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The Art of Relating

Christine Kniffen, MSW, LCSW
www.ChristineKniffen.com

How Vulnerable Are You?

It’s one of the most common complaints I hear from the individuals that come to my office for Relationship Coaching sessions. “Why do I keep finding people that are emotionally unavailable every time I try to have a relationship?” I hear the resounding chorus, “I don’t know that they are unavailable when I first start seeing them, so how am I supposed to keep this from happening?”. Have you ever heard the saying, “unavailable picks unavailable”? Well, at some point this is something that many of us need to pause and consider if we are to move forward and stop patterns from continuing. I realize that this saying sparks an immediate defensive reaction for many of us. I continually picked the emotionally unavailable in my earlier years and when someone said this to me I thought they were crazy. “How am I emotionally unavailable?”, I spat back. Well, I reluctantly came to understand that I too had work to do in this area if I was to stop this unfulfilling pattern and finally find a relationship that worked for the long haul.

Emotionally unavailability equates to an inability to be fully emotionally vulnerable with another. In trying to make progress in this area it is important to first understand precisely what it means to be emotionally vulnerable, identify the two levels of vulnerability and finally begin to take an honest assessment of our own capabilities in this area. After all, it is unfair to expect something more from another than you can do yourself.

So, what does it mean to be emotionally vulnerable? Vulnerability equates to risk. To be emotionally vulnerable, you must be willing to face the fears of risk. Vulnerability has two levels. Level one starts when you first meet someone for dating. Level one involves telling the other person those things about you that make you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. It’s risky because these are the things that you think may cause the other person to run for the hills once they find out. You know the scenario; your friend asks you, “Did you tell him that your mother is crazy, that your brother is in jail, that you declared bankruptcy last year or that you tend to struggle with insecurity”? Most people find that they do a decent job of being vulnerable on the level one type of issues.

However, learning to be vulnerable on the second level is much harder to do as it involves greater emotional risk. It involves tearing down those protective walls and really letting another into your most intimate fears, anxieties, self-doubt and deepest desires.

The second level of vulnerability involves being able to sit across from your partner and be fully honest with him or her as to how you are feeling. It involves the ability to not yell or blame, but rather to let them know how something they do affects you and either hurts your feelings or makes you afraid. After all, these are the true feelings that always drive pissed off or mad. It is risky to tell another that your feelings are hurt when you go to a party and don’t see them for the rest of the night. It’s hard to say that it makes you feel insignificant in their life and that you don’t feel special and important to them in the same way that you work to show them just the opposite. Getting down to this level is scary/risky because they could say that you are just overly sensitive or insecure that you seem to need that much attention. Or, they could laugh at you and tell you that your feelings are those of a child. Instead, we often resort to the less scary tactic of ridiculing someone for having virtually ignored us much of the evening. We show them anger and expect them to fully understand and validate our feelings. However, this doesn’t usually end the argument because he or she gets defensive and the message is not received. Once you understand these two levels of vulnerability it is time to do some honest self-assessment.

After I provide this framework for the concept of vulnerability to clients that complain they gravitate to the emotionally unavailable, I then ask them for an honest assessment of their abilities to be vulnerable at both levels. When I do I routinely hear a softly muttered, “I don’t do very well at the second level” or “I don’t do level two at all”.

“Well”, I say, “is it really fair to expect something from another person that you can’t do either”? That is when the figurative light bulb goes off for most clients and they then make this important connection. It isn’t about “picking” unavailable. Instead, it is about staying too long and putting up with the emotionally unavailable longer than you should. If you could be more vulnerable and face the fear of having to leave if the right ingredients are not present for the relationship to truly work, then you would do the leaving early on and not be able to state that you have a pattern of getting in relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable. Believe me when I say that the ability to be emotionally vulnerable with another by honestly stating your feelings and stating your needs is work in progress for most of us. It is scary because we may be laughed at, dismissed in a way that says to us you don’t care and brings up the big fear of facing the fact that we may be in a relationship where the other person is unwilling or unable to join us on the second level of vulnerability. Without achieving this we will never really have the emotional intimacy, hence level of connectedness that we all yearn to feel.

So, the secret to stopping the pattern of hooking up with someone who is emotionally unavailable starts with you. Ask yourself if you are truly proficient at being vulnerable at both levels. You will never feel validated in your feelings nor will you get your needs met if you don’t master the two levels of vulnerability yourself. Tear down those walls and learn to be vulnerable. If you do, then you will finally insist upon the relationship that you deserve.

Christine Kniffen, LCSW is a Therapist and Relationship Coach. For a free consultation call 314-374-8396.

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