Often when you watch a Hollywood drama about a painful emotional experience, you’re glad to escape the trauma when the lights come up. Or if an acquaintance is enduring a difficult time in her life, you think “I’m glad it’s her, not me.” You have the opportunity to avoid discomfort and stressful emotions by walking out of the theatre or hanging up the phone. It’s natural to want to avoid pain or danger- we’re evolutionarily wired to do just that.
When’s the last time you narrowly avoided a disaster or heartbreak? After the potential mishap had passed, you still had adrenaline pumping, your eyes were dilated, your breathing shallow and that insane fear of what “coulda been” was running its course.
Your “near-miss” could’ve happened in any part of your life – your dog nearly hit by a car, your child nearly fell off a ladder, you survived a round of layoffs at work, your spouse recovered from a bout with cancer, you nearly indulged in an affair. What probably didn’t leave you for awhile (if at all) was your internal lockdown of the fear that the almost-tragedy produced.
You learned your lesson. Close call- won’t do it that way again.
And then what follows is the shutdown of your emotions- you’ll do anything to avoid that feeling ever again. You fabricate some false sense of safety that you can avoid emotional pain. If only you’re more careful, more diligent, create more protection against life’s disasters- you can avoid the discomfort. You’re not like all those suckers out there whose luck ran dry.
And then there’s the reality.
You cannot avoid vulnerability. The only choice you have is to decide how you’re going to respond to uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.
It doesn’t matter how many layers of protection you beg, buy or steal to surround you, your family, home, career or financial status. It won’t be enough. Life just happens. And you will feel vulnerable when it comes.
I’ve watched the powerful waves at the Pacific surfer paradise, the Los Cerritos beach in Mexico’s southern Baja peninsula. The Cerritos twenty-foot waves chewed up pro surfers like a football fan chews nuts at the bar when it’s fourth and goal. It was crazy. I was afraid to go out in the surf- I’ve been dragged and belittled by a rip tide before and had no interest in that kind of cleansing again.
But my kids and their friends went out there with a lion’s courage. They would come in to the beach chairs to rest and laugh after each session of allowing the waves to toss them, and then go back out for more. They could only endure the tumult for a period of time, then had to find some static ground upon which to recover. I remember how they complained of body aches that night- they were definitely tumbled like wet rags in the dryer that day.
My favorite part was watching the waves as they came into shore. As I walked along the water’s edge, listening to the huge roar further out, I noticed how the translucent waves rolled in. It’s hard to find words to describe the power of the waves, even as they were smaller and close to shore. They’d roar in- 3-4 feet high still, dragging the coarser pebbles with them as they approached, then they’d fold on top of themselves.
The top half of the wave was crystal clear with a lustrous froth for icing. The wave’s bottom half rushed in to gobble up all the pebbles, churning them about, the original rock tumbler, polishing off the remaining hard edges of the sea’s detritus. The wave would spit out the polished and refined pebbles, spilling them onto the downslope side of the beach, a foothold for the next wave to rush in. I marveled at the immense task of each wave, to slowly transform mountains into sea bed.
The beach at Los Cerritos had some of the softest sand my toes have ever felt. After the immense pounding of the rocks and pebbles, the end result was the refined sand upon which I could easily tread.
You can’t avoid the tumult of life. To do so is to pretend that your power is greater than your Maker or nature combined. Buddhist scholar Pema Chodron writes in Comfortable with Uncertainty that:
“the central question of a warrior’s training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day?”
You can only be free of your emotional pain if you are willing to face it.
The painful emotions are like warning flags that you’re stuck. The feelings of disappointment, anger, jealousy, shame or fear are messages that you need to rush into the sea to encounter yourself.
And the more you wait, the harder it gets. The painful emotions will drag you along the ocean floor, tossing you about, mangling your sense of security- until you decide to throw yourself into the tumult and face them.
But here’s the cool part.
After you confront the powerful churning of the emotion, feeling like a tumbled wet rag, you will then experience both the security and softness of the “after”. You will feel an emptiness- not the bad sad lonely emptiness that’s related to isolation or abandonment. Only after the churning tumult, you will feel an emptiness that comes from:
- no longer judging who you are and what happened to you (I coulda shoulda done it differently),
- a self-compassion that comes from allowing yourself the tender experience of having an open heart, of feeling the grip the emotion had on you and allowing it to change you, and
- a greater perspective that your noble heart can survive the emotional pain after all.
You are then prepared to walk on solid ground. You might even be amused at your own resistance to face the emotional pain. You are no longer the story of someone crippled by the past.
The weight of the emotional stress has lessened because your story has changed.
Your “big deal” story kept you in lockdown mode, afraid to experience an emotion or even worse, afraid to live life because there might be more painful experiences.
As Dr. Brene Brown describes in Daring Greatly, you didn’t earn a “get out of vulnerability free” card- you can’t opt out of the daily experiences that produce uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.
When you pretend not to “do vulnerability”, you do things that don’t represent who you really want to be. You can’t fully love others if you can’t expose how you really feel. You can’t be “all in” if you’re holding back what scares you.
The biggest threat to finding joy in life is to pretend that you can control what life throws at you. To believe that you are not vulnerable. To believe that you won’t have to deal with emotional pain at some point, if not frequently.
Take steps to face the fact that life is full of painful and stressful emotion. And learn some coping skills that will help you find your way into, then out of, the churning tumult.
Your life will not be the same on the other side of the wave.
Riso & Hudson in the Wisdom of the Enneagram suggest tools to aid you on the path to self-discovery. Try centering exercises or meditation to learn to “not do” or not react to the challenges of painful emotions. These practices will also push you to be more open to whatever arises in life. Develop a spiritual practice that helps you wake up to your ingrained habits and the trance of your story.
Learn to cultivate self-love – a profound acceptance of your true self, so that your emotional pain doesn’t allow you to abandon yourself. And seek support from those who would provide a harbor for your Inner Work- to help you peel away the layers of protection you have created that hide your true self and life purpose. Integral Life Coaching can support you to let go of the emotional pain that keeps you stuck so you can embrace joy and find purpose in your life.
If you are operating from the belief that you “don’t do vulnerability”, it’s helpful to ask yourself the following questions that Dr. Brown often asks of her research participants:
• What do you feel when you feel emotionally exposed?
• How do you behave when you’re feeling very uncomfortable or uncertain?
• How willing are you to take emotional risks?
Leave me a comment below describing the kinds of actions that help you move past the fear of vulnerability when you’re feeling emotionally exposed. Or Contact Me if you’d like a free consult to learn how to survive the tumult of difficult emotions that prevent you from being who you’re meant to be.
Holly Woods, Ph.D. uses Integral Coaching and Somatic Experiencing to help adults who are weighed down by stress or trauma, and who want to be free of the overwhelm so they can find a life full of joy and purpose. Sign up on the Right or Click Here to receive a Free Report and to receive my weekly newsletter. Please forward to a friend if you liked this post!