I had a dream recently. In this dream, a couple came into my office for couple’s therapy. They sat down on the couch and before any of us began speaking, the man took off a mask and laid it down on the table in front of him. Before he removed the mask, I hadn’t even realized that he’d been wearing one. The face that he revealed bore a scar on the cheek. Tentatively, he shared this scar.
His partner, in seeing this act, peeled off a mask that she was wearing. Again, I hadn’t recognized that she’d been wearing a mask. She lay the mask on the table and I realized that the face she revealed was softer. There was a mole that was now revealed, which added beauty and character to her face. I could sense that it was hard for her to reveal this, but she gained confidence as this part of her was seen and accepted as being a part of who she is.
These two partners looked at each other and looked at the masks that they had placed on the table. Then they shifted their bodies closer to one another.
Without a word, the woman slowly reached up and removed another mask from her face. This time I could see faint pock-marks marks on her face–subtle reminders of the pains of adolescence and her journey into adulthood. Again she showed trepidation when revealing these aspects of herself. From within, a natural beauty seemed to radiate.
The man reached out and gently caressed her cheek. Without a word, he removed another mask from his own face and lay the mask on the table. His nose was larger than I noticed before, and his teeth were a little more crooked. Even his hairline was receding. As these features were revealed, a quiet calm settled upon his face. His breathing settled. His eyes shone with greater courage, greater compassion.
The woman reached out and placed her hand upon his heart as they shifted their bodies toward one another.
This process continued as they quietly removed their masks, one-by-one.
After some time, they both removed their last mask. For what appeared to be the first time, these two lovers saw one another. They saw their weaknesses and blemishes. They saw each other’s wrinkles of worry and scars of childhood. And they saw each other’s essence. They saw the source of their beauty and the source of their strength. They held each other with the strength of compassion and openness. They smiled. They breathed deeply.
For several minutes they gazed at each other and held one another. Then, together they stood and, hand-in-hand, they walked out of my office, leaving behind their masks, united in vulnerability.
Have you ever stopped to think about how much shame and vulnerability affect your relationship? If you’re like so many of us, you hate how shame feels. It’s that sinking feeling that overwhelms you when you feel you aren’t good enough or you don’t measure up to those around you. Like so many others, you dedicate all of your energy to concealing aspects of who you are. You have wounds you want to protect. You have insecurities you want to hide. You have parts of yourself that you are afraid people will look down on. So you hide and put up defenses. You put on a mask.
These defenses and masks serve to keep the world at a distance. But they also keep your intimate partners at a distance. Your fear of rejection keeps you from really sharing how you feel. Your fear of shame keeps you from opening yourself fully to your partner.
This affects every area of your relationship. It affects your day-to-day conversations, leaving you feeling on the defensive. A simple conversation about grocery shopping or decorating the home can leave you feeling threatened. When you feel threatened you may lash out or pull away. Both of these actions distance you from your partner.
One area where you might feel distance from your partner is in your sexual relationship. Our society has developed strong ideals about sexual desire and sexual performance. The fear of not being able to perform or the desire to express your sexual desires in different ways can leave you quiet and reserved around the topic of sex. When your partner attempts to initiate, you pull away–not because you don’t love your partner and crave sexual connection with him or her–but because you feel the need to protect your insecurity.
When you pull away from connection, your partner can feel rejected. Likewise, if your partner pulls away, you might feel rejected. Over time, insecurity can build for you and your partner unless you make the critical choice to embrace vulnerability.
There are two critical steps to embracing vulnerability and to allowing yourself to be seen. First, you need to be present to the experience that you are having. Through mindfulness practices, you can develop the capacity to be attuned to your feelings. Being attuned to your feelings
To embrace your vulnerability is the process of removing your masks. This is a risky endeavor. It requires courage. It requires honesty and authenticity. It requires risking everything, knowing that you might have to feel the pain of being rejected. It requires being present to your experience. It requires listing to your partner. Yet, this is the risk you must take when you crave connection and when you seek intimacy. The life of vulnerability is one that is lived from the heart, embracing the pains and the joys that come with love.