I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately and its connection to anxiety, gratitude, and the experience of being in love. Thanks to the brilliant work of Brené Brown, the word vulnerability has entered the mainstream and has led to an unprecedented level of cultural conversations about it. That, in itself, is quite extraordinary and hopeful for, in some ways, the next stage of our evolution as a species hinges on our ability to be vulnerable: to be soft, defenseless, humble, open, and willing to take emotional risks. These qualities speak to the feminine principle which has been steamrolled and violated for thousands of years and has led to the near-destruction of our planet, including the colonization mindset which is responsible for untold levels of inhumane treatment of anyone deemed “less than”. But this is turning around. Hope is on the horizon.

In light of the vulnerability conversation, I recently shared this on Instagram:

We love safety. We love staying in our comfort zone. And for those of us on the anxious-sensitive-creative person, we love it A LOT. But a life that is too safe, a life where we refuse to take risks and step just enough outside our comfort zone that we grow but not too much that we’re overloaded, can lead to feeling flat and unfulfilled.

I feel vulnerable every time I hit “share” on Instagram.

I feel vulnerable every time I press “publish” on my blog

I feel vulnerable every time I speak from a soft, undefended place to my husband.

I feel vulnerable when I let a friend know that I’ve been hurt or that I need more connection.

I feel vulnerable when I release a new podcast episode.

I feel vulnerable when I announce a course.

But I’m willing to take the risk of vulnerability and tolerate the discomfort of not knowing how I’ll be received because, for me, a life lived inside the safe bubble of my comfort zone feels flat and stagnant.

I create because it’s what comes through me. I share because even if it helps one person, the risk of sharing is worth it. I practice shifting into the soft place of need with my loved ones because it’s here that our relationships are most honest and alive. Is it scary to live almost daily on this edge of vulnerability? Yes. But it’s also alive, meaningful, and fulfilling. It’s a sort of grounded exhilaration that is akin to feeling in love – except in this case I’m in love with life.

There’s a current of aliveness that runs through me, and I’ve come to understand that it’s in direct proportion to the degree to which I’m willing to take risks in all of my points of connection. You have this place in you, too. You have a unique soul expression that longs to be heard. You have a place in your heart that longs to soften into need and connection. Where you’re willing to risk, you also open the pathways to soaring and a source of joy that is unparalleled.

***

When it comes to relationships, we expect our partners to ignite this feeling of falling in love. What we fail to recognize is that if there was an infatuation stage in the early stages of a relationship (and the health or viability of a relationship does not hinge on having had an infatuation stage), it’s because both people were open-hearted, which means they were willing to be vulnerable. One of the reasons why we’re so addicted to the infatuation stage in this culture is that it’s one of the few times that we’re given permission to lay down our defenses, to soften the habitual places of protection, and open fully. New parenthood is another time when vulnerability is accepted and even expected.

But falling in love isn’t dependent on these stages of relationships, or on relationships at all. As I sit here writing this post, the creek is rushing past in full spring glory; the birds are singing their morning songs; the pea seeds my sons and I planted a few weeks ago are now three-inch high plants peering up over the edge of the garden box, full of hope and renewal and nourishment; my cat saunters past and squints her love-eyes at me; the cottonwoods that grace the creek’s banks shine their young, green leaves to catch the sun’s rays. If this isn’t love, I don’t know what is. When I fill my well in this place of joy, it naturally projects positively onto my husband and I feel those coveted in-love feelings. He becomes the receptacle for my own experiences of in-loveness as opposed to the originator of it. This is the state of positive projection that I’ve written about on this blog and in the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course. 

As I often write, letting ourselves soften into the goodness of love may be even vulnerable than softening into the anxiety, pain, and fear. For what we have and love we can lose, and it’s the fear of loss that lives at the center of most anxiety spikes. To dwell in goodness is to say, “I love this life,” which means I claim it, I step into the center of it, and I acknowledge that I don’t want to lose it. And the goodness of the natural world doesn’t even begin to touch the depth of love I feel for the three humans that sleep inside the house as I write. When I breathe fully into the depth of this love, I can feel anxiety pricking at the edges of soul. It can sound like:

  • “It’s too risky to love this much.”
  • “Good things don’t last and you’re tempting fate by acknowledging the goodness.”
  • “Who are you to have such goodness? You’ll be taken down a few notches one way or another.”

And this is the moment that intrusive thoughts are most likely to enter. For those struggling with relationship anxiety, a common trajectory is to come into awareness of the depth of love for one’s partner only to find the first intrusive thought – “What if I don’t really love this person?” or “I’m not attracted” or “I can do better” – close at the heels. The same is true for those struggling with postpartum intrusive thoughts; it’s the fear of loss that lives at the core.

