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Learning To Tolerate Vulnerability

Brown deer standing in grass field surrounded by trees symbolizing vulnerability
Image credit: photo by Rebecca Prest on Unsplash.

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Madeleine L'Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, shares a valuable insight: "When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability." This quote is - in my opinion - by a woman who really knows what she's talking about.

Vulnerability is one of the strongest factors at play in all of us. It leads us into love, fear, sorrow -- even hate. We'll do anything to avoid feeling exposed. But part of being an adult - and having mature relationships - is learning to tolerate vulnerability.

I say tolerate, because for many of us, that's what it is: a matter of tolerating the discomfort of vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be exposed. It puts you out in the open, where anything - anything! - can happen. "Anything" could mean something wonderful, like an intimate moment with someone you cherish; but it could also be a huge disappointment or rejection.

When you're vulnerable, you're putting yourself at risk for emotional pain by opening to something that's out of your control. Yet, risk is the only way to get the true benefits of closeness with others and ourselves.

Humans are surprisingly skilled at avoiding vulnerability. For example:

  • We set up all sorts of defenses against perceived risks of loss, rejection, and disappointment.
  • We leave before we can be left, often emotionally if not physically.
  • We grow a thicker skin.
  • We toughen up, shut down, wall up, walk away.

If we cocoon ourselves, we can keep all the potential pain away. In doing so, however, you keep out all real possibility of true connection and intimacy.

Those are your options:

  • Put yourself out there, and risk getting hurt; or ...
  • Protect yourself, and miss out on all the beautiful possibilities. Doesn't sound like much of a choice, does it?

But what if those weren't the only two options? 

  • Adults who embrace their vulnerability are likely to be happier for it.
  • By accepting pain as part of the process, you can stay open to both the wondrous and the uncomfortable.
  • Suddenly, that "anything-can-happen" mentality isn't a source of fear; it's an opportunity.

As L'Engle knows, accepting your vulnerability is the signature of maturity. And knowing that it's okay to feel vulnerable - that it's all just part of the journey - is part of growing up.

To read more about Why You Can Hate the One You Love, check out this article by Gerry Heisler, Ph.D.

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