How To Be Wisely Vulnerable: When To 'Feel' And When To Avoid

This, my friends, is how we develop intuition.
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I recently broke things off with a guy because I felt too vulnerable. I hadn’t experienced “those kind” of feelings for someone in ages, and it left me paralyzingly uncomfortable. Now look, a shit-ton of anxiety is a natural symptom of falling for someone, and feeling vulnerable in relationships is necessary; however this felt extreme. I tried to sit with the discomfort and “be cool,” chalking my distrust up to past betrayals or attachment issues. But something wasn’t right. My spidey-sense kept going OFF, so I honored my intuition and called it quits.

Initially, I felt shame for doing this: as someone who preaches vulnerability and opening up to uncomfortable feelings, I felt like a hypocrite. But when a week later he “came clean” and revealed he was not only engaged(!!!), but he’d been playing another girl the whole time as well (#newyorkdating), I felt pretty fucking pleased with my decision.

So how do we know when to flex our “emotional tolerance muscles,” opening up to vulnerability and opportunity (but also risk); and when to remove ourselves from an uncomfortable situation? How do we know when to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” and when to listen to the fear and take action? And I’m not just talking in relationships, I mean with every situation that evokes emotional discomfort (which happens to everyone multiple times a day, every day).

If you don’t follow, you might not even realize you have options. That’s cool, and you’re in good company. Most of us are unaware of how we habitually react to our feelz.

But in learning you have choice, I assure you life will improve significantly: You’ll experience more happiness because you’ll know what you really want; you’ll feel empowered to let go of “bad habits” because you’ll be less reactive; you’ll see more success in your career because you’ll be able to take growth-inspiring risks; and your relationships will improve because you’ll become more assertive and less reactive. So take a couple minutes to read this article and see where you can make a small change in your life moving toward a more self-aware existence–it’ll be worth it.

First, let’s start with a recap for those of you who don’t follow me on my soapbox: emotions are helpful, even the ones that feel really shitty. They’re evolutionarily adaptive: Loneliness tells us to connect. Anger tells us we’ve been mistreated or an injustice has occurred. Guilt tells us we’ve done something that’s not aligned with our values. These emotions motivate us to act to alleviate our discomfort and (theoretically) improve our chances of survival.

Reacting by alleviating such difficult emotions made sense during caveman days, when isolation or fear-inducing stimuli=death. But the same emotions we feel today are not always best responded to by avoiding or alleviating. In fact, there are many instances in which mindlessly acting on our emotions isn’t helpful: for example, hurting someone as a reaction to anger (that’s not self-defense); avoiding a potential opportunity as a reaction to social or performance anxiety; substance abuse in response to depression–and so on.

In these examples (and many others), we’d be better off making space for our difficult emotions and practicing mindfulness (intentional, nonjudgmental, accepting attention to the present moment). And as we learn to tolerate difficult emotions (like anxiety in social situations or anger in response to being plaaaaayed), we get to choose intentionally how to respond to our difficult emotions, rather than reacting impulsively.

In the case of my vulnerability in the budding relationship, I had to be honest with myself about the root of my anxiety. If it had been primarily due to past hurt and attachment issues, I would (ideally) make space for it and open up to it. I wouldn’t want it to prevent me from experiencing a fulfilling relationship, just like I don’t let the anxiety I feel flying prevent me from traveling.

However, when I took a step back, I realized the anxiety was primarily in response to the dude’s sketchy behavior–and thus it was prudent to listen to it. It was as though I’d gotten on a plane and noticed the wing was on fire. Trying to “sit with my anxiety” and fly anyway would’ve been cray.

Let me give you a couple more examples because I know this can be a tough concept to grasp: We should make space for and not “act on” anxiety when it tells us to avoid social events for fear of judgment, not ask someone out for fear of rejection, or binge eat or drink to numb the discomfort. Yet we should act on our anxiety when it tells us not to walk alone through a dark alley or “wing” a presentation in front of 500 people.

In order to become skilled at choosing the most serving reaction for ourselves, we must first pay attention to our feelings in the present moment with acceptance and without judgment (mindfulness). This can be challenging if we’re used to numbing/suppressing/avoiding/distracting, so be patient with yourself. Take moments each day–on your commute, while your coffee’s brewing, while you’re in the shower–to notice what you’re thinking and feeling in that moment. If it’s something painful, try to stay with it for a moment–at least long enough to know what it is. We need to be able to identify what we’re experiencing to know how to act next.

Then, recognize you actually have three options in how you choose to respond to that uncomfortable feeling:

  1. Avoid or remove yourself from the situation that’s evoking the emotions (e.g. breaking things off with dude or demanding to go through his phone);

  2. “Muscle through,” numb, suppress, or “turn off” the emotion–usually achieved through drugs, alcohol, food, etc. (e.g. distracting myself 24/7 and saying “I’m just being crazy” whenever my unsettled feelings bubbled up); or:

  3. Open up to and make space for the uncomfortable emotions–wrapping yourself in a blanket of compassion, maybe listening to some Cat Stevens, maybe writing or calling a friend to process (e.g. acknowledge my anxiety, jealousy, and distrust but continue to invest in the relationship).

So you see, in my case, avoiding or removing myself from the situation was actually my most self-respecting, self-compassionate move. The others would’ve been borderline masochistic, both in their process and their outcome. Yet in other cases, avoiding or “muscling through” prevents emotional growth and keeps us fearful and stuck.

The truth is you’re never going to be 100% right in what you choose; fortunately, though, one of the ways we become more skilled is through making the wrong decision. So give yourself permission to learn through experience.

This, my friends, is how we develop intuition.

Regardless of how you choose to respond, do it with awareness so you can later evaluate if another option would have been more serving. If you end up regretting your decision, consider what you need to enact a preferred response in the future, then take the knowledge with you for the next time.

In yoga, there’s the discomfort of going to your edge–which will ultimately improve your practice; but there’s also the pain of going beyond it–which causes injury and immobility. Our emotional discomfort is similar. The answer to both is mindfulness: making space for whatever you’re feeling then carefully evaluating the case your discomfort is making.

So go to your edge, mindfully and compassionately. Be vulnerable, but don’t be reckless. And when your gut tells you to GTFO of there, take its advice.

Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a mental health therapist, wellness coach, and host of Forbes’ The Failure Factor. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.