To be alive is to feel insecure sometimes. We’re wired with a desire to feel physically safe and emotionally secure. Our heart longs for love; we want intimacy to feel connected with the fabric of life — and not so painfully alone.

Being human means being vulnerable. We may open ourselves to another person, only to have our sensitive heart met with the rough shards of shame and criticism. As our overtures for connection are met with rejection, we may keep ourselves hidden to protect our tender heart.

The desire to stay safe and avoid danger is governed by our amygdala, which is a part of the old brain. It scans the environment to dodge threats of gathering storm clouds and unseen predators. Modern-day threats are no longer wild beasts, but rather the coarse and indelicate ways we treat each other.

When growing up, if we felt repeatedly unsafe to show our true feelings and desires, that vulnerable part of us goes into hiding. We may become avoidantly attached in our relationships — perhaps tentatively reaching out, but staying well-defended and not allowing others to get close. Or, we may become anxiously attached — scanning for any hint of discord. When trust with ourselves and others has been frayed, then even the slightest misunderstanding or friction may be experienced as a tsunami-like disruption of trust.

Misunderstandings and friction arise in even the best of relationships. Uncomfortable or difficult feelings are often the result of unmet longings for love, connection, and understanding. We receive a harsh word or insensitive response; a phone call is promised but not received. Trust gets disrupted. A longing arises but is not satisfied.

When things don’t go the way we want, we may feel a sudden vulnerability — an exposure of a desire that is not soothed by the other, and that we don’t know how to soothe within ourselves. Rage and blame are typical reactions when we’re unable to soothe the beast within.

Life and relationships go better as we make room for our human vulnerability, not shut it down. When our self-protective instincts rush in to safeguard us from emotional pain, we attack, accuse, or withdraw. Rather than gracefully dance with the fire of our discomforting emotions — engaging with them skillfully, we fan the flames, which further incinerates the trust and connection we long for.

Our task is not to transcend our humanity in a misguided attempt to ease our pain or polish some favorable self-image. Nor is it to take flight into some transcendent, spiritualized state that leaves our humanity in the dust.

Emotional and spirituality maturity rests upon our ability to welcome our vulnerable feelings and engage with them wisely. This means periodically pausing during our day to notice what we’re actually feeling.

Here is an exercise you might try, adapted from the approach of Eugene Gendlin, who developed Focusing.

When you feel a sudden sense of vulnerability (perhaps a fear, sadness, or hurt that arises from some interaction or pops up randomly during your day), take a moment to pause before responding. Notice how you are feeling inside. What do you notice inside your body right now? Is your stomach tight, chest constricted, breathing constrained?

Simply allow yourself to feel whatever you happen to be feeling — with some sense of spaciousness around it. You may need to find the right distance from the feelings so that you don’t get overwhelmed by them. You may want to visualize yourself putting your arms around the feeling, perhaps gently saying to this part of yourself: “I really hear that you are hurting right now (or sad or afraid). It’s OK to be feeling this way.”

If it feels like too much, you may try putting the feeling some distance from you and observing it — or being with it as you’d be with a hurting child.

Being gentle with our vulnerability rather than being ashamed or afraid of it can help it settle. Or just notice how scary it is and be gentle with that. If a particular feeling is especially troublesome, you may want to get some help from a therapist to explore it.

Developing a relationship with the place in us that sometimes feels insecure and vulnerable helps us become stronger and more secure. Paradoxically, we find securing and stability not by avoiding or denying our basic human vulnerability, but by engaging with it in an honest, gentle, skillful way.


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