Celine* is always smiling. It’s a disarming smile, because it says I’m friendly. But it also says don’t get too close. It’s a well practised look which has served her well until now. It keeps the world at bay, using charm and apparent warmth.
Ask her friends and colleagues what she’s really about, they might struggle to say. That charm and disarming smile act as a gentle barrier between Celine and a deeper connection with others. It tinges all her relationships.
It’s something she increasingly struggles with. Her lack of, what she would call, meaningful relationships with others feels frustrating and a bit hollow to her. She’d like to be in a stable relationship but finds that after a few weeks, things often fizzle out. She tells herself, it’s never been the right person. But that’s only half the story.
Always pleasing others
Celine feels like she’s always trying to please others, to keep them happy, to keep tension and conflict away. Yet there’s this gnawing dissatisfaction that her relationships and friendships never seem that reciprocal or fair.
Now she finds it so hard to not switch on the smile and wonders why others don’t allow her more into their lives. So what’s happening to her?
You can think of each person’s openness and receptiveness to others and to connection along a continuum. At the one end, those who are most closed, boundaried are keeping others tightly shut out. At the other end, there are those who let pretty much anyone and everyone into their world, sometimes struggling to discriminate between what is appropriate and what is unboundaried. Neither end of the spectrum feels safe or sustainable. One is a recipe for distance and isolation, the other for being taken advantage of and manipulated. So how do you find your place on this relationship continuum?
Opening up to others
The tricky thing with opening up to others is that you also open the door to your vulnerability. With that comes the possibility of getting hurt.
So what is it about vulnerability that keeps you wanting to keep it away?
It’s a topic that comes up time and time again in counselling. Vulnerability is of course intimately connected to shame, which is perhaps the hardest of all feelings to bear.
It’s quite normal to do all you can to avoid feelings of shame, including feeling angry with others, being defensive, or acting out in addictive or compulsive behaviours such as alcohol use, shopping, sex, drugs, workaholism.
When shame comes into your most intimate relationships it can be the most difficult thing to experience. Brené Brown has conducted some great research into vulnerabilty and shame. Her 20 minute TED Talk is really worth a watch.
She talks of people who live life more whole heartedly as having the 3 Cs: courage, compassion and connectedness.
3 Cs to help you in your life
These are a great template for a lot of the work of counselling, particularly relationship counselling. They’re also helpful for any other time in your life.
Courage is about being able to be yourself, whole-heartedly, owning your story, connecting with its power. It’s about showing more of who you truly are, inspite of fears of shame and rejection. It’s about taking a risk to be you.
Compassion is about a softening of your heart to yourself and to others, to accept and tolerate imperfection, embrace your own and others’ flaws.
Connectedness comes from allowing vulnerability, compassion and courage. It can feel incredibly counter-intuitive at times to allow your vulnerability to be seen. It’s as if you fear lowering your defences and as a result find others taking advantage of that, or making you feel lesser than others.
Often the reverse is true. In showing your vulnerability, in taking the first step to show who you really are, you create the possibility for others to do so too.
Back to Corinne. For her, showing her vulnerability has felt too risky. As a child and adolescent, she experienced too much hurt, humiliation and shaming at the hands of those close to her to trust that people weren’t out to take advantage of her.
That armour served her well for a while because it allowed her to survive but now she is yearning for deeper more meaningful connections in her life. She wants to shed this protected, armoured self, which keeps her safe, but others out. This deeper call is both difficult to ignore and terrifying to contemplate.
With the help of counselling, she might find she can slowly and safely allow her vulnerability to be seen, and to build trust that she can experience connections without the fear or experience of being belittled or betrayed for being who she really is.
That is an important step in moving towards a more real relationship with herself, first and foremost, and it time, will allow to connect more deeply with others.
This week’s Lifeline
This exercise is about allowing yourself into your vulnerability. You’ll need to find a quiet space, free of interruption and where you can feel completely safe.
Be aware of what keeps you feeling safe or helps you when you feel vulnerable, but try to avoid anything which might be a habitual fall back (eg alcohol, sugar, cigarettes, drugs) if you feel wobbly. Think of some alternatives, like a grounding walk, a warm bath, a hug from someone you trust, cuddling with a pet, anything that keeps you safe.
You’ll need some writing materials.
First make yourself comfortable and connect with your breath. Bring yourself into awareness of your breathing and find a still quiet place in yourself.
You’re going to connect with your vulnerability. First call up the word ‘vulnerability’ into your imagination and allow yourself to be with the word for a few minutes. See if an image for your vulnerability comes to you. Notice gently what it is and whether it’s familiar or surprising. Notice any feelings that come up with it. If you’re willing, consider drawing it now.
Next, start to write a list with the following sentence beginning:
When I allow my vulnerability, I…
Write this as many times as you can. Don’t overthink, just allow what comes.
When you’ve exhausted your list,re-read it. Reflect on what came up. Which things were known to you? Did any surprise you?
Now write a list with this sentence beginning:
When I don’t allow my vulnerability, I…
Again, write as many times as you can and until you’ve no more things to write. Once again, reflect on what came up. Which things were known to you? Did any surprise you?
The objective of this exercise is to help you start to have more of a relationship with your vulnerability, the part of you which feels most vulnerable. It’s a gentle process of reacquaintance and trust building.
‘I’m struggling with my relationships’
If you’re struggling with being yourself in your relationships, why not get in touch for a first counselling appointment?
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*Celine isn’t a real client, but a representation of what many clients who experience relationship difficulties bring to counselling. Counselling is completely confidential and I would never divulge personal details.