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BY JAMES J. MESSINA, PH.D. & CONSTANCE MESSINA, PH.D.

chapter 12

TOOLBOX FOR PERSONAL GROWTH Becoming Vulnerable What is vulnerability? Vulnerability is: • Feeling of being exposed to emotional hurt, being taken advantage of, or abused. • Feeling of being fragile, weak, or susceptible to emotional pain and suffering. • Feeling of being trapped or imprisoned in a situation where your feelings and rights are ignored. • Opening of oneself to the possibility of being taken advantage of by another person in a relationship. • Relating of your innermost feelings and fears to others with the possibility that they might use such feelings and fears against you. • Opening of yourself to the possibility of growing as a person in your emotional and spiritual dimensions. • Allowing of oneself to search and probe the past for hidden or unresolved emotions, feelings, or grief responses that lie at the root of current immobilized emotions, feelings, or actions. • Trying out of new behavior traits, attitudes, or beliefs in the pursuit of personal growth. • Unrelenting pursuit of truth and clarity about self through the requesting, encouraging, and welcoming of honest feedback about oneself, even if such feedback is negative. • Willingness to take chances and try new experiences, challenges, or activities even though the outcome is unsure. Way of the Heart

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Why do people avoid being vulnerable? Some reasons include: • Basic self-survival • Basic insecurity and lack of self-confidence • Lack of trust in self and others • Fear of the unknown or of uncharted waters • Lack of forgiveness and inability to forget past hurts, injustices, and pain • An overwhelming need for personal privacy and confidentiality, (illustrating insecurity) • Denial, unresolved grief, self-deceit, lack of personal awareness, or refusal to face life the way it is. • Discomfort with change, lack of acceptance of change, and unwillingness to change • Unwillingness to unmask one’s true emotions or reactions to life • Lack of acceptance of self for who I am, what I am able to do, and who I am able to be

How does the avoidance of vulnerability manifest itself? • Constantly being on the offensive, attacking, blaming, or correcting others; keeping the spotlight on others and off themselves. • Avoiding participation in any form of “helping’’ situation, such as an emotional support group, individual, or family counseling. • “Looking good’’ and wearing a mask of “strength’’ and “togetherness.’’ • Pleasing or placating others to keep their true moods, feelings, or pain from being probed. • Closing others out or shutting down themselves to put emotions on the rocks, freezing themselves. • Silence, a lack of feedback to others, non-communicativeness, keeping true feelings hidden. • Lacking emotional language, lacking the ability to tune into their own feelings of discomfort in emotionally laden conversations. • Shyness, a hesitancy to meet new people, being a ``wall flower’’ in social gatherings due to fear of rejection or fear of disapproval. • Resistance to change, to altering habitual patterns of behavior, or to looking at things in life from a different perspective. • Playing games that involve knowing the rules of body language in every form of social interaction, with the resultant performance of routines and scripts that fit the ``game.’’

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What are some beliefs of people who avoid being vulnerable? • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Never let anyone know how you feel! Always be strong in your interactions with others! Men never cry! Being over-emotional is a feminine trait that leads to becoming an hysteric! I am never going to let my guard down again! I may be down, but I’ll never let them know it! I have been hurt by others in the past... I’ll never let others hurt me again! Spilling the beans (of my emotions) is always risky business! You are bound to get hurt if you open yourself up to another person. Dragging up the past serves no purpose. It is nobody’s business how I feel! No one should have the right to probe into my emotions or feelings! Nothing can help me overcome the pain I feel! I mind my own business and expect others to mind their own business! The old way of doing things is the best way! Maintain the status quo! Trust no one! I have no problems and even if I did, I’d never tell anyone! There is nothing to be gained by my breaking down emotionally! No one respects a weak person! I don’t care how you live your life & I expect you to not care how I live mine.

What are some benefits of vulnerable behavior? Being open to new possibilities in life enables you to explore your options more freely and to gain insight into the healthiest and most productive, growthenhancing alternatives for yourself. Being helped through a support group or counseling situation enables you to gain assistance, helping you cope with your life and circumstances that have had some emotional impact on your mental health adjustment. Opening yourself up to ``new’’ social circumstances enables you to meet new people who have the potential of becoming true emotional supports. Not always pleasing or placating others, letting them see your negative side, enables you to feel less responsible for everyone else’s welfare and takes the sense of burden out of your life.

