Sometimes, when you’re feeling your lowest, the real you is summoned. And you understand, maybe for the first time ever, how grand you are, because you discover that vulnerable doesn’t mean powerless, scared doesn’t mean lacking in beauty, and uncertainty doesn’t mean that you’re lost. These realizations alone will set you on a journey that will take you far beyond what you used to think of as extraordinary. There is always a bright side,
– The Universe (Mike Dooley)
During the first three weeks of my broken ankles, my life narrowed down first to the four walls of my bedroom and then to the house itself. For the next four weeks, I was working from the wheelchair, teaching from the wheelchair, doing an Expo from the wheelchair and going out in the wheelchair, experiencing life from a totally different perspective. Every step took planning ahead and a normally small errand turned into a big excursion. Being a physically less-able person is quite a different experience.
On these wheelchair outings, I have experienced how what supposedly is wheelchair accessible is not always so. Even more interesting to observe, was how people responded to the wheelchair. Some people were very nice, others treated me like a nuisance, but the majority of people were plain awkward. Most people did not look at me. I could feel how they were quickly scanning me and the wheelchair, and then they were looking away, looking over me, or even addressing the person pushing my wheelchair rather than me.
Why is that, I have wondered? Do we not learn how to appropriately interact with somebody who is different? Have I done the same, looked away, in the past without being aware of it? It is understandable that we do not want to stare at somebody in a wheelchair, yet, is it better to make them feel invisible and incapable?
What I came to truly appreciate—it was literally like a ray of sunshine in every outing—was the occasional stranger who actually looked me into the face, smiled at me or even said “hi”. I have never felt such warmth before when I was walking on my own two legs, from a simple friendly acknowledgment.
When people have expressed their sympathy for me over the last seven weeks, I usually replied that there have been many gifts and great learning in the experience of having two badly injured feet. One gift is deep gratitude for what we usually take for granted, another one is slowing down and being present and a third one is the experience that nothing can stop you from what you feel passionate about. It has been empowering to figure out my everyday life and continue to work and teach.
One particular gift I haven’t really written about that much are my vulnerable moments and what we learn about ourselves and our relationships during those moments of vulnerability. Being completely helpless for a while has brought great clarity for myself and my family about my areas of vulnerability. Some family members knew exactly what tone to use and what to say to help me relax into the new situation and to make me feel loved and taken care of. When we examine our moments of sensitivity closer, clear patterns emerge.
“If we really boil our issues down to their essence, I’m willing to bet most of us will be able to identify only three or four with the power to make us feel bad.” (Stan Tatkin, Wired for Love)
Stan Tatkin lists eight common vulnerabilities depending on our attachment style:
- feeling intruded upon
- feeling trapped, out of control
- fear of too much intimacy
- fear of being blamed
- fear of being abandoned
- fear of being separated
- discomfort at being alone
- feeling you are a burden
When we know our vulnerabilities and what makes us feel unsafe and also what triggers our loved one’s fears and primal fight, flight or freeze response, we can truly help and support each other. Instead of setting those instinctive responses off, we can say or do something that helps the other person feel safe.
You can do an exercise to figure out in which way you tend to feel vulnerable:
- Sit down and think of past issues which have deeply affected you from as early as you can remember. If you have experienced abandonment in some form in childhood, perhaps a parent or other important person died or left, this could be one of your vulnerabilities.
- Recall more recent incidents when you felt angry, depressed or upset. What was the situation or issue that caused those feelings?
- When you have completed your list, look for commonalities between those situations. You might find they all fit into three or four different categories. For example, did you ask your partner to do something and he or she responded with a sigh and rolled eyes to your request? Did you have a conversation with your sister-in-law about your special food requirements for a family dinner and she reacted in a snippy way? Both situations could fall under the category of feeling like a burden.
- Once you have figured out your own main categories of sensitivities and vulnerabilities, do the same for your partner. Then share with him or her.
- Commit to being aware of each others triggers and supporting the other in feeling safer by saying what they need to hear or doing what calms them. Perhaps your partner needs touch or eye contact, perhaps he or she needs a certain tone of your voice or particular affirmations like “I am here for you” or “We will solve this problem together” or “How about we do this or that to make you feel safer?”
Of all the gifts the accident and injury had for me, the best gift is probably the reminder of how I am “wired” and how my partner is “wired”. The vulnerable moments brought, and continue to bring, a greater conscious awareness of how we can make each other feel secure in any situation in life.
The secret of keeping each other safe lies in understanding what past experiences predetermine us to be vulnerable in a certain way and in establishing a strong “couple bubble” as a safe space. A couple bubble implies guarantees and agreements like:
- I will never leave you.
- I will never frighten you purposely.
- When you are in distressed, I will relieve you, even if I’m the one who is causing the distress.
- Our relationship is more important than my need to be right, your performance, your appearance, what other people think or want, or any other competing value.
- You will be the first to hear about anything and not the second, third, or fourth person I tell.
If you want to learn more about how you are wired and what constitutes a couple bubble,
Angelika, coach & workshop facilitator,
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