The Power Of Shared Vulnerability
A couple of years ago my son began struggling with anxiety over going to school. He became quiet, sad, withdrawn and extremely self conscious. Slowly this anxiety spread into areas of his life that had previously brought him joy – like hockey and parties with friends. To even set one foot onto the hockey rink made him become incapacitated by fear. Feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to help him, I signed us up for a class that gives children and their parents tools to cope with anxiety. Anxiety I learned is the result of not dealing with, or allowing oneself to experience, certain feelings.
Triggered by a painful experience a person withdraws and learns to hold back these feelings causing them to become overwhelmed. Anytime these feelings are triggered the anxiety shows up by way of physical and emotional symptoms in the body. Some people have panic attacks because they’ve stopped breathing, and some do anything and everything they can to avoid all possible triggers. It’s crucial to understand that it isn’t the the actual trigger that’s the problem – it’s that we just don’t allow ourselves to feel the feelings the trigger causes. It is the not feeling that causes the anxiety.
As I sat in the class listening to the instructor explain the importance of teaching kids to breathe deeply and allow their feelings to have space in their body, I thought about myself and how I deal with feelings and situations that overwhelm or scare me. The answer was mainly avoidance. She had mentioned that children with anxiety often have a parent with anxiety and, while I had initially scoffed at the suggestion, looking honestly at myself I could see that there was some truth to it. I didn’t experience physical feelings of anxiety because I avoided all situations that would cause me to feel this way. Shocked by this realization I put up my hand and posed a question to the other parents in the group. “Does anyone else feel like a total hypocrite here? I don’t know about the rest of you but I sure don’t truly allow myself to feel my feelings. Especially not the uncomfortable ones.”
I went home that night deep in thought about this. As an adult I had more control over my environment than my son. I could choose to avoid dancing, to remain sexually inhibited, to keep my body covered, to never speak in public or avoid difficult conversations with people that I loved. In fact I could avoid most – if not all – vulnerable situations that were presented to me. What kind of life was that giving me? One where I was missing out on things that I would love to do for fear of looking stupid, sounding stupid, or failure. Why did I think that I was important enough that anyone else would even care how I danced or if my grammar wasn’t perfect or what my body looked like naked? And if they did care did that mean that their opinion mattered more than my own? Did I even have an opinion or was that something else I avoided? I saw that by living this way I wasn’t really living at all, and avoiding difficult feelings meant that I was avoiding potentially amazing feelings as well. I was avoiding LIFE.
Deciding that I didn’t want my life to be this way and that I didn’t want to model this way of being for my children anymore, I went to my son and shared my realization with him. I named several things that I avoided because I didn’t want to feel the feelings that they triggered: dancing, public speaking, being naked, sharing my personal stories, needs and wants.
It seems to me that a large part of healing comes from just knowing that you aren’t alone and almost as soon as the words came out, my son began to feel better. Even when I had tried my best to support him it wasn’t the same as me vulnerably acknowledging my own fears and anxieties and naming them to him. His eyes conveyed empathy for me and we agreed to not only support each other but to seek out situations where we would need to be vulnerable and face our fears. With his support I decided to do all of the things that scared me. Terrified but strengthened by the power of shared vulnerability we encouraged each other on our own separate journey’s.
Starting with small and attainable steps we learned that just by breathing deeply – any feeling that we have will pass. Feelings need space to move and holding our breath doesn’t provide that space. It locks them in – overwhelming us. We learned that it’s okay to take the time to do that – even if it meant excusing ourself from a situation to go for a 5 minute breath session – and that this is a skill that will carry us throughout our life. We learned that we CAN do anything and that when we dare to be vulnerable we build a vulnerability muscle that gets stronger each time we use it. We learned that by allowing ourselves to feel difficult feelings we would then be able to feel wonderful feelings even more. Those feelings need breath and space too.
I began my first step with dance. For years I had avoided situations where I would have to dance and felt sick about dancing in front of people. So I took a hip hop dance class – the style that scared me the most. From that class I took more classes and then got a group of women together and we performed twice in front of an audience. Regardless of what I may or may not look like when I dance, it has become one of the great loves in my life.
Then I decided to speak in front of an audience – sharing personal stories about myself to overcome my fear of public speaking. Using my breath and the authenticity of my stories I got through it. Now I never hesitate to speak in front of a group.
I got naked outside and my friend took photos of me. I did this over and over and I’m more comfortable naked than clothed these days. If you don’t like it, thats okay – because I do.
I learnt to orgasm without my face covered. To move my body in sex the way that I move it when I’m dancing. To let go. To breathe. To be free.
I took my first Bodysex workshop. Two days in the nude being vulnerable with strangers. Today I am a trained Bodysex facilitator leading my own workshops in the nude.
Separate but together my son and I learned that we can do anything that we want to do and that our anxiety can be overcome with courage, breath and simply allowing space in our bodies to feel whatever we feel. It will pass. We cheered each other on, we followed each others milestones and provided empathy at each others setbacks. We were honest and we never stopped supporting each other.
In my work now I have incorporated this belief in the power of shared vulnerability and I think that it is unique to me and is essentially my way of making this work my own. I cannot and will not ask anyone to meet me anywhere naked without going there myself – in all ways. No matter how many times I do it it is a bit scary but, like a worked muscle, I also get stronger. This is evident in the workshops I lead, nude photo sessions that I am a part of, and in my own private orgasm coaching. Of course I still have fears and there are many things that I still want to do, but the difference now is that I know I can do them.
I look at my son now – so tall, with his shoulders back, proud and empathic. He created and followed his own steps to overcoming his anxiety and now shares his story with other kids anytime he hears that they are going through the same thing. He wants them to know that they are not alone and that it can get better. How grateful I am that at 12 my son knows the power of shared vulnerability – something that took me 35 years to figure out. I can only imagine the depth of experiences and feelings that he will have throughout his life because of this.
Thank you Mateyo. <3