The key here, then, is to slowly rewind those thoughts so that you can touch back into the moment of vulnerability and stay there, even if only for a few minutes. Allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable doesn’t mean that we have to live there every moment of the day; I’m not sure that that’s possible. Rather, it means slowing down enough to catch that one micro-moment of goodness and open-heartedness, tracking how the thoughts came in to protect against it, and returning back to the vulnerable space. It’s not easy work, but it’s what allows us to remain in the flow of goodness instead of living up in our heads in a futile attempt to control something bad from happening.

Whether it’s in work, love relationships, friendship, or parenting, what is one small way that you can step outside your comfort zone into the space of vulnerability, remembering that every time you do this you move closer to the experience of true love?

***

Note: I very much value your comments and I love hearing about your insights and breakthroughs. However, if you’re struggling with relationship anxiety, I know it’s tempting to ask for reassurance or guidance, but unfortunately I’m not able to offer advice in this format. I encourage you to consider the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course, and, as always, work with a skilled and loving therapist who can be a guide and witness for your healing. If it’s the fear of loss and death that lives at the center of your intrusive thoughts, I’ll be offering my Grace Through Uncertainty course LIVE in a few weeks. 

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23 Comments

  1. Hi Sheryl,

    Thank you for this post as well as all of your work.

    When feeling vulnerable or full of intrusive thoughts/feelings, how is best to navigate the desire to give up & run away? My partner is available and so loving and I want more than anything to love him without these constant doubts and thoughts but when in the middle of the darkest points, it’s hard to remember why I stay- sometimes it feels like I don’t even want to anymore. How is best to navigate these points?

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • I would say when you feel that way the instinct is to turn away/run away but what will really help (and may feel counter intuitive) is to lean into love.
      Sheryl taught me that in her Open your Heart course. Best wishes <3

      Reply
      • Hi Nadia,

        Thank you. I struggle a lot with this. Especially when I don’t even have the typical anxiety symptoms. Sometimes I just think ‘I don’t want this’ and don’t even feel anything. I think my body has become so used to these thoughts/feelings over two years now that it doesn’t always re-act & this in itself causes anxiety. (“I’m not crying, having a panic attack or feeling scared so that must mean it’s true!”) Aw Anxiety is a tricky beast but I am learning to understand why it is present in my life and how it can help me heal. That doesn’t mean I don’t still often fall down its rabbit hole though. I even get anxious because I haven’t had anxiety! Crazzzyyyyy!

        As far as I am concerned, my partner is a safe, caring and honest. No red-flags. He accepts my thoughts and feelings better than I do!! He brings me flowers even when I say ‘My Brain says I need to leave you’. He makes me feel safe, and shows me things that I’d never have otherwise. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is. It isn’t perfect, but what is? We laugh and there is lots of joy when anxiety isn’t in the driving seat. Sometimes I need to remember that although It feels like forever, I know it isn’t. I just had a month of peace from anxiety but a big transition (Moving in together for the first time in our 3 year relationship) has triggered it- and rightly so in anxieties defence- this is the biggest change and commitment i’ve ever made!! I won’t let my anxiety decide for me. I’ll leave if things stopped working and nothing was able to fix it- not because my brain says I should for no reason.

        Thank you for your support and thank you Sheryl. <3

        Reply
        • Hello! I was In your exact shoes. I went from knowing 100% this is my guy. We moved in together, got engaged. I was over the moon. Not one single doubt. As we were in the process of planning our wedding and buying a house life became stressful and out of nowhere I started having intrusive thoughts of “you don’t love him” I was in constant agony and anxiety. Obsessing. Googling, questioning, etc. my heart was constantly pounding out of my chest, could hardly work, put myself into a depression, had the worst brain fog. long story short I found Sheryl. Thankfully.

          Once I started working on myself my intrusive thoughts would shift and project onto different things. “He doesn’t love you, he will cheat on you, god doesn’t want you to marry him, he’s cheating, you don’t love him” I could go on.

          What worked best for me is coming at the thoughts directly. Tell myself they’re just thoughts, it doesn’t mean they have actual meanings-just like a dream.

          Then I try to think if there was something to spark the thought that is unrelated to my now husband. Like, was a customer mean, did someone tell me unpleasant things, am I just tired or having a bad day? A lot of times my thoughts were projections.

          I also would sit with the thought or feeling and let myself feel sad or anxious for a little bit then moved on (it’s not easy but I’ve taught myself ‘move on’) and not let the thoughts drag me down the rabbit hole.

          Going on 2 years later and I still struggle some days. I honestly believe hormone imbalances I have was part of the cause of my anxiety/intrusive thoughts as well but that’s another story.

