I talk a lot about emotional vulnerability and how it is important for connection. One of the ways people often push back against that idea is to discuss their need for safety. In their minds they have come to the conclusion that the way to feel safe is to limit vulnerability. The downside is that they also limit their ability to have meaningful, emotional connection with others.
While it is true that not being vulnerable can create more safety…or at least the illusion of safety, there is another alternative. The alternative is to be selective about where you choose to be vulnerable.
Let me use an analogy. Assuming I’m not wearing some sort of body armor or inside of a tank, I’m vulnerable to bullets. They have the potential to do serious harm to my body. However, even though I am vulnerable, when I walk down the sidewalk in my neighborhood I feel safe from bullets. I haven’t done anything to protect myself other than choose where to walk. Compare that to walking across a battlefield. I wouldn’t feel safe at all. I have the same level of vulnerability – bullets still affect me in the same way. The difference is where I am choosing to vulnerable.
An alternative could be to wear body armor all of the time. Then I would never have to worry about where I was. But just imagine how that would impact the people in my neighborhood? How many do you think would want to connect with me? The guy walking down the sidewalk of a quiet residential neighborhood in full body armor. I doubt that I’d make many friends.
Ideally what I’d do is not wear the body armor where I don’t need it, like in my neighborhood, and wear it where I know my safety is at risk – on the battlefield. That works because I’m more likely to be trying to make personal connections in my neighborhood than I am in the middle of the battlefield. I expose and protect my vulnerability based on the level of safety.
Emotional vulnerability is the same. It isn’t an all or nothing proposition. While emotional vulnerability is important, be smart about where you expose it and where you wear your “emotional armor.” Wearing it all of the time will block the connections you want while never wearing it will leave you open to the potential of unnecessary hurt.
There is a flip side to the connection equation. If you want emotional connection with someone, what are you doing to create a sense of safety? When they make themselves emotionally vulnerable are you responding peacefully or do you let emotional bullets fly? Those bullets may come in many ways. They might be direct criticism of the person or their emotions. They might be more subtle such as trying to “persuade” the person to change their emotions through, sometimes incessant, logical debate. What they aren’t is a reaction that makes the person feel it is okay to be vulnerable and not fear being criticized, berated, invalidated or otherwise hurt.
Think about your part in the vulnerability and safety dynamic in your relationships. Do you know when to feel safe without your emotional armor and when to keep it on? Are you doing your part to provide safety? Your ability to do both are what makes real connection. Safety and vulnerability don’t work against each other… they go hand in glove.