I’ve been studying the idea of vulnerability and how that plays out in our relationships. Brene Brown has some incredible insights on this tough topic. Much of this post is based on her research.
One of the things that keeps us from being vulnerable is shame. Shame thrives in secrecy, silence and judgement. However when we introduce empathy, shame cannot grow. So in order to be open and vulnerable we need to be around people that are great at empathizing and we need to learn how to be empathetic with others. Learning how to be empathetic is one of the most powerful ways to improve your relationships.
In order to be empathetic we need to be able to see the world as others see it. This is all about perspective, being able to take the perspective of another person and not our own. It’s being able to listen to someone and not interject our own experience but to really what to hear it from them. It’s not one upping the person by sharing what you did or how you messed up. It’s being able to realize that our lens of life and our experiences are different than others and being OK with that.
Empathy also requires that we are nonjudgmental. Most of us are judgmental and we are usually judgmental in areas where we are vulnerable to shame. We tend to judge people that are worse than we are so that we feel better about ourselves. We do that because we are looking for validation that at least I’m not as bad as so and so.
Empathy is not our default or natural mode, it’s a skill that must be worked on and developed in order for this to happen naturally. Empathy is usually very subtle, it can be just a knowing look or going to be with someone in a time of crisis instead of calling to express sympathy.
When we empathize with someone, we go to that dark place with them, we don’t flip on the lights and try to cheer them up and fix the problem or make light of the situation. It’s like walking up to your friend that is in a hole and going down into the hole with them, but knowing how to get back out of the hole because it’s not your hole. Sympathy is walking up to the hole and asking what happened. When they tell you, you express that your sorry to hear that, that’s a terrible thing. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help. There is a big difference.
When we empathize with someone, we are creating a safe environment for people to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable is one of the most accurate measures of a persons courage. To be vulnerable takes bravery, because it is walking into uncertainty, it’s taking a risk and it’s exposing your emotions. It takes courage because the reality is you can get hurt when you do this with someone that is not able to empathize or keep things confidential.
However if you live in secrecy, and silence you might feel safe, but are most likely miserable. When we are vulnerable we are our true self. We are showing that we are imperfect, messed up, awkward and goofy. The greatest relationships are the ones where you can be all of that and the person loves you even more.
So if your looking to improve your relationships, first learn how to empathize better with the people around you. Work on those skills of listening and trying to understand their perspective. Don’t try to fix them or the situation, but let them know we can do this together. Then work at being vulnerable with the people in your life. Expose yourself emotionally by being honest about your struggles and your shame. When we do that there is incredible freedom and life when we push past our fear.