          You have to feel your feelings of is this the man you want. Not listening to the thoughts. I KNEW this was the man I wanted and I wasn’t about to let these thoughts take over and push him away. It’s the hardest battle I’ve ever fought.

          I know this is long but I hope sharing my story gives you some ideas on how to work through this. This does not define you. I promise you will come out an emotionally stronger person.

          Reply
  2. I love this! I swear, when life gets busy and my husband and I sit and talk to ‘reconnect’ and become vulnerable in a conversation about life, I fall more in love with him. Even if the day before I was feeling off and the intrusive thoughts wanted to slide in. I knew they were coming from a place where I hadn’t seen my husband much that week due to being busy at work and I was longing for alone time with him. (That’s thanks to your work for me being able to take control of these intrusive thoughts and understand they’re just thoughts. Also understanding the actual cause of them.)

    I haven’t read any of your posts lately other than some insta posts and it’s crazy to me because I remember being in the pits of intrusive thoughts and relationship anxiety, I would continuously check online on sundays to read your posts. I was obsessive-you know, that ROCD 😉 now I read them to read them. I’m at peace now and I owe that to your work. I just wanted to let you know that. Thank you for what you do. You saved me.

    Reply
    • I love this, Lauren, especially knowing you’re at peace and you read the posts to read them!

      Reply
  3. Hi Sheryl, thank you for this beautiful post. I’ve been reading your posts for years, and many times when reading them, they have softened and opened my heart…a reminder, yes, yes, this is what I am here to feel. As you wrote, ” You have this place in you, too. You have a unique soul expression that longs to be heard. You have a place in your heart that longs to soften into need and connection. Where you’re willing to risk, you also open the pathways to soaring and a source of joy that is unparalleled.” And that’s what happened. I experienced that. Without my “safe” walls I have had so much JOY and ALIVENESS in my marriage and my life! My husband died of cancer 11 months ago and I have grieved deeply. Sometimes I feel my walls coming up again, and feeling like the only option going forward is a controlled life. I see now from your post, where that is coming from, and that I have a choice (again) about that. Recently, I have been appreciating the joys of friendships and nature, and now I understand their role as openers to “the softness of love”. Wow, Sheryl! Thank you for your vulnerability. Thank you for putting yourself out in the wide world. Thank you for your honesty and your bravery. Thank you for articulating the connections. Thank you for your beautiful blogs. Thank YOU for opening my heart. Again and again.

    Reply
    • Oh, Julia: Thank YOU for your beautiful outpouring of gratitude! And sending you much love as you continue to lean into the grieving process, which has its own timetable and can also be a pathway to open-heartedness.

      Reply
  4. Thank you for this. I love it. Vulnerability is very much where I am trying to stay right now, and I’m slowly recognising the way fear tries to shield me from it. I can feel the beauty of ‘leaning in’ to the vulnerability and feel very exposed when I do, but so much more alive. Sending love x

    Reply
    • Sending love with back to you :).

      Reply
  5. Dear Sheryl!
    Your post’s are warm and full of wisdom and I’m so glad that I found you and your book. Being a writer and blogger myself I understand what you are saying about vulnerability and publishing “yourself”, so to speak. I also agree with you, that it’s worth it every time but I think it also comes from trust. When you write from your heart you will build up a group of readers that connect with that so you learn to trust them. That is my experience anyway, and has thought me the important lesson to write when I feel I should do it – not to gain acceptance and approval in this ever gaining social media race to acknowledgement. When I get a post that tells me of a new blogpost from you – I’m both happy and thankful because I know I will gain something from reading it. Thanks for reminding me of the importance of authenticity – thanks for your wisdom!
    Best wishes,
    Anna

    Reply
    • Thank you, Anna! Yes, when we come from an intention of making an offering instead of gaining approval it really changes the creative/sharing process.

      Reply
  6. Hi Sheryl,

    Beautiful post, thank you for that.

    Is there such a thing as “wrong” vulnerability? Wrong in the sense that I would be disrespecting myself. Can I be “exposing” myself thinking I’m being vulnerable? For example, opening up too much to someone I don’t have a close friendship with yet. How does one know where to draw the line?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • We certainly have to be mindful about who we choose to share with in our personal lives and only share vulnerably with those who can receive us.

      Reply
      • Thanks! 🙂

        Reply
        • Hi Monica, if you haven’t already I highly recommend reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. She talks about exactly this–how to find that balance between true vulnerability that fosters real connection and overexposure/oversharing that creates a disconnect. It can be tricky but it’s very enlightening to see those moments where we’ve gone wrong.