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Not always being a ``do for’’ person, letting others accept the responsibility to do for themselves, enables you to lift the weight of obligation out of your life. You can enjoy being with people, not feeling burdened or tied down by them. Using healthy communication, with good give and take enables you to clarify areas in which you need to grow, to change, improve, and strengthen your relationships. Being open to deal with emotional issues gives you a chance to identify the blocked feelings and beliefs that have prevented you from enjoying full health and well-being. Letting others into your “emotional life space” enables you the opportunity to experience an authentic, supportive, growth-enhancing relationship. Tuning into your own feelings enables you to recognize your personal humanity and gives you a healthy perspective of yourself, your problems, and your place in life. It enables you to be focused realistically as you face your problems and concerns. Being open to change and altering your behavior patterns gives you the chance to rid yourself of unproductive and maladaptive habits that impede your emotional health and personal growth.

What behavior traits will help you open yourself to vulnerability? • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 68

Trying new behaviors Taking a risk Initiating contact with strangers Tuning into feelings of others and yourself Willingness to get help for yourself Being open to receiving help and support from others Being honest with others and yourself when it would be easier to lie in order to avoid conflict Accepting change when it comes your way Looking for deeper reasons or motives for your own behavior Self-disclosure of your weaknesses to others Being direct and precise about your feelings, beliefs, and attitudes when discussing them Willingness to listen to honest feedback Dealing with anger in a productive, non-offensive manner Letting go of fears that impede your movement toward others Volume 13

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• Letting go of guilt or remorse over the past • Letting go of hostility, bitterness, and resentment toward others for past hurts • Development of trust in others’ good will • Willingness to be seen as weak or emotional • Accepting your humanness, failures, and mistakes as OK • Understanding the reasons you are risking vulnerability • Feeling secure enough to admit your failings, mistakes, and losses.

PRACTICAL Steps to increase your ability to be vulnerable and grow Step 1: Read the material in this section, then answer the following questions in your journal: a. Do you believe that being vulnerable makes you a candidate for personal growth? What are your reasons for this belief? b. Do you resist/avoid being in a growth situation in which you feel vulnerable? What are some of your reasons for avoiding being vulnerable? c. What behavior traits illustrate your avoidance of vulnerability? d. What beliefs lead you to avoid vulnerability and growth? e. What behavior traits need to be developed in order to be vulnerable and grow? Step 2: Now that you have identified your avoidance of vulnerability in Step 1, answer the following questions in your journal: a. What feedback do you get from others in your life that indicates that you resist being placed in a vulnerable position? b. What are some reasons from your past that account for your avoiding being placed in a vulnerable position? c. What replacement beliefs do you need in order to allow yourself to become vulnerable to grow? d. What are some steps you can take to develop new behavior traits that open you to being vulnerable to grow? e. What are positive consequences of becoming more vulnerable to grow? f. What is your action plan for growth in which being vulnerable is essential? Step 3: Implement the action plan in Step 2. Are you able to open yourself to becoming more vulnerable to personal growth? Step 4: If you still find yourself avoiding becoming vulnerable to growth, try the following activity: Way of the Heart

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A Tale of Two People a. Write a short autobiography, telling your life story from the perspective of another person, one who is closed off from others to avoid being vulnerable. b. Write a second short autobiography, telling your life history, but this time from the perspective of you freely opening yourself, being vulnerable to grow. Discuss your relationships, work, family, and community activities. c. Compare your stories and answer the following questions: 1. Which person is more successful in life? 2. Which person is more appealing to you? 3. Which person is more appealing to others? 4. What are the benefits to being either: open to being vulnerable or closed to being vulnerable? 5. Which story is more true of the current you? 6. Which story do you want to be more true of you? 7. What steps do you need to take to make the successful story real for you? 8. What obstacles stand in your way of achieving the success story? 9. From whom do you need help in order to achieve your success story? 10. What changes in your life are necessary for the success story to become true for you? Step 5: If you find yourself unable to become vulnerable after completing Steps 1 through 4, return to Step 1 and begin again. ❂

©1999-2008 James J. Messina, Ph.D. & Constance Messina, Ph.D. Coping.org, home of the Tools for Coping Series, are onsite manuals for coping with a variety of life’s stressors, authored by: James J. Messina, Ph.D., and Constance M. Messina, Ph.D. • Email: jjmess@tampabay.rr.com

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Toolbox for Personal Growth – Becoming Vulnerabale by James Messina and Constance Messina