Many of you reading these words will be in some way like me: We learned very early on in life to close our vulnerability, because we were in an environment that wasn’t safe to expose certain parts of ourselves. We were judged, shamed, ridiculed, or punished for authentically being. Given such circumstances, learning to close off essential aspects of ourselves was a matter of inner survival.
I know that personally, I got so good at hiding my vulnerability that I nearly forgot I was actually doing it, and the process of first recognizing what I had lost (or buried), then excavating it, was quite intense.
Perhaps you can relate.
But even more fascinating is the process of learning how to bring that vulnerability back out into the open, to embody it in our relationships and in our life.
Today I want to share an incredibly simple technique or concept that can be extremely powerful in guiding us towards healthy, healing, conscious vulnerability.
It centres around one very important distinction: Discerning who is actually safe to be vulnerable with, and who is not.
This is so incredibly important - as we access and re-open our vulnerability, we absolutely must also be developing the capacity to care for and protect that raw part of ourselves. In other words, healthy vulnerability requires healthy boundaries. Without them - without that capacity to take care of ourselves - we are likely to stumble into the same painful and overwhelming scenarios that created our initial wounds and closed us off in the first place.
So, allow me introduce this concept/technique:
Two words adequately describe this method, which I personally was practicing at some level for several years before I found it crystallized in such a precise, minimalist form by Charles Whitfield in his classic book “Healing The Child Within”. I was very happy to discover how Whitfield had distilled what can sometimes be a tricky discernment process into such a clear form.
You can try this method in any relationship or connection, wether it’s a totally new person you’re interacting with (a new friend, lover or coworker), or a deeply habituated relationship that you desire to bring more of your true self into (Family, old friendships, a well established intimate partner).
Here’s how it works:
The first step is as simple as it sounds: Share some of your authentic self. You don’t need to go ten out of ten with the openness here, in fact to begin with it is sometimes best to really just be natural and show up as yourself in the interaction, and let that be the depth of your sharing.
As your interaction moves along, you periodically check and ask yourself how the person you’re interacting with is responding to your authenticity. Specifically, are they rejecting or betraying your authenticity/vulnerability. When you show your realness, do they respond with support, empathy, receptivity and acceptance? Or, do they shut down, use sarcasm or cynicism, try to change the subject, judge, shame, project, criticize or otherwise reject your truth?
If they’re reacted to your authenticity with support and warm acceptance (at the very bare minimum), or authentic empathy and reciprocal vulnerability (now that's more like it!) you got a green light, and it’s safe to continue and explore being even more authentic and vulnerable with them - let the sharing proceed!
If they rejected you, however, you got a red light, and that means opening up further with them is not wise. You can test them again if you’re unsure, but do so without exposing yourself more deeply if that’s possible. And understand that there are many subtleties to this process - as we refine our expectations, what might have been an acceptable reaction previously isn't anymore. It's no longer enough to have someone to stoically but silently support you without opening up their heart to join you. We're ultimately looking for connections where it's not just safe to be open and vulnerable, it's openly encouraged and reciprocated.
Most of the time, getting a red light means it's best to pull back, keep things to a certain level, or disengage.
This is so important because while experiencing conscious, healthy vulnerability with a safe, open-hearted person is possibly one of the most wonderful things about being human, opening up our vulnerability and having it be rejected is very unpleasant (at best) - and it can reinforce the very patterns we are seeking to extract ourselves from, repeating old wounds.
Okay, back to the process...
So, if you shared some of your authentic self, and when you checked in you got a green light, it’s safe to share a bit more, then continue checking and sharing as is appropriate.
This is really just a way of being conscious and having healthy discernment/boundaries in an interaction. However, many of us need to re-learn how to do something that is so basic and fundamental, and part of that re-learning can, at times, feel very clumsy and awkward.
We can bump up against emotional addictions, barely conscious patterns and habits that make it difficult to execute something so simple and straightforward in the heat of the moment.
That’s why having a simple concept or structure like the Share/Check method can be so helpful. The sharing part is really kind of automatic, it will happen so long as we’re showing up in any interaction. It’s the checking - and checking specifically to see if we are being received/reciprocated or rejected, then knowing to step back or move forward accordingly - that’s so useful.
