Creating Safety in Our Relationships: The Power of Vulnerability and Empathy

Creating Safety in Our Relationships: The Power of Vulnerability and Empathy

Last updated on September 21st, 2023 at 02:22 pm

I remember years ago in graduate school; our class did an exercise on visualizing a safe place. Not everyone could. For some, a sense of safety simply did not exist. For others, they found their safety alone, often in nature. Others could find it in relation to someone specific, for example, a pet or grandparent.

Given that we were a class getting educated in Counseling Psychology, it was stunning at how many of us had issues with safety.

Having a sense of safety in our relationships is incredibly important. It is the foundation for vulnerability. Having the capacity to be vulnerable and support the vulnerability of another allows our intimate relationships to blossom.

Brené Brown tells us, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” If one of your goals is a happy relationship, then learning to create safety is essential, because, without it, your connection with your partner will be stressed.

Why do we struggle so with safety? What makes us feel so unsafe?

All we have to do is take a look at our outer world, and it is clear why safety can be an issue. We have all experienced cruelty. And we are bombarded with images and stories of suffering and acts of cruelty.

I had been haunted by an image a number of years ago. This (being haunted by an image) has happened before. On a few occasions, it has been a positive image.

The particular image I am thinking of is of a little monkey that was being used for experiments. His hand is reaching out of his small cage. I can feel him reaching for love, for connection, reaching out of his cruel and unkind existence.

The image haunts me because I can feel his pain, his need, his sadness, and his isolation. It haunts me because this is not the world that I wish to be a part of. The term ‘cruelty-free’ was created for a reason. And yet we are surrounded by countless acts of cruelty, to both animals and people, to forests, to the earth.

This divide of self and other spreads outward. The world becomes ego-centric and mostly about us. We become the center of the universe — and lose a sense of the interconnectedness of all of us. If we are disconnected from ourselves, we cannot feel. If we are disconnected from others, we cannot feel their needs, their discomfort. Our hearts become partitioned off and only connect with that which we identify with.

In contrast, I remember when I, my siblings, and our next-door neighbors would camp outside in the cow pasture as teenagers — a chance to get away from the parents for a night. We would listen to the large and lumbering bodies of the cows as they approached grazing. They had big liquid brown eyes and mostly peaceful spirits. I enjoyed feeling their presence. I felt a communion with them that was soothing.

How do we cut our selves off from our connection with others? As an individual, a society or a species? How do we push parts of ourselves away? I imagine it starts with survival, even going back as far as hunting to survive. You either disconnect from the life you are going to kill, or you have a belief that allows you to accept what you are doing while remaining connected.

For me, the idea that works is thanking the being who was sacrificed for me. For me, it does not work to say, ‘they are just animals and do not have rights.’ It does not work for me to push part of myself away and not recognize or honor another being. It is not okay to leave another to suffer, with no one present to let him or her know that he or she is not alone.

We all do it. Disconnect. Maybe not all the time, perhaps not usually. Or perhaps it is our way of life. Maybe we started early. Sometimes it is just a little part of ourselves we have gotten rid of; a feeling that we don’t want to have that gets pushed away. Maybe someone hurt our feelings and we ‘got rid of it’ instead of staying with that feeling. Perhaps it was easier to get rid of our feeling than to know that someone wasn’t treating us right.

When we push away our emotions, the internal divide gets deeper. We stop knowing who we are. In a sense, we become ‘top-heavy,’ with a lot of thought, but not much experience of feeling. Maybe we can’t take in the experience of others, whether it is the cow out in the pasture or our partner or friend who is upset. Or at the other extreme, our upset feelings are the only ones that matter. There are consequences. We cannot see the other’s perspective. Our hearts are limited. The divided inner world reflects in the outer.

Compassion can only come through connection. Compassion for ourselves usually allows us to extend that quality outward to others (unless we are too damaged). Extending compassion outwards means no longer putting ourselves first. It means that I don’t want my children to go to better schools or make more money if it comes at the expense of other children. It means not wanting anybody else to suffer, starve, be beaten or be stopped by a ‘glass ceiling.’ It means we recognize that we are all in this together. Getting on top isn’t the path to safety. Safety is only possible if we are all safe.

Love cannot be outmaneuvered. It can only be pushed away. Love embraces. It is not the cold hard and detached stare of someone who doesn’t care. But to be nurtured, cared about and related to: isn’t that the realm of the heart? Isn’t that what we all want? We may hope the world will change, but how can it without us changing, without recognizing that the little monkey is also a part of each of us? Truly, self-protection has limits. These limits impact not just our personal experience of self, love, and relationship, but also the outer world. Similarly, we sometimes get stuck in pulling back rather than reaching out when we get caught in a conflict with our loved ones.

To create safety in our relationship, we have to be emotionally trustworthy. We have to learn to be there for each other. We have to reach out our hand to hold the hand of the other.

We live and breathe in the context of relationships. We can do so with an open heart. If we cannot find our open heart, we can begin the work of unraveling why not. We can begin the work of connecting more deeply to ourselves.

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This post was originally published on on July 25, 2019.

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