This Post is Probably Going to Make You Uncomfortable
Updated: Jan 27
Healthy relationships require vulnerability. Vulnerability is the willingness to share with another person (in this context your significant other) what you are experiencing inside -- in other words, how you are feeling. Not just what you are feeling in the moment, but what that's really about, what's actually going on.
Many of the emotions we experience moment to moment are just disguises for a deeper emotion that is extremely painful. In fact many of your emotions exist at least partly for the purpose of covering up this deeper emotion. That deeper emotion is shame.
Guilt is a feeling that says, "I've done something bad." Shame, on the other hand, says, "I am bad." I am broken. I am unlovable. If you really knew me, you couldn't love me, or respect me, or think I'm worth being friends with or hanging around.
Shame is a feeling of something deeply broken at the core of your being.
And we all have it. Every single one of us. You have it. That confident-seeming person at the office has it. Your friends have it. Your religious icons and leaders have it. Everyone has it. That means I have it too.
This is where this post may become uncomfortable for you. Because I am going to share with you an experience I had a few weeks ago with shame. Talking about shame requires vulnerability. So I'm about to make myself vulnerable in a way you may not be used to, because we so routinely cover up our shame with other things. But I have always believed in my work that it's about walking the talk more than any other single thing. It's about striving to be the people we dream of helping our clients become.
I'm terrible with home maintenance. And car maintenance. Basically I can't fix anything. The problem is the way I think. If a problem is very mental, very heady and complex and abstract, involves people and relationships, and requires being able to think from a thousand different perspectives, synthesize those perspectives, and arrive at workable steps forward, I'm your guy. But if it's about doing something in the real world with your hands -- building, fixing, creating, etc. -- I'm clueless. I don't know how else to explain how serious it is other than to say the things I often do when I'm trying to fix things would fit perfectly in a Three Stooges movie. It's honestly comic -- except to me, of course, because I feel such shame about it. No man wants to be swinging a hammer or sawing a board, catch a sudden glimpse of himself in his mind's eye, and realize, "Oh my god. I'm Moe."
No matter how much I tell myself, "That's okay -- you can be a man and not know how to build and fix things," it's still frustrating and embarrassing. The thing is, I really do believe my not being able to fix things has nothing to do with my masculinity, but in spite of that sincere belief, I have this deep insecurity about it, as if it means I'm essentially broken, and less valuable than other people. That's shame talking.
So a few weeks ago I'm helping my wife do a project in our home. My wife and I work well together because she's brilliant in these very practical areas of life, so she tells me what to do and I do it, and usually we're both happy. But she's under 5" tall, and this project was up very high, and she wasn't able to do much with it, so there was part of it that was largely up to me, and I was making one ridiculous mistake after another.
After making yet another stupid mistake, I realized I needed to come down off the ladder and get something. Frustrated and tense, at the bottom of the ladder I tripped, falling into the ladder, screws and washers on the top rung 5' above raining down on me, my drill narrowly avoiding my head.
I felt anger welling up from deep inside, the temptation to throw something, or punch a wall, or curse growing more and more powerful by the second. This is what I would usually have done as a younger man. But not this time.
This time I took a breath, closed my eyes, and just plunked my head against the leg of the ladder. My wife, who had been sitting on the bed reading, said, "Are you okay?"
"No," I said quietly. "I'm not okay. I'm ashamed. I'm ashamed because I want to impress you. I want you to think I'm awesome at whatever I do. I want to make you proud of me. But I'm so terrible at these things, and when I try to do them, I fail over and over and over again, and I nearly always fail in front of you -- the person whose approval I most crave."
I wasn't surprised at her gracious reply.
"Honey, I love you! I approve of you! I'm so proud of who you are! It's okay that you aren't good at things like this. You try hard for us, and you're amazing at the things you have dedicated your life to."
"Thanks," I said dolefully. "I know that's how you feel and I appreciate it. But here I am again -- looking like an idiot in front of the person I most love and want to impress, and standing here needing grace, and reassurance that I'm valuable."
That's vulnerability. Vulnerability doesn't seek to make a situation anything other than what it is, even when what it is, honestly, is deeply painful.
We're all ashamed about something, and on top of that we're ashamed that we're ashamed, and that we need to be reassured of what we think we should already know -- that our defects and flaws don't diminish us as human beings. That we're still worthy of the love and respect of others. Most of us say we know this, but in our shame we lose sight of it.
I wanted to be angry and lash out that day. I wanted to stomp around and curse, to feel the surge of adrenaline, and feed off that sense of power. Because we'd rather feel powerful, even if we're just pretending, than experience the humiliation of shame. That's why admitting our shame requires vulnerability. And vulnerability requires courage. Most of us don't have much courage. But the more we learn to resist the lure of anger, indignance, and the "power" emotions that hide our shame -- the more we can admit to what's really going on -- the more our significant other is drawn to us. The power emotions put up walls and say, "I'm angry and strong and I might hurt you right now. I'm a little bit unhinged." Vulnerability allows people to see our shame, that in those moments we in fact are not powerful, but hurt, humiliated, and in need of reassurance.
I did it right coming off that ladder a few weeks ago. I may well do it wrong another fifty times before I do it right again. But I'm learning. I want to be vulnerable, willing to be honest with myself and my partner about who I am and how I feel, even when it means I don't look strong.
As a counselor, that's what I hope to help you learn too.