Your vulnerability holds the key to real intimacy. But for most of us, a “ring of fire”–fear of vulnerability, embarrassment, and even shame–surrounds our most tender, authentic parts. In this episode, you’ll learn how to understand and transform your fear of vulnerability so that you can bear the heat of authentic love.
This article is essentially a direct transcription of my talk or interview. Subscribe and listen to the podcast here.
I’m very excited to talk about this in this podcast episode because it’s a hugely important dynamic and it’s one we’re not trained to understand. That dynamic is, that as we move closer to the inner sanctum of our being and expressing that in a relationship, defenses come up. Old trauma comes up, fear comes up, shame comes up, and insecurity comes up and often can sabotage whatever the next steps are in intimacy.
So when we know this, it won’t seem like a bewildering and strange thing. We’ll understand what it is, where it comes from and what to do about it. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today. This is how I want to start out. I want to start out using an image that I use a lot in my teaching, and it’s an image of a target. So you picture a target right? And that target is a kind of diagram of your zones of authenticity.
You know, they say intimacy is “into me see.” The closer you get to the center of the target, the bull’s eye, the more you see and feel your core, the core of your being. The more you let other people see that, people you trust, the more you let them see that as well. As you get closer to the center, to the bull’s eye of your being, to the place where you feel things the most deeply, most tenderly, most strongly, the place where your passion is greatest, but also where your tenderness is greatest, your authenticity, your creativity, your originality, your vulnerability, all those things get more vivid, get more real, get more true. And we become more and more beautiful. Yes. More and more vulnerable when we touch those parts of ourselves.
A Ring of Defense
But what happens is, and this is something that we’re not taught, there is a ring of defense and protectiveness that encircles these exquisite deep parts of ourselves. And that means that when we come close to these parts of ourselves, close to sharing them in an intimate relationship, we get scared. We get freaked out. We remember previous traumas because these are the places that I call our core gifts.
These are the places we feel most deeply.
It’s where we most feel the beating heart of our humanity. And that’s a scary thing. It’s a beautiful thing, but a scary thing, too. Because when we were younger, when we revealed these parts of ourselves, sometimes they weren’t understood. Sometimes they were neglected, sometimes they were stepped on, sometimes they even were abused.
I need to be smart. I can’t be sharing these parts of myself freely all over the place. Because if I’m going to keep my dignity, if I’m going to survive in this cold world, I’m going to protect these parts of myself. The world is not gonna make me cry. The world is not gonna make me reveal these parts of myself.
And so we hold these parts kind of frozen deep inside. And we remember the times that we were humiliated, the times that we were misunderstood, and we make a rule.
And the rule is this: I don’t show because I am not stupid. Because I don’t like being ashamed, I don’t like being ignored, and being stepped on.
So these parts of ourselves, just like in those Indiana Jones movies, as you get closer to the Holy of Holies, to the inner sanctum of the temple, the guards get more fierce. That’s what happens to each one of us in intimate relationships.
A Ring of Shame
You’re there with somebody you love and you’re feeling something and your head tells you, “Oh, shameful. I shouldn’t be feeling that. That’s too intense. That’s too vulnerable. That’s too needy. That’s too immature. That’s too out of the box. That’s too tender. That’s too emotional. That’s too fierce.” Whatever it is. I’ve been shamed for that before and we get afraid to share that. That’s human and that’s what happens, but it’s really interesting.
This is a really interesting thing that happens when we’re with someone we care about and there’s something like that that’s so close to the center of our being, that’s something that we’re really feeling and we decide we can’t share it.
Somewhere we will also decide that the other person is rejecting that part of us, even though that person did not have a chance to witness that part of ourselves. The self-shaming, the rejection of ourselves, leads us to project that the other person is rejecting us too. So we get hurt, we get angry and we are reinforced in not sharing those parts of ourselves.
So all of us need to know that there is a ring of shame, or a ring of insecurity, or a ring of vulnerability around some of our deepest expressions of self. It might be in sex that there is a part of you that you want to express and you decide, “Oh no, that is too kinky, or that’s too vulnerable, or that’s too exposed, or that’s too wild, or that’s too quiet for this moment,” or whatever it is. And then we don’t share it because we’re embarrassed.
The Guards at the Gate: Your Fear of Vulnerability
Or like the first time that you say, I remember falling in love with someone and he had not said that he loved me, and I was the first one to say I love you. And I remember it should have been a really good moment, but I remember feeling like a six-year-old.
