We are all aware of how fragile our emotional wellbeing can be after enduring 2020 and the first half of 2021. The losses of life, health, stability, and community have increased anxiety and depression to all-time highs. As we grieve collectively, how can we begin to heal and prevent long- lasting mental health struggles?
Harness the power of vulnerability.
When we don’t share our stories, and we keep our feelings trapped inside, we can easily begin to think we are alone – that our feelings and experiences are unique to us and therefore shameful. Shame is the feeling that we are flawed and even unlovable. Whereas guilt is the feeling that we have done something wrong, shame is the feeling that we are something wrong.
Recent studies have examined the role of shame in self-esteem, depression, addiction and other mental health issues and researchers have found that shame is a powerful emotion with wide-ranging negative effects on our mental health.
Brene Brown, a prolific sociology researcher in the areas of vulnerability and shame writes, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
Therefore, the key question becomes: How can we create times and places that are shame-extinguishing and so preventive of emotional isolation and destruction?
In our relationships, practice vulnerability.
Vulnerability involves uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Sounds scary, right? Any time you are vulnerable – any time you share your true story and your authentic self, you risk rejection. However, you also open the door to the only kind of human connection that is truly meaningful – connection that allows you to feel accepted and not alone.
Pastor and author Tim Keller writes,
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us
How do we practice vulnerability?
- Embrace your story. I work with people in therapy every week who have edited out entire chapters of their life stories because – you guessed it – they feel ashamed. They are afraid that if people really knew where they came from and what they’ve done, they would no longer be welcome in their friend’s and family’s lives. Often, they are afraid they couldn’t even live with themselves if they acknowledged some of the story lines. Unfortunately, stories with intentionally omitted plotlines leave us feeling less than whole, or unlovable.
- Explore beliefs about being vulnerable. We’ve all received messages, especially from the families we grew up in, about whether and when it’s OK to be vulnerable. When we can sort through the messages others have sent us about sharing our true selves, we gain the power to decide what messages we want to accept as truth, and which rules we want to rewrite. Maybe your family told you, about some subject (like sex, marital discord, or mental health), “We don’t talk about that.” Do you believe this now, or are you acting on a message you internalized long ago without having examined what it means to you and your relationships?
- Practice feeling vulnerable. When you intentionally put yourself in situations that expose you, you take away some of the scariness of the feeling itself. It becomes more familiar. You might consider showing up for a dance class, for example, if you’ve always wanted to learn and have never tried. That feeling you get when you are walking in, seeing the other dancers with seemingly perfect hair buns chattering with each other like old friends? That’s it; that’s vulnerability. You will feel it, and you will come through on the other side, perhaps with a new connection with yourself or even someone else.
- Expand your feelings vocabulary. Most folks who exist outside the world of counseling have a basic glossary of feelings words. Just as with learning any language, the more words we know, the more we can connect with others. Knowing how to keenly describe our feelings allows us to connect more deeply with others and share our story more accurately. You can increase feeling vocabulary by having a list of feelings handy. I like the feeling wheel https://blog.calm.com/blog/the-feelings-wheel for older children and adults.
- Share with those you trust. Sometimes our estimations that someone is trustworthy are off, and we may not get the kind of welcome we want, but this only lets us know that the person on the receiving end is not yet ready for the kind of authentic relationship we need.
Vulnerability is certainly not the only way to heal or to prevent mental health issues, but it’s a key ingredient; it’s a foundation for friendship, close family ties, and authentic community. It’s also an antidote for shame, and when we can eliminate shame, we can ask for help, deepen our relationships with family and friends, and maybe know that we are truly known and truly loved – much like being loved by God.
One way to be vulnerable is to ask for help. Ready to take that step with a trustworthy counselor? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text 281-570-9643. www.houstonfamilycounseling.org
Elizabeth Hill Arredondo, MA, LPC-S serves as director at Houston Family Counseling.