          Reply
  7. This may be a lightbulb statement for me: “ And this is the moment that intrusive thoughts are most likely to enter. For those struggling with relationship anxiety, a common trajectory is to come into awareness of the depth of love for one’s partner only to find the first intrusive thought… close at the heels.”

    I have often been frustrated in the midst of what I think of as a romantic experience or moment with my husband when I find my anxiety flaring up so loudly. I’ve looked back and thought, “What is that?! Why is it so loud in those moments?” I have never before thought that those may be moments of anxiety exactly because they are moments where I’m invited to be open-hearted/vulnerable. Trying to “turn the ship around” so to speak, and find that moment of vulnerability could be a wonderful path to bringing me back to those romantic moments.

    Thank you for your insight!

    Reply
    • YES! Anxiety shows up frequently on the heels of goodness as an attempt to protect us from the vulnerability of loving.

      Reply
  8. Dearest Sheryl,

    As I commented on your IG “amen” to this. I came across your courses in 2015 and I can’t recommend them enough, they need to be experienced. Full immersion in your courses is key to unravel the encrypted messages of our soul.

    I feel exactly the same when I publish my blogs/podcasts/IG stories and posts, which is such a leap of faith for the ones who are on the highly sensitive spectrum and who have been shy.

    Has it been worth it to take your invitation to touch the most vulnerable me and fill up my well of self? Yes. Has it been easy? No. I was taking shelter from discomfort with walls that were just too high.

    The good news is I dared to reclaim my calling as a Transpersonal Therapist and a Life Coach full time. I dared to share my insights into Mindfulness, Tapping and Neuroscience with my clients every time we meet. I used to be a closeted therapist and thanks to my therapist and your courses, I gathered the faith in myself to reclaim my gold.

    Thank you Sheryl and cheers to being vulnerable and brave, in the intesection of which, we find we’re humans who are here in this together.

    Reply
    • Thank you, beautiful Georgina. I’m thrilled that you’re allowing your light to shine into the world!

      Reply
  9. Hi Sheryl,
    I’ve had little experiences with relationship. In my first relationship I had intense anxiety and possibly ROCD which eventually caused me to leave

    I’ve now been in a relationship with someone for almost two months, my anxiety first hit the day we both admitted our feelings for each other. I stumbled on your blog a few weeks bag which has really helped me so far. Yet at times I still get big periods of anxiety that I cant shake off. Its generally been a good experience with her, she likes every quality about me which I’ve always been self conscious about.

    The past week I was doing quite well as I was immersed in my studies. Yet recently the anxiety came back. My partner had issues with depression and every now and then she gets periods where she’s upset and isn’t as talkative as usual. I’m typically an understanding person, having understanding on depression and anxiety due to my own experiences. Yet every time I’m with her while she has these depressive periods it brings up all these thoughts, such as whether I can handle being with someone like that and that its a red flag. I feel selfish thinking that because I know she can’t help being depressed and she’s been good to me in regards to my anxiety

    Sometimes my anxiety stems from our differences. We met at a retail job, yet she works full time while im in grad school in scientific research. Sometimes I worry that our huge differences in careers and interests are a problem

    What makes me think this is an anxiety issue is that before these thoughts started, I knew I liked her. I was the one who first made the effort to get to know her, due to the fact that I felt we had a connection when I worked with her

    This is only my 2nd relationship and I want to be able to enjoy it without these thoughts, do you have any advice?

    Reply
  10. Catching up on the blog posts now 🙂 and how funny, I was just telling a friend this morning how I feel like my romantic relationships affect how I approach my friendship relationships (and vice versa), and here you talk about this in your blog post! So they are in a similar realm of taking risks on loving and being loved. The intrusive thoughts you wrote definitely are the same questions going through my head about my friendships. Thatʻs so interesting to finally see this connection. When I was younger in my teens and 20s, losing a boyfriend hurt way more than friends drifting away. But now in my 30s definitely I feel more pain at the thought of my good friends drifting away. Maybe itʻs because my husband is now in “my family” category and I feel secure in knowing heʻll be around for the long haul? Well regardless I have a lot of growing to do in being more vulnerable about my friendships.

    Reply
  11. Thank you so much for your posts Sheryl and your kind and wise words,

    I experienced relationship anxiety for about a year, but thankfully I was able to pull out of it for a year when I wasn’t letting fear drive the seat. Now, I have somehow hit another trigger. I know it stemmed from my parents horrible marriage because it spiked again after I visited for father’s day. I know that there is a fear of loss and uncertainty beneath the anxiety, but I’m unsure of how to journal or sit with the emotions and not project on my partner.

    The comment that approach is “You can leave. It’s okay to leave.” When I know there must be something deeper. Projection is still on my man and when I try to journal, it is still about him.

    Reply

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