Vulnerability and the Art of Family Maintenance

As published in The Huffington Post, January 6, 2015

I was walking the dogs with my daughter-in-law while on our family’s winter ski vacation, and we happened on a discussion of the three most serious stressors in life. In the freezing afternoon, as the sun and the barometer were dipping, Carli and I were trying to be objective about our family dynamic and the oftentimes dysfunctional nature of the marriages between my two sons and their wives and between me and my sons.

“You know the three biggest stressors in life, don’t’ you?” she asked.

“I think so,” I replied. “I think they are money, divorce and change.”

“You’re close: finances, sex and family,” Carli said to me. She is a psychologist and has the ability to pinpoint dysfunction in a flash.

Of course, I know what Carli proffered was true, but I don’t always pay attention to what creates stress, chaos and drama while I’m in the middle of an uncomfortable conversation. The last thing I’m thinking about is about is the psychology of human behavior as it relates to anger and nasty exchanges. Later I might recognize that emotional outbursts might be symptoms of larger issues in the collective unconscious.

Stressor issues are difficult to deal with because their origin is usually fear of the unknown — the endless money/budget rabbit hole battles, the need for intimacy in relationships and how families interrelate with blame and shame. Even if you don’t have children or are not married, you still have the problem of how to handle your emotional dynamic and possible change of circumstance and behavior. No one escapes life’s internal struggles. Fear is a constant in the human condition.

“Humans are all about protecting, even hiding feelings and embarrassments instead of focusing on being emotionally openly honest,” I said to Carli. “Vulnerability is hard to come by naturally. No one wants to be exposed.”

“Like this week,” she said, “with all of us dealing with daily realities and unrealistic expectations. Everyone had the opportunity to be vulnerable. Some were honest about it and some were not.”

I thought about my conversation with Carli and considered five ways to accomplish the important human task of reducing stress while learning to be vulnerable:

1. Your Conscious Mind Helps Manage Fear.
If you don’t know your fears, how can you manage them? But if you put a name on your fears, you have the possibility of becoming emotionally, openly honest. Sometimes being vulnerable is a scary place to be because you might be subject to criticism, ridicule or indifference. When you’re hurt, you put up defensive barriers: yet, you are the only person who can acknowledge your fears and release them from your unconscious mind. Getting in touch with your extensive emotional palate allows you to bring choice into your life so that unrealistic fears can be managed.

2. You Can Decide to Change Thoughts That Are Hurtful.  
When you are hurt, you feel paralyzed, and the ability to make a conscious choice to eliminate that hurt is compromised. Your brains turn to the negative, to blame and shame. However, awareness of your vulnerability allows you to act with consciousness, empathy, sympathy, and generosity of spirit. But if you maintain thoughts that are hurtful because you fear failure or embarrassment and put on a suit of armor for self-protection, you’ll lose the opportunity to bring positive choice and strength into your life.

3. You Can Decide Not to Attack.
Everyone has experienced uncomfortable discussions either with family, friends or coworkers when all you want to do is get the better of someone, or be right or just wage the battle for no good reason other than ego. That is the moment to step back — I call this the 10-percent solution — stand back from the situation that involves the conflict and assess what is really happening. The moment of self-reflection is the most important split second in heated communication. It’s the moment to assess and decide not to attack any further. Emotions cool and the heart becomes the healer.

4. You Can Leave Your Past Behind.
Most dysfunctional moments arise from negative past experiences that are either tangential to the moment of conflict or germane to the conflict. Even though you believe you have put the past to rest, there are unconscious residuals of hurtful memoirs and you are vulnerable to them. The hurt inevitably returns in times of stress. Your response is to mindfully separate the past from the present with conscious honesty and clear intention.

5. You Can Walk Out of the Room and Think it Over.
My son and I have an unspoken rule about conflicts that arise between us. We either walk away from each other or hang the phone up. When my son and I agree to reconnect, the anger and resentment have subsided, and as my father used to say, we proceed with cooler heads. Our emotions are more settled and we can allow our vulnerabilities to exist in tandem. Blame and shame take a back seat and stress decreases. This technique works best when both understand that “back seat dynamic” and both choose to continue the dialogue with emotional honesty.

In a profound sense, vulnerability is the path to self-reflection. It is at the moment you become emotionally honest that you are more conscious of listening and understanding. Once your suit of armor has been removed, you can bring choice, strength and opportunity to the stressors in life. So take a leap of faith and embrace the positive aspects of learning to be vulnerable.

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