There was such a feeling of shame and embarrassment and not a nice young, this was a horrible youngness. And it was because that was the ring of fire.
And then I did it and he responded in a wonderful way.
And we began a relationship and all of that kind of shame went away. But I thought, wow. And that was one of the times that I saw this ring of shame and I came to understand that it’s just part of the landscape of your and my intimacy journey. That when we’re going to go the next step to share this part of ourselves, whatever part that is, there will be an unconscious kind of guard at the gate.
And we can experience that guard at the gate as shame, anger, numbness, vulnerability – intense vulnerability, embarrassment, all of those different things. And so this is a very important thing to know. And when you hit that spot, you can understand that this is actually, it may feel really awkward, really weird, really difficult. But what it means is that you are on the cutting edge of your intimacy journey.
You are on the edge of that, and if you could think about what it is you want to say and explain to yourself why it makes sense, why it’s human, why it’s valid, and you can make space for it and then find a way to express it.
Someone Where My Soul Can Be Safe
Assuming you are with someone you trust to not abuse you, shame you, to make space for you, because this stuff is tender. When someone shames us, abuses us, ignores us around these zones, the damage is worse because it brings up reverberations of our past. So when you share this with someone who’s essentially safe, and this is always what I say in your search for love, you ask,
Does my soul feel safe with this person?
Does my deep heart feel safe with this person? Maybe I feel scared, maybe I feel nervous. But with this person, is there a sense of their safety in a consistent way? And if so, you’ve got gold. But we’re not taught to look for that. And we’re not taught how to cultivate that as a romantic attraction because we’re looking for the bad boys, the bad girls, the edge, the fire. What we don’t realize is that goodness is the most intense aphrodisiac over time, if there’s physical and sexual attraction, and romantic attraction as well.
Goodness is just a very, wonderful thing, as is generosity.
And when we get to mix physical, sexual, romantic attraction with a sense of another person’s goodness and decency and safety, that’s just glorious. That’s when the scary journey begins because it’s with someone like that who we can share these deep and vulnerable parts of ourselves.
And that is the great adventure of intimacy that we cannot really do with an unavailable person, because they’re not gonna stick around for the repercussions of that. So let me say something else here: What we do often, and in these points, when we’re on our intimacy journey and we’re at an edge, we’re scared to reveal a part of ourselves.
Acting In and Out
But we want to reveal a part of ourselves, but we’re scared to reveal that part of ourselves. So what we often do is we either act in or act out. So what does that mean?
We might act out, we might push the person away.
We may all of a sudden find ourselves getting wildly judgmental about something about them or really irritated or we just don’t want to see them anymore. We kind of take distance, because we’ve hit the ring of fire.
That is that we are getting really close to them, that we’re beginning to get really vulnerable. So we hit that unconscious ring of fire. We push the person away, that is acting out. We yell at the person, we get angry at them. We get extra angry if they did something that kind of doesn’t feel right to us. We have a kind of explosive reaction that’s all acting out, or we demand or control that they listen to us and understand us, all acting out.
Or we act in, which is suppressing, which is not sharing these parts of ourselves.
And that causes a whole other kind of cascade of repercussions. It intensifies our insecurity. It makes us feel rejected. It makes us feel ashamed. And this is what I want to say folks, this is part of the intimacy journey. We’re not taught that this is actually a beautiful, important, seminal, and powerful point in our relationships because we can step over the line with a safe person and reveal this part of ourselves.
And if the person hears us and honors it and make space, our love blossoms and we blossom and we say, ‘Yep, this is who I am meant to be in the world.’
So these points of the ring of fire are that because we’re entering the inner-sanctum of our vulnerability and that’s holy, holy space. So I want to share something else, too. This is a really interesting concept that I learned in therapy that I don’t hear talked about, almost ever. But I think that for anybody who is on an intimacy journey, it’s something really essential to know; and it’s what my therapist called retribution.
I’ll tell you about one memory that I have before I first experienced it. Two amazing artist friends of mine, Kathleen Mandeville and David Schecter, both in theater doing incredible, incredible work, invited me to something that they had created called the Passion Play. And what it was was exploring the interplay between sexuality and spirituality using theater techniques. It was an amazing, life-changing experience that went on for like a year and I will never forget.
This is Part One of a two-part series. Find Part Two here.
Transcript Notes: This article is essentially a direct transcription of my talk or interview. Subscribe and listen to the podcast here.