Intimacy and vulnerability

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Rowers on the River Cam

Every person has a theme running – like a leitmotif in music – throughout their whole life. For me that theme is connectedness. As a child and adolescent I spent a lot of time secluded in my inner world, dreaming that one day I would meet like-minded people with whom I can share my thoughts and feelings. As I journeyed through life it became stronger and more pronounced, and my work as a therapist has much to do with it.

We need to be careful in assuming that what is true for us would be the same for other people. Yet some things are universal – things we all share as human beings. And I believe the desire for an intimate connection with another soul is one of them. This desire to experience intimacy at a deeper level – and to help others experience it in their lives – led me to practising therapy, for it can be experienced not only with close friends and loved ones, but with somebody you barely know, even with a complete stranger. For me – and I think many of you will join me here – these are truly moments worth living for. Why, then, do we so often feel lonely and cut off, very often from the very people we most want to be close to?

Dragon with many heads

The main reason for this is a dragon with many heads: FEAR. What are we afraid of? First of all, of course, we are afraid of being hurt. This is the chief head of the dragon, a natural fear linked to the self-preservation instinct. If we expose our inner being, we make ourselves vulnerable and it is easier to hurt us through either intention or omission. And there are so many ways in which we can get hurt! So we learn to protect ourselves by donning armour over our sensitive inner being. And there are so many ways to wear this armour! By pretending we don’t care. By criticizing another person. By playing silent games and withdrawing within ourselves (my default defence reaction). You name it!

We do it and all other people do it too. So what happens? We end up walking around presenting to each other our either polished or bristly armour and thus we begin to forget (because we cannot see it) that within each person we meet in our daily life, there is this vulnerable being that yearns for genuine human contact. We also begin to believe that people who come across as strong and self-confident will only accept us and want to socialise with us if we project a similar impression. So we create a persona according to the likeness of this ‘idol’. We may go to terrible pains to maintain this persona and also suffer from a lot of fear like a charlatan waiting to be disclosed.

Fear, however, engenders fear, and going along with it we perpetuate the vicious circle. Yet the truth lays in exactly the opposite direction. The truth is, it is precisely our vulnerability – our humanness (that we often come to despise) – that attracts people and makes them want to connect with us! It is such a simple truth, but sometimes it is so hard to really believe it in our heart! As I have been thinking about writing this blog I have been observing myself more closely and noticing how much I am still infected by this fear – or fears. Fear of being judged, rejected, looked down at. Yet I have countless examples of absolutely wonderful transformations that happen to people and their relationships when the fear is discarded and you reach out to someone heart to heart. I can tell you one such story.

Shedding our armour

When I was doing my PhD, I often came to work in the reading room of the University Library. And for two years there was a man who also came to work there nearly every day, yet we never said hello to each other. I felt uncomfortable with that because it felt unnatural: here is somebody that you know – somebody like your neighbour – yet you pretend that you don’t know each other. This uncomfortable feeling began really to bother me and so one day I put aside my reservations (like what if he thinks I am crazy) and judgements (like he is an arrogant and unfriendly snob) and stopped him as we were passing each other in the library corridor. I said: ‘Hello! I have been seeing you there in the reading room for a long time and we never said hello. My name is Ludmila.’ Guess what happened? He absolutely beamed, said his name was Jack and right there on the spot started telling me all about his research and his work. He was not arrogant or unfriendly – he was just shy! Since then we would sometimes meet for coffee in the canteen and have nice chats. We didn’t become close friends, but it was a genuine human connection – from the heart.

I also remember a story my father told me when I was in my late teens. He was attending a work function and there was one colleague whom for no apparent reason he took to dislike. And he had expressed his dislike by being mean to that person in some small ways. But then at some point during the party, the man came over to him and asked: ‘Victor, why are you treating me like this? What have I done to you?’ Hearing that, my father’s heart turned within him. All his hostility vanished in an instant, he felt remorse and a wave of warmth towards his colleague.

Expressing our hurt directly instead of acting it out means letting go of the armour – and it usually helps to disarm the other person too. Yet it is so difficult to do it! I am personally still struggling with it as one of the pillars of my ideal self-image is ‘being strong’ (understood wrongly – hence quote marks). So it’s not only the fear of being made vulnerable to the other, but also the fear of disappointment with oneself – if we admit that we fall short of what we expect from ourselves.

Well, I have written a very long blog already and have barely begun to scratch the surface of the topic! Please write to me your thoughts and stories – I would love to hear from you and to continue the discussion below.


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6 thoughts on “Intimacy and vulnerability”

  1. Richard d'souza

    Very interesting blog. Interesting that you frame the situation of intimacy leading to vulnerability. Another way of looking at it is that without intimacy life would be missing so much. That takes some of the fear out of the equation…

    1. Ludmila Post Author

      I think what I have been trying to suggest is that real intimacy is not possible without us opening up towards the other person. We are all vulnerable by nature, I believe, and we put up defenses to protect ourselves. Yet these defenses get on the way of an intimate connection.

  2. Olga Diamant

    Thank you for this blog Ludmila. Very insightful and so truthful. We keep our armour for “protection” to stop anything “bad” coming to us but missing out on everything “good” coming too.
    By dropping the armour we become vulnerable and have a chance to be hurt and start thinking and questioning trust which is the topic of your next blog.
    Both blogs are amazing and your openness opens people hearts. It opened mine. Thank you!

  3. Beth

    I just wonder whether true intimacy is ever possible once we have been let down or have ourselves let someone down. Can we trust someone enough to share personal thoughts, feelings, experiences and really believe that they also won’t let us down or that they won’t judge us?

    1. Ludmila Post Author

      Thank you for your question Beth. I certainly believe — moreover — I know that it IS possible to recover our ability to trust again. It does take quite a bit of soul searching and healing though. Very often there are signals that warn us against giving our full trust to a particular person. But we ignore them because they are not what we want to hear or see. When we become more aware of our personal needs, drives and inhibitions we are able to perceive better the reliability of other people, in various contexts. So we can see whom it is safe to approach more closely, and whom we should keep at an arm’s length.

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