Earning Vulnerability

Excavating and exploring the painful parts of ourselves with self-compassion is needed before we offer our vulnerability to another.

It was a second date. The first one involved coffee and the kind of conversation typical of strangers: What kind of work do you do? Only child or one of many? Cat or dog lover? Do you prefer beaches or mountains? But *Mike, recently divorced with two girls under the age of 10, felt the questions lacking. He hadn’t wanted his twelve-year marriage to end yet felt lonelier in the marriage than on his own. He felt an urgency to get past the seemingly trivial “get to know you” questions and delve into “the stuff” of intimate relationships.

“I was low-hanging fruit. This was my first date out of the divorce gate.”

So, on this date, hungry for affection and connection, Mike didn’t waste any time on the second date. Before their appetizers arrived, he told her…well everything but the kitchen sink: his low testosterone level, the frequent verbal put downs he experienced from his ex in their marriage, his belief that his ex-wife treated their daughters like pawns to “get at him.” 

“I thought our date went well. I gave her a respectful kiss on the cheek and a hug. But she’s not returning any of my texts, and her phone goes right to voicemail when I call.”

Poor Mike. 

“I don’t understand. I thought women like it when a man is vulnerable. Did I scare her off? Am I supposed to act like some Alpha male? What do women want?”

There’s a famous quote by the late and great author, Dr. Wayne Dyer:

“You do not attract what you want. You attract what you are.”

Vulnerability has two sides: the willingness to look within and the willingness to be seen or known by another. Both involve risk. To look within, to possess the courage to self-reflect and look unflinchingly at our beliefs opens us up to potential emotional pain. Getting “real” with ourselves is no journey for the faint-hearted. 

Mike knows the surface facts of his recent past. He’s:

  • A recently divorced father of two young girls
  • He was married for 12 years.
  • The divorce was not mutual.

The remainder of his story is highly subjective and requires Mike to excavate the cracks in his (currently) unsteady foundation. For example: Was Mike’s ex abusive or is that a story Mike tells himself? If Mike’s wife was abusive, what brought him to experience an abusive relationship, and why was he against divorcing someone who abused him?

 Before Mike can experience vulnerability with another potential romantic partner, he needs to be vulnerable with himself. When we look under the figurative hood of our own life, when we are willing to see the parts of ourselves that aren’t so shiny, something changes from the inside out: we discover our self-worth, we remember that we matter and can distinguish between wanting a romantic partner and clinging to someone just to have a someone. When we explore the slings and arrows of our past with a willingness to see it in the broad daylight of self-reflection and compassion, we aren’t so quick to be vulnerable with others. After our soul’s journey into the wilderness of vulnerability (thank you, Brene Brown:-) our perspective has altered: a potential romantic partner needs to earn our vulnerability. Vulnerability is no longer a by-product of low self-esteem; vulnerability is now an invaluable gift to share with the right person on YOUR timeline.

   *Mike, in his desperation for affection and loneliness, attracted what he was: the absence of a potential partner and a greater sense of loneliness. This pattern of women leaving him is likely to continue, so long as he continues to perceive himself as “low-hanging fruit.” 

    Vulnerability is both a gift and a wound. When we are willing to go within and explore our wounds with an open and compassionate heart, we receive the greatest gift: self-love.

*Name has been altered to protect the privacy of the individual.

Burying Yourself in Dating

Dating while still in the psychological Diet Coke of Denial can be a precarious endeavor, making it that much harder to unearth the truth.

A dear friend of mine recently got divorced. We are talking, recent as in the ink is still drying as I write this. Eighteen years of marriage, two of living together, two kids, two dogs and a house still needing to be sold.

“It wasn’t mutual,” she tells me each time we get together. “I was happy. When he wanted to go for couple’s counseling, I said sure. He kept saying he wasn’t happy.”

Halfway through our lunches, she’ll pull out her phone and ask me what I think of the men she is meeting that afternoon, that night, the next day, and the day after that one.

