When I was seven years old, I was staying with my aunty while my mum went into hospital to give birth to my sister. I was feeling nervous and scared, but to compensate for those uncomfortable feelings I was trying my best to be helpful. I was volunteering to help my aunty in any way I could, packing away toys, clearing the kitchen and doing the dishes. She (mercifully) gave me some dishes to dry. But as I picked up one of the plates, it slipped through my hands and smashed on the floor. I was devastated. I burst into tears. All of my defences came down- not only had I failed at being helpful, I had actually created more of a mess. But really, the smashed plate exposed my deeper vulnerability: being away from my immediate family, not knowing how my mum was going in hospital, and feeling unsure about having a new sister.
My aunty was incredible. Amazing. Inspiring. She hugged me and comforted me by saying something like, ‘You know, I didn’t like that plate anyway, and I was even thinking of getting rid of it.’ She talked to me about becoming a big sister. She let me cry and was truly okay with it. She valued me, even though I had smashed her plate and was sitting helpless in her kitchen. She HELD ME IN MY VULNERABILITY. And I have never forgotten it. To this day, I hope that I could be the sort of person that can witness the pain, fear and discomfort of others without them feeling judged. Or better yet, that I could allow them to feel valued in the midst of it.
It is the part of relationships that we don’t often talk about: how we react to our loved ones when they are exposed, revealed, scared, and emotionally naked before us. I’m talking about the times when we are faced with the tears, failures, aching regrets and betrayals of another. Some people get angry. Some people shut down vulnerability by saying things like, ‘Pull yourself together’ or ‘Get over it.’ Some people divert attention from the vulnerability by starting to cry and saying ‘I can’t take this.’ Some people judge and say, ‘Well, if you hadn’t…’ or ‘I told you…’ Some people are so skilled at game-playing and papering over cracks that they don’t let other people get close enough to even see beneath the surface.
Our ability to witness the vulnerability of another is the key difference between relationships that last and relationships that dissolve. Many people run at the point where it’s just about to get interesting. The fight-or-flight impulse arises as we sense another person’s layers unravelling before us. We’ve been conditioned to bond with others in fake intimacy, which is superficial, distracted and overcompensating (like the 7 year-old me helping around the house because I didn’t want to feel the discomfort of vulnerability). The movies finish with the wedding. The TV series keeps us interested with the unresolved sexual tension. Daily news and gossip revolves around drama- the beginning and the end of relationships.
When we can witness our own vulnerability without feeling shocked and appalled, we are able to witness it in others. This is strength and power. Do you love someone else enough to hold them in their vulnerability? How do you hold yourself in your vulnerability?
When you have held someone in their deepest fears, you give them the freedom to embody their greatest power. To me, this is love.