For so long, behavioral psychologists have told distressed couples that they all they needed was better “communication skills.” The theory was that if people could just use “I” statements and use active listening, that their conflict would stop. According to new research by Ronald Rogge at the University of Rochester, this myth is busted. It’s not that couples don’t have these skills — they do — it’s that they can’t access them when they’re in conflict, when they’re panicking about the security of their attachment to their loved one. Or, as Sue Johnson explained, “distressed partners who constantly break all the rules of good communication in my couple sessions [can] show exquisitely honed listening and empathy skills with my receptionist.” This, of course, can be maddening for partners who wonder, “how come you can be so nice, generous, and emotionally present with this other person, but not me!?”
So, why do skills not work? Sue theorizes that practicing skills requires us to be up in our heads, thinking about the “steps” rather than feeling the beat of the emotional music. A husband may be saying the right things, but the emotional disconnect keeps it from being meaningful, keeps it from really soothing his distressed wife. Without being emotionally present, we might say soft things, but our face, our tone, our body language may still convey distance, anger, or other invulnerability to our partner. As Sue says, “We have to learn, in real interactions, how to send the heart messages that touch our loved one and move them to care.”
Dr. Brene Brown is a researcher who studies vulnerability…who hates vulnerability. Like a lot of us, Dr. Brown struggles with shame, self-judgment, and a sense of weakness when discussing her perceived failings and vulnerable emotions. Her storytelling prowess, hard-won authenticity, and self-deprecating humor make her a powerful advocate for treasuring the parts of ourselves we most want to hide.
These two devastatingly funny, heartfelt TED talks do a wonderful job of explaining how critical vulnerability is to our relationships with our selves and being authentic and how vulnerability and emotional risk is ultimately the thing that creates connection and safety with others.
Another great video from Dr. Brene Brown reviews the costs of avoiding vulnerability. When we're afraid to be vulnerable:
"Joy becomes foreboding—something good happens and we become compelled to beat vulnerability to the punch."
"Disappointment becomes a lifestyle…it's easier to live disappointed than to feel disappointed."
And, of course, we numb out. But as Brene reminds us, "you cannot selectively numb emotion." Numbing our pain and fear also means numbing the joy, love, safety, happiness, pride, and closeness that we could be feeling…and without that, we lose all the good things that can help us hang on through the hard times, all the things that make life meaningful.
This clip explores the toxic pressures on men to hide their feelings and how we (still!!) give boys and men the sense that they must be completely invulnerable in order to be masculine. This seems to be a key reason so many men shut down and withdraw with their partners, out of the fear that they'll be seen as weak or unattractive if they share their vulnerable feelings and needs with their loved ones.
In EFT, we often talk about people as generally falling into one of two categories when they're feeling disconnected — withdrawers (those who shut down and pull back) and pursuers (those who criticize and, you guessed it, blame). That said, all of us have at times used blame as a way to "discharge pain" rather than finding the vulnerability to share hurt feelings or facing the fear of being out of control. Brene Brown's latest video talks a bit about her own experiences with blaming and how dropping coffee on yourself in the kitchen is always your partner's fault.
I came across this quote today and I wanted to share it. We have for so long been told sharing our vulnerability with others is a sign of weakness, but many of us would prefer to do just about anything than share something really vulnerable. One of my firefighter clients once told me he'd literally rather go into a burning building than tell his partner how scared he feels inside when they fight!
Being vulnerable is not only a sign of being brave and authentic, but it's also a necessary part of creating real intimacy and security. Vulnerability fuels connection. Sharing something real and tender is a big part of how we build and sustain close bonds. As those of you in EFT therapy know, we get out of the negative cycle by sharing our vulnerable feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and fear rather than hiding them behind protective walls of criticism or defensiveness.
This principle works in any close relationship. If I share something vulnerable with you, and you respond with care and understanding, I decide that you can be safe for me, which makes me more likely to open up to you in the future. "Wow — he was really kind and listened to me. I felt good sharing that with him. Maybe I can tell him more!" I learn that my sharing this part of me with you doesn't make you reject me, which helps change how I view myself. "You know the real me — even this part of me I'm not so sure about — and you still seem to like me? Maybe I'm OK after all…" Also, my sharing invites you to share something personal about yourself with me. "Wow! She really shared something vulnerable with me — maybe I can open up about this thing I've been worried about, too!" All of this creates an atmosphere of safety, acceptance, and closeness between us, a positive feedback loop where the more you share, the more I share, and we keep feeling safer and closer.