Vulnerability + Empathy = Love

I have a unique position as I sit and listen to my couples in distress. I am “in it” with my clients, listening to their pain and witnessing how they are struggling either internally or with each other. At the same time of being “in it”, I am also a sideline observer of their interactions. And it is this sideline view that allows me the objectivity to see and hear what they cannot. And simply, what I see and hear are two challenges: one is the fear of being vulnerable, the other is the fear of being empathetic.  In order for love to be invited and then, welcomed in and in order to create space for love to grow, letting go of that fear becomes an essential practice.

It takes tremendous trust to be vulnerable. Trust first in one’s self: “I trust that what I feel, think and experience is valuable and deserves a voice”. It also takes trust in the other with whom one is being vulnerable: “In revealing my self, I trust that I will be accepted, not judged, and held in a space of respect and deep listening”. This is hard for many people for many reasons. We might have been hurt in the past when revealing ourselves and now are hesitant to do so again. Maybe we were taught that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and to be avoided at all costs. Perhaps we have been judged and rejected for our feelings, our thoughts and beliefs. For whatever reason, unfortunately people learn ways to avoid and protect themselves from being vulnerable. And while this helps them to not have to experience the inevitable anxiety, discomfort and fear that comes with revealing one’s true self, it also prevents the very experience every human being longs for: finding that oasis in the world where we feel loved, accepted, and at home deep within our soul.

It may surprise you to realize that it also takes tremendous trust to be empathetic toward another. Empathy requires an open heart, a surrender of our expectations and a relinquishing of being focused on one’s self. Those three things: an open heart, surrender and relinquishing self are all about receiving and letting go. Also hard to do, when we have been hurt in the past, taken advantage of, misunderstood. Hard to do when we have mastered being in control of ourselves in order to feel protected from harsh experiences. And yet, the less we practice empathy with those we love, the less likely we are participating in creating contexts of love, acceptance and sacred, soothing spaces for our soul.

So it seems that vulnerability and empathy require similar things of us. Both are challenging. Both require the other in order for love to enter. When both are absent, we miss opportunities for love to grow. When both are present, love thrives.

In my therapist’s chair, I often feel a part of me is being the quiet “cheerleader” with my clients. Inwardly, I am urging them, in those most tender and raw moments, to let go of fear, open their hearts, trust and the reward will be great. When I see clients resist this, I find myself inwardly saying, ” No, don’t give up! Keep trying! It is worth it to move through your fear…love is right here, waiting.”

One of the most difficult moments in my work is when I can almost tangibly feel and see the possibility of love quietly retreating; when one or both people choose to be closed and give into their fear by resisting either vulnerability or empathy. Personally, I have been too often where my clients are when they choose fear over love. I know how it can seem safer to stay closed, but I also know that staying closed is the very thing that keeps me from being wrapped in the reassuring arms of love. I know when I have chosen love over fear, I am never disappointed. I feel stronger, reassured, connected to the pulse of life.

It is as if love is always in the wings, just waiting for all of us to practice being vulnerable and practice receiving vulnerability with empathy. It is just waiting to be invited, to be welcomed. As soon as two people enter this space, love takes over, begins to flow easily and all that we fear, subsides. In opening to our vulnerability and empathy, we are reminded again and again, that each of us is capable of being greatly loved and capable of loving greatly. This can be a soothing balm to our weary and tired souls. But we must take the first step when there is no guarantee; we must risk the uncertainty of crossing the threshold into the unknown. Moving from fear to love. Once we let go and cross the threshold, love catches us.

So, next time you have an opportunity to either be vulnerable or to receive another’s vulnerability with empathy, pause. Take a deep breath. Tell yourself you are safe; love is waiting on the other side. And then let go. Cross the threshold into the unknown. Trust. Be present. This is the fullness of life right in this moment. These are the moments we live for when we realize we can trust the accessibility, availability of and abundance of love.

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Jane Ryan

Jane Ryan, M.A., LMFT, is a Licensed Couple and Family Therapist with twenty years of clinical experience and a speciality in helping couples navigate the challenges of intimate relationships. Jane also has a sub-specialty of helping couples navigate the relational and sexual effects of breast cancer.

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