I used to think being vulnerable was a sign of weakness. I didn’t think it was particularly desirable to be weak, so the whole vulnerability thing seemed like something to avoid.
I knew I was strong and could speak up when something wasn’t right, which I didn’t hesitate to do. I wasn’t afraid to fight city hall, and I always seemed to be doing that.
But I was afraid. I was afraid to let that soft, undefended part of me show. I was afraid that part of me was repulsive. I didn’t like feeling so exposed.
I still don’t, if I’m honest.
But I love the part right after I run through the waterfall of fear and find out what’s on the other side.
Anything could happen because I’m not controlling my image. And I’ve never known anything more gratifying than feeling loved for being my most authentic self, even if I’m a mess.
Now that I know how it feels to be completely exposed and feel loved anyway, I wouldn’t want to live any other way.
Now, I actually go out of my way to be vulnerable.
After spending the first twenty-something years of my life as a steamroller who rolled right over whatever threatened me, this is how I finally got there:
I used the language of vulnerability. I use it because it reminds me who I want to be.
Here are the phrases I rely on to help me get vulnerable, which I now consider essential for intimacy:
1. “I miss you”
I’ve stood arms akimbo and insisted that my husband needed to spend more time with me. I told him that he needed to work on our relationship. I’ve told him that I was sick of him always being gone and that I really thought he watched too much TV.
None of that got me the attention I was seeking from my husband. Or anybody else, for that matter. But then, you already knew that.
But these three magical words did, “I miss you.”
It’s vulnerability wrapped in a compliment. It’s speaking for myself without making demands, without complaint, without criticism.
And it gets the desired results.
My husband once flew home a day early at great expense because I uttered those three words. I was so happy to see him, and he was just as eager to see me.
2. “I can’t”
I like having that “can-do” feeling. Growing up, my siblings and I chanted what we were told, “I can do anything.”
I can do anything but it gets exhausting and lonely sometimes. I can do anything, but I can’t do everything.
When I’m doing anything, I generally need help. Very often I also need a nap.
Once I crash into my limits without first applying the brakes, there’s hell to pay. If my energy account is overdrawn, I have nothing left to give and I get ornery and unpleasant.
So if I overdo it, it’s goodbye good-natured Laura and hello Godzilla.
If, on the other hand, I look down the road and see that I’m getting low on reserves, I can make a different choice.
Instead of flying headlong into a resentment, or loitering at the center for self-righteousness, I can use these two empowering words: I can’t.
That’s it. No explanation necessary. I don’t need to go into the details about how, if I carpool I’m going to be overtired and won’t have enough time to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer.
I can’t is my short-hand for “I can’t do that and still get all the self-care I need to keep myself happy.”
But I don’t usually share all of that. I just keep it simple: I can’t.
I know, it seems like I’m wussing out.
You might be thinking, why not say, “I don’t want to?”
“I don’t want to” just doesn’t cut muster when I’m defending my squishy little needs. I thought it was more valiant to push through and ignore them, but it made me impatient and mean. I can’t go there and still feel good about myself.
As a mere mortal woman I have limits, and while it feels vulnerable to honor them, it also feels self-respecting.
It’s been thrilling to realize I’m still lovable—even more than superwoman is.
It was never my accomplishments that made me so adorable. It’s just me, just the way I am.
There’s nothing more gratifying than experiencing that.
My husband hurts my feelings sometimes.
Not very often anymore, I admit, but as human beings living in close proximity that’s going to happen occasionally.
When he does, my knee-jerk reaction is to strike back; To retort, to show him why he’s wrong and offer 100 airtight defenses along with a subtle but sharp insult.
But these days I’m much more likely to utter just one word. “Ouch!”
It’s frightening to say because it means admitting he’s landed on a tender spot, but I prefer that now to putting up my dukes.
I’m not the big fighter I used to be. I ended up lonely and emotionally hung over afterward.
With the vulnerable approach, I’m choosing the intimacy over my impulse to hit back.
I’m opening myself up to further hurt, yes, but “Ouch!” lets me preserve the emotional safety, keeps me from lobbing hurtful words back at him, and gives him the opportunity (which he often takes) to respond softly and tenderly.
He doesn’t really want to hurt me. He wants to love me. Even if I’m oversensitive or hormonal.
Nothing could demonstrate that to me more than seeing how sweetly he responds when I don’t defend, but just let myself be utterly vulnerable.
That’s when I feel most lavishly, intensely and thoroughly loved.