It wouldn’t feel complete to end this post without a personal example of me putting this method into practice to give a little context, so allow me to share:
I was on a first date some time ago, and didn’t know a lot about the woman I was meeting. We’d exchanged a few texts, but decided to meet in person more quickly than I normally would. In fact, normally I would have a very meticulous screening process to determine of someone was a good match, something I take so seriously I sometimes jokingly call it "extreme vetting." On this occasion, however, I was conducting somewhat of an experiment (that I might blog about at a future date), and agreed to meet this person without either of us knowing a great deal about one another.
When we met to go for a walk along the ocean, I noticed immediately that my date was very much in her head, for lack of better words. Where I am very much a feeling oriented person who likes long pauses in conversation to understand what’s going on at an emotional or energetic level, she launched into talking and continued without pause. Not a good sign.
We had chemistry conversationally, but I couldn’t really feel any chemistry at other levels, because it was as though the only aspects of us present in the interaction were our brains. The rest of our beings were shut out.
I brought this up to her in a light way, which she was receptive to and open to exploring. I suggested we sit down and talk about what we were feeling in the moment, which helped me feel much more present. For her, this was uncomfortable and ultimately something she wasn’t interested in, as it would require she stretch way out of her usual way of being. I understood, and acknowledged that I had gotten my first red light: I had shared my authentic perception (which made it possible for us to connect more deeply, if she should choose to engage), and she wasn’t able to reciprocate at a certain level.
I wasn’t hurt or disappointed, this was just us finding out who each other is. I now knew not to share more deeply.
It got a bit more interesting when we continued to talk, and I shared a recent experience that revealed my practice of studying my life for synchronicity (aka my metaphysical view of physical life), and she suddenly developed a scowl across her face. As it turned out, she was a devout Atheist (okay, devout is probably the wrong word here, but you get the idea), and me sharing anything slightly metaphysical automatically brought out a very harsh, judgemental side of her.
After awkwardly stumbling around this rift between us, I tried to be kind and said “I guess we can respectfully disagree here...” then I looked over and saw/felt the level of judgement she was exuding, and corrected myself: “Okay, maybe not so much respectful.”
She replied, “Yea, not so much respectful.”
At this point, my red flag turned into a flaming signpost, and what before felt like a “step back” situation was made bold, underlined, and marked with a few exclamation points.
There was a pang, a sick feeling in my gut, my inner child was confused, overwhelmed, almost dizzy from the sting of judgement.
Then, I stepped in - I was present to my vulnerability all through this time, and ready to swoop in and wrap my arms around that part of myself, closing my vulnerability off to this person as was (obviously) appropriate.
I stepped out of our interaction for a minute or two, and processed all that was happening in me - the tenderness aching and protective reaction surrounding it. After a few minutes of this process, I was able to move forward with clarity and with a protected heart.
Feeling that judgement for even a second was absolutely horrible - but being able to hold myself and protect my heart in that situation was awesome.
This might sound insignificant, but if you knew my personal history, you’d feel differently.
Ten years ago, I would open up to women I was attracted to in much deeper ways, receive much deeper rejection, and then betray myself by burying my pain and continuing to open myself to them.
And to be very clear - this was not their fault. My date above, for example, was just being herself. She was being honest - her honesty didn't feel very good to be around (it was rude, judgemental and closed-minded), but it's my job to see that and head for the exit or close my vulnerability. It's on me to take care of myself.
My old pattern of continuing to open up when all the signs scream NO is of course not uncommon. As a facilitator, I see it in the vast majority of my clients, personally I see it in my friends, acquaintances and strangers. And it often takes someone outside of us to point it out and hold a better alternative.
I shared an example here of having my truth rejected, however when we are actually received at a deep level, it’s like stepping into heaven. I'm not sure I've personally experienced anything more beautiful.
But, I want to emphasize that exercising our boundaries and discernment is also incredibly profound - it's by doing so that we navigate towards those extraordinary open hearted connections.
Share/Check isn’t a terribly romantic or spiritual phrase, but it works, and that’s what matters. It’s one of many tools for opening and protecting our hearts, for finding how and where that can happen in the complexity of life, and it’s a great one.
That's it for today everyone, thanks for reading and if you have any thoughts, stories, feedback or questions, leave them in the comments below!
Or, if they’re too vulnerable for that, send me a message directly ;)