The Risk of Being Real

I read this post earlier this week [Are You Kidding Me] and that prompted some thinking. I read a lot. When something I read sticks with me, kind of rolling around in my brain popping up again when I’m not mentally occupied, I usually take the time to actually focus on why.

chelsea ray balance vulnerability relationship brene brownChelsea Ray of “Cultivate Balance” is a part of my local community. Her blog post is a perspective of her recent personal experience in suddenly losing her fiance to a sports-related accident. All of us grieve when we lose someone we love, but there is an additional weight of loss when the death is sudden, and out-of-time. 48 years after losing their young daughter to a road accident, my husband’s parents still grieve her loss. The most common thing my mother-in-law says is, “Parents should never have to bury a child. It’s not right.” So it was for Chelsea. She was looking forward to marrying her love, anticipating a life together, and it ended …before it started. I can hardly imagine a greater pain.

I’ve never met Chelsea personally: I learned of her loss through the news as did all the Okanagan Valley. Her recent post was shared by a Facebook friend.  I may not know her, but I do know trauma. It is safe to make some assumptions about the cost of this loss. Chelsea writes from a place of personal experience when she laments society’s trend toward isolating and disconnecting. It sounds to me as I read her post that she longed for, looked for, and invited connection and relationship after the death of her partner. She goes on from there to speak of the fearfulness of people to speak the truth of where they are are. Of an almost universal reluctance to reveal the reality of one’s inner landscape to others. Not telling of the struggle with infertility or the horrifying process of wrestling with the idea of never having a child. Deliberately choosing not to reveal the daily struggle with a disordered mind that doesn’t seem to be getting any better despite medication; or keeping quiet about how truly awful it is to deal with a sick/abusive/addicted/dysfunctional loved one.

We are isolated by our habit of discouraging connection with others.

“Hi, How are you?”

“Fine. And you?”

“Good.” ”

Great! See you around.”

But connecting is risky. Choosing to reveal one’s inner landscape creates a vulnerability that is scary to most people. And here’s where I realized that I was wrestling with what Chelsea had written. I’m a therapist. I daily see the cost to the psyche of people who long for connection and relationship but whose experience of trying to connect is soul searingly painful. Being vulnerable is scary to people because the majority of us have learned that others are not safe with our raw emotions, flaws, fears, or imperfections. Right from childhood when we learn that if we’re good, we’re loved, to adulthood, when we truly comprehend that most people DON’T CARE about anyone but themselves. They’re just working to survive themselves and have no emotional or psychological space to enter into another’s experience of life. Consequently vulnerability is met at best with apathy or indifference but at worst with harsh, hurtful judgment or criticism. Too many people have learned by experience that it is not safe to be personally revealing.

To hear someone else’s pain, to accept and absorb it, and to return a warm, accurate reflection of their vulnerability requires empathy, and what most people offer is sympathy, or worse, pity. Empathy means to share, and is a translation from the German word Einfühlung meaning “feeling into.”  I love that! Empathy encompasses compassion, connection, vulnerability, and relationship in the context of experiencing a shared distress (or joy. It’s the same for the positive emotions). Sympathy, however, is a sense of regret for the other person’s situation. Sympathy acknowledges the difficulty of another’s experience but does not enter into the distress or the emotional cost.

Most people don’t want sympathy, and they certainly don’t want pity. They want the connection, support, and validation that comes through empathy. Unfortunately, people aren’t very good at empathizing. In fact, research shows that most people avoid empathizing, experiencing it as “uncomfortable,” “too much work,” or “just so much drama.” That’s not to say the whole world is deliberately cruel, rather, they are self-absorbed and simply don’t care to engage in the work of real solid connecting such as we all long for – and absolutely need.

The other part of this equation is the tendency to personalize. Even if a well-meaning friend isn’t very practiced at empathy, when the attempt they do make is met with offended huffiness, they are less likely to even try to empathize with the next person. It sounds, based on reading Chelsea’s post, that she probably doesn’t fall apart when people say and do unhelpful things as she works her way through her grief. She is looking for connections, for relationship, and is strong enough not to take others’ responses too personally.

Real vulnerability and connection require equal reciprocity.

Others must offer to be with me in my distress, and I must have a strong enough sense of myself to recognize that when another’s reaction is not helpful, or even painful to me, that this is not about ME. It’s about the other’s inability or unwillingness to truly share the pain of the moment. The truth is we ALL practice a measure of self-protection. Choosing to embrace our imperfections and live as vulnerable, connected people, is, as Brené Brown says, “The work of being truly human.” And, it is the only way to truly connect.

Chelsea is absolutely right. We are becoming more and more isolated as we carry our private behind-the-scenes-agony and watch what looks like others’ highlight reels. Relationship is the source of our greatest pleasure and our greatest pain. It’s risky. …but what a HUGE validating, empowering payoff when we truly connect with others.

What keeps you from being vulnerable?

About Chelsea

Related stuff –

What not to say to someone who’s hurting

Platitudes that really, really suck

Brené Brown and empathy

Why emotional connection matters

By Susannah-Joy

Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg is a Canadian mental health professional with a passion for travel. Bossy from birth, compassionate by choice, and funny by accident, She writes about anything that catches her attention. All opinions are her own, as is the writing, unless credited otherwise. Stay tuned.


    1. I like the observation in your blog that being human is both a blessing and a curse. Living as one unique part of an immensely creative collective (that also happens to be fundamentally flawed) has a very real cost. The protective factor is cultivating the practice of not taking another’s behaviour personally unless it is patently obvious that it IS personal and specific to me. Fortunately, this (pointed malevolence) is rarer than one might suppose.
      Still, I would rather be vulnerable, as risky as it is, than to self-protect and lose the opportunity to connect. People, in the end, are pretty damn amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

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