Vulnerability and Self-Protection

Most of us want to be close to others, to share deep connections built on trust and love and affection. We want relationships in which we can open our heart fully, knowing that another person will not stomp all over it when we do. We want to be vulnerable, knowing that intimacy requires it, yet we do not want to get hurt. We want two things really, intimacy and safety. Luckily, these goals are not mutually exclusive. We can, indeed, have both, once we answer the question, “How can I protect myself and build intimacy at the same time?”

Everyone emotionally protects themselves in some way. We can be guarded, can be tight-lipped about our emotions, can get angry at others when we are actually sad, can get aggressive or defensive, act aloof, condescend, criticize, shout or scream, fight or flee. Since we do not want to get hurt, we protect ourselves. Our experiences have taught us that no one else will protect us if we do not protect ourselves. And so we keep ourselves partially buttressed from harm, partially withholding ourselves, our true selves, from others. And yet, presumably, we desire intimacy. This approach does not work and never will. Why? Because self-protection and intimacy are incompatible.

Self-protection erects a barrier between ourselves and others, a barrier which creates distance. While this might keep us from getting hurt, it undermines our goals for closeness. Indeed, we cannot achieve intimacy with another as long as we are fearful of them, fearful that they might emotionally injure us, abuse us, disrespect us, neglect us, betray us, reject us, leave us. This fear of getting hurt keeps us from offering 100% of ourselves. We deem the risk as too high. But there is another risk that is going unnoticed, a risk that increases as we seek to protect ourselves.

In truth, our efforts to self-protect actually increase the likelihood that we will experience pain in a relationship. Ironic, I know. Here’s how this happens. When we withhold parts of ourselves from others, we put a limit on the potential for our relationships to deepen and grow. While protecting ourselves, we fail to be authentic, fail to be completely honest about who we are, fail to be vulnerable. When we do this, we do not give our relationship a chance to be extraordinary. Since we are unwilling to reveal ourselves fully, our partner is prohibited from truly knowing us. If someone does not know us, the true us, then how can they embrace us fully for who we are? If we are not embraced fully, then how can we ever achieve intimacy with that person? How can we ever be close? How can we ever achieve the safety that only true intimacy provides? The greater our self-protection, the harder it is to achieve genuine intimacy with another. We claim to want intimacy, but few of us are willing to stop protecting ourselves long enough for us to cultivate it. It seems we crave safety more than intimacy, when the truth is that we want both.

Safety is a fine goal. You deserve to feel safe and to know that your relationship with someone will not result in pain for you. Self-protection can achieve such safety, but at a cost, the cost of intimacy. Is there a way to achieve both safety and intimacy? Of course! In fact, they are one and the same. When you achieve intimacy, you achieve safety, not a fake and superficial brand of safety, but a safety that is lasting and unassailable. You share a relationship with another in which you give complete permission for another person to think, feel, say, and do whatever they think, feel, say, and do without judgment or fear of consequence, and they do the same towards you. Now this (and only this) is the safety you’ve been desiring all along.

The error that most people make is deciding that they will stay self-protected until there is proof that it is safe to drop their defenses. You might think something like, “I’ll stop protecting myself once I see that there is intimacy.” Uh-oh. That approach just isn’t going to work out, not ever. We don’t wait until there is intimacy to drop our defenses. If we try, intimacy will never arrive. Why? Because as long as we are protecting ourselves, intimacy is unachievable. As such, it is our self-protection itself which is putting ourselves (and our relationship) in the greatest jeopardy. When we remain guarded, we remain disconnected from our partner. While we remain disconnected from our partner, how can we ever achieve a close, loving and intimate relationship?

Without true intimacy, the intimacy that comes from your ability to effectively and consistently give permission, you will always be at risk in your relationship. Self-protection is one good way to guarantee that you will continue to suffer, both individually and in your relationship. If you want safety instead, great! Aim directly for intimacy. Drop your defenses, knowing that this is the only way intimacy can be achieved. You don’t wait to do this. You commit to intimacy right off the bat, from the get-go, knowing that only your willingness to be vulnerable will create the possibility for deep connection. And if your emotions become a bit ruffled along the way, so be it. Better that than forfeiting the opportunity for a truly extraordinary relationship. After all, it is only within this type of extraordinary relationship that you will find the safety you have always been wanting—and that others have been wanting with you.