Before our waiter heads over with the bill, she will repeat those three words from the start of our lunch, “It wasn’t mutual.” No reintroduction to the topic needed; the pain verbally splattered all over her face and hunched shoulders.

“Why do you think he wanted out?” I ask.

“Probably because my ass could double as a pincushion now,” she laughs.

Her laughter is a forced sound that renders both of us uncomfortable. I let the sound fall between us and land with a thud. We both know her ex found her physically desirable and couldn’t have cared less about her weight.

“You know I made that big financial mistake, but I apologized. Geesh, move on,” she said, flipping through the latest Hinge profiles on her phone.

My friend has alluded to the “big financial mistake” for years now, but I still don’t know what exactly she did wrong that her ex can’t move past. We are close and yet this financial “mistake” remains a mystery only clear to her ex.

Ironically, my friend is a private investment banker. Her career is literally about helping affluent customers make sound fiscal decisions. 

My friend is in the Diet Coke Denial of the most sacred relationship: the one with herself. Deep down, she knows exactly why her ex can’t move past whatever she did or didn’t do fiscally. Deep down, she knows it was wrong to cover up whatever it is that she did. Deep down, she knows her self-degrading humor regarding her derriere reflects her self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Unfortunately, instead of getting real with herself, she buries the truth and the unspoken shame she feels. Instead of facing fears, she fabricates online filtered profiles of herself from 10 years ago, before her weight gain and financial deceit. She writes about the importance of honesty in a relationship and notes she is “looking for something casual.”

“I just want to have fun,” she tells me.

And then:

“It wasn’t mutual. I was happy.”

Until we get real with ourselves, how can we be ready to date? 

I think of the famous Sir Walter Scott quote:

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

My friend, in an effort to protect her already broken heart, is deceiving herself and, by extension, the men she is meeting. It’s a tangled mess only to be cleared up through the inner work she needs to do. Denial is the Chinese finger trap of healing: the more we fight to deny the truth, the harder it is to break free and live the life we are meant to live.

Small Talk: Benefit or Risk?

Knowing who you are engaging in small talk with can sometimes make all the difference…

            I recently went for my second vaccine shot. The verbal warnings from well-meaning others streamed through my head like a bad TV montage:

            “Take off from work the next day—you’ll need it.”

            “It felt like an invisible weight was pulling me down.”

            “It’ll hit you about 12 hours later. You’ll see.”

            “I wanted to die.”

            So, it’s no surprise that I approached the nurse (*Jenny) a little nervous.

 My anxiety typically manifests in a desperate need for small talk. There is this comfort, however fleeting, found in small talk for me. And according to a 2018 study by psychologist Mathias Mehl, my instinct to schmooze is understandable: 

“Small talk…is associated with more happiness than one usually experiences when one is alone.”

            I certainly didn’t want to be alone with my mental montage of dire physical warnings. I needed to focus on the sunny room of the vaccination site and the warm smile of Nurse Jenny.

            Too late—I already saw the almost comically long syringe. Too late, I asked Jenny how she was, inquiring about her children as well (a small detail I recalled from our earlier dialogue the few weeks prior) as I turned my head away.

            Too late—Jenny let out a big sigh—a hot air balloon puncturing and plummeting fast:

            “My husband is an awful man—just awful. He’s been cheating on me and now he’s suing me in our divorce. I just can’t—”

            Too late—Jenny’s emotional turmoil was let out on my arm.

  I saw stars.

            “Why does that hurt so much?” I asked.

            “Oh, you poor thing—I’m so sorry. You’re bleeding. I hit a vein.”

            Once the blood was cleaned up, Jenny wrote her name and number on a neon Post It.

            “Call me. We need to get together—go for dinner.”

            Somehow, a Small Talk Attempt to ease my anxiety had caused Jenny to think we were…Friends? Therapist (me) and patient (her)?

            Mathias Mehl’s findings regarding our tendency to find happiness through small talk may be true, but if that small talk signals another to lay down on the metaphorical Freudian couch, perhaps we need to refrain from trivial banter with people holding sharp objects…

 Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-ooze/202001/why-small-talk-is-big-deal