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Emotional Vulnerability

November 2014

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The truth is not just a matter of information, but also of our emotional response to the information we receive. Science – which we take as gospel truth in this culture – is predicated on the idea that rational thought is superior to emotion. Those who make their arguments emotionally are often dismissed as not thinking clearly. And yet, who among us is not an emotional being? If emotion is part of who we are – indeed if it is central to what we mean when we speak of our humanity – then how can we communicate, if we don’t acknowledge the emotions behind our communication?

In any group process in which I have ever participated, emotions lay at the core of our difficulties. Often before common ground can begin to appear, emotions must be addressed. If we are angry at each other; if we harbor old resentments; if we mistrust each other; if I am intimidated by you or vice versa; if I feel manipulated by you or vice versa; we will not be able to communicate clearly with each other until these issues are addressed.

Often the strongest emotional block to clarity in any communication is fear. If I am afraid of you; if I fear that you will not be able to hear what I have to say without judgment; if I fear that you will reject me; if I fear that you will use what I say against me; or if I fear you are not telling me the truth, I will not be easily able to say what I really need to say. What I do say will come out in ways that are distorted, or that have an ill-defined emotional edge to them, or that confuses (or diffuses) the issue along some tangent that has little to do with the matter at hand. If you – at your end of the conversation – have the same, similar, or other fears – the conversation will not result in common ground. Often quite the contrary will be true – it will breed additional mistrust and caution in what then becomes a vicious spiral.

Until you and I can sit down, ask ourselves, “What am I afraid of?” and then share those fears with each other, in the expectation that we will be as honest as we can be, we will not be able to communicate. This means showing our vulnerability to each other, which is not something that comes easily, and given our conditioning is counterintuitive.

In our culture, vulnerability is equated with weakness, and we are taught not to show our weaknesses. This is probably truer for men than it is for women, but if women expect to compete in the marketplace, it becomes true for them as well. This does not mean that we do not feel vulnerable, have fears, or struggle with uncertainty – we would not be human if we did not – just that we are conditioned not to show these things to each other. That means that instead of being who we really are, we hide behind masks of pretense, posture and false image.

Furthermore, although we may feel our game face is impervious to detection by others, regardless of how skillfully it is crafted, something about it will not ring true. Like body odor, inauthenticity cannot be masked without a telltale signal of unnatural substitution. Whether the social deodorant of choice is the overly aggressive behavior of the alpha animal, or the submissive obsequious rollover of the underdog, it will ultimately fool no one. Aggressive behavior can intimidate and people-pleasing can be manipulative, but no one experiencing such an interaction at either end can walk away from it feeling like they had a genuine encounter with another human being. And if an encounter is not genuine, then clear communication is impossible.

If instead, we can both recognize that neither I nor you are by any means whole, or complete, or devoid of issues, fears, and problems, then it becomes easier for us both to let go of our posturing, and risk being real with each other. In my willingness to take this risk is actually the only real strength I have to bring to the table. Everything else is basically pretense. Good communication cannot be built on pretense; it must be built on authenticity – and authenticity means facing our fears and vulnerabilities in relation to each other; and addressing the underlying emotional issues that make it difficult for us to treat each other with equanimity and compassion.

The next post in this series is Cultivating Authenticity.

To read more blog posts, go here.

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