominate the one thing that gives their life its authenticity, its spark and its vigour? Conversely, being a slave to one’s emotions is also unsavoury and potentially deadly. Common Sense is called common sense for a reason. It’s everywhere and everyone has access to it… in theory at least! Learning to allow access to feelings, process them and foster acceptance is where the magic lies.

Find the edge, find the distance you’re prepared to get to, wait and see. Don’t judge it, don’t push it. Just wait and see…What can you see? Let me know.