The other day, I was surprised by a friend’s post, in which she mentioned her friend P who came over to visit and how good it felt to connect with someone again after sheltering in place alone for so long.

I texted my partner (who was out) asking if he’d gone to visit her. He replied that he had and he’d forgotten to tell me she said hello.

I stared at my phone, stunned by a cascade of thoughts.

“We’re still in a pandemic. Is there anywhere else he’s going that I don’t know about? How many times has he gone there behind my back? Is something going on between them? Did he wear a mask the whole time? Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

I wanted to yell ALL THE THINGS IN ALL THE CAPS in my next text, but I’ve learned (and teach) to feel underneath the cascade for what got triggered and lead with that instead.

Instead of volleying my stream of fear, anger, and accusation at him, I chose to express my needs and the tender, raw question at the core of my upset.

I texted: Due to COVID-19 I’d like to know when you’re visiting our friends’ homes and if you’re wearing a mask or not. I felt caught off guard when I saw her post and felt unsafe and like I don’t matter. Do I matter to you?

Here’s the thing: I “know” I matter. I could rationalize my way out of the fear, and have many times before, but to do so doesn’t deepen the connection between us and would likely lead to an argument, so I chose to go straight to showing my soft underbelly and asking for what I needed instead.

He responded: Ok. Will do. I wore a mask, and gloves, cleaned my hands before and after. And I always wash my hands when I come into the house. Sorry. Yes you matter. I love you❤️ Thanks for asking❤️🙏🏾✨and letting me know how you feel and what you need.

Once he got home, everything felt good between us. Tender. Open. Loving.

And I made it clear that I need to know in advance when he’s planning to visit anyone, especially while the numbers of infected people are starting to rise again.

The next time he went over to her house to visit, he let me know beforehand, which felt great.

Do you think as an independent, successful 53 year-old woman I want to be asking somebody if I matter? Of course not! It’s a ridiculous question to which I already know the answer.

But to shame the question dishonors the very young part of me that isn’t sure she does.

While I don’t allow fear to run my life, I don’t ignore or shame it when it comes up. It’s taken me years to develop the ability to feel what’s underneath the cascade of thoughts and feelings that run through me when I’m triggered and to not ignore the tender spot that’s been touched in favor of lashing out.

Sometimes I work the trigger through on my own, because it’s not really about the other person, and other times I share it because leading with vulnerability instead of blame brings us closer to one another.

In other words, letting my partner feel the raw, tender places inside of me leads to having the depth of love and connection I want in our relationship.

Brené Brown describes vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. She also says, What most of us fail to understand…is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave . . . Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.

I’ve seen over and over again that even when it seems like the partner isn’t capable of meeting them in this way, when my clients begin to reveal their vulnerability without blame or shame, their partners snap to attention and show up more tender, caring, and the relationship deepens.

Here’s how you do this:

1. When you get triggered or emotionally flooded, pause.

Start by tending to yourself instead of immediately lashing out. Take a short time out to be with yourself before saying anything.

If you’re with the person who upset you, let them know you need a short time out, but you’ll be back when you’ve re-centered yourself. Go to another room.

CAVEAT: If someone is being emotionally abusive, it’s not the time to do this exercise, it’s the time to get yourself out of the situation and into safety. This practice is for upsets that occur in healthy relationships.

During your time out, ask yourself what belief or fear got hit during the conversation. This may be hard to do at first if you’re used to making others wrong for upsetting you, but keep going underneath your anger and righteousness to look for the more vulnerable and tender place.

Here’s the thing: We walk around covered in giant buttons that people can’t help bumping into because they’re in the way when we try to get close.

Do you train people to stay back so they never hit your buttons and live with a reduced capacity for intimacy and a surface-level relationship? Or do you get curious about your buttons and learn to work with them so true closeness becomes possible and the buttons start to shrink over time? I favor the second option!

It allows others to be who they are without having to police them all the time and you get to learn how to invite another into greater intimacy with you by sharing the real reason you got upset.

2. Ask yourself what you want

Once you’re clear on the belief or fear that got kicked up, ask yourself what you want.

Is there something specific you want them to say?

Is there a specific behavior you want them to stop or start doing?

Asking for what you want or need is also a vulnerable act. It’s way safer and easier to slam others for what they’re doing wrong than to ask for what you want or need.

But asking is also an invitation into greater intimacy, which is where all the magic happens.

3. Share what got triggered and make your request

In a non-blaming way, name the belief or fear that got triggered and ask for what you want, like I did in the above text to my partner.

The general structure looks like: “When you did ________, I felt ________. Next time, would you please _________ instead?

If you want reassurance, ask for it.

If you want a behavior change, ask for it.

If you just want to be heard and there’s nothing to fix, say that!

The point is to share the impact of their actions in a non-blaming way and to ask for what you want and need.

If they say no to your request, it’s an opportunity to have a deeper conversation about what each of you wants in this situation. Maybe the conversation reveals another option that’s actually better for both of you.

In this way, everybody wins because you learn more about what makes each of you tick and you work together as a team to find a solution.

Yes, it’s terrifying to reveal where you’re vulnerable instead of shielding yourself with blame and distancing.

Yes, it’s a risk and it may not go as well as it did for my partner and me.

But the alternative is to have a false sense of safety in your relationships based on control through keeping others at arms’ length using blame, anger, and rules.

This way of relating prevents you from ever healing your wounds. It also let you avoid getting vulnerable and limits your ability to truly let another person in.

In contrast, sharing the vulnerable thing you’re feeling — without blame or accusation — and following up with asking for what you want deepens your relationship’s capacity for love, connection, and the true safety that grows when you learn to hold one another’s hearts with care.

Here’s another article about how to safely practice getting vulnerable in your relationships.

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