Distress Tolerance (part V)

Losing control and being okay; vulnerability and intimacy

If you are reading these in order, you will know that last column I wrote about watching others suffer and being okay with it. This column is about losing control and being okay with it.

Similar? Yes. Same? No.

Watching someone else go through a tough time requires a bit of resolve, which if earned appropriately, requires a bit of vulnerability. That vulnerability means that you opened yourself up enough to receive the unpleasant experience of some tough experience. From that you can connect with another person and acknowledge their tough experience.

Vulnerability is not the same as intimacy

Vulnerability is a requisite – that is, a required component – of intimacy, but it is not the same thing. Intimacy is being close to another person such that you exchange something like emotional validation. Without being vulnerable, one cannot be intimate. Without intimacy, one cannot validate. Let me illustrate this.

Picture a castle with high walls, positioned high atop a mountain, surrounded by a moat. The people inside are safe, but how do supplies get in? Someone has to open the drawbridge and allow access. That is vulnerability.

Now picture another castle, across the valley, with equally high walls, perched atop an adjacent mountain, surrounded by a moat. That castle has the same issues, and both castles can be vulnerable, but in order for them to trade with one another, that requires intimacy. Both castles have to connect.

Intimacy is what brings people together; kingdoms, businesses, romantic couples, parents and children. One cannot have intimacy without vulnerability and without intimacy, one cannot truly validate another’s experience because validation requires the ability to acknowledge what someone else is feeling. That simply cannot happen if a person has never been vulnerable enough to acknowledge (i.e., validate) one’s own emotions.

So what does this have to do with losing control?

Once the metaphorical drawbridge is down, you have handed control over to whomever enters the castle gates. You have lost control. You have extended trust through your choice to be vulnerable, but not necessarily with an invitation. If the people entering happen to be from the other castle, you are not intimate with them; just vulnerable to them.

This vulnerability-intimacy link comes with risk. Of what? Pain. No one likes pain, so we tend to lean away from risk (and pain) and toward safety. We keep the walls up, especially if our history has been checkered with pain already. But in so doing, we also avoid the immense joy that accompanies a potentially blissful intimate relationship with the (metaphorical) other castle. The question is this: can you let go of control, drop your gate, and invite in the other? You will always assume some inherent risk, but without it your castle dies from the inside.

Tolerating distress does not always include a mere endurance of pain. In fact, it frequently includes the invitation of immense happiness and success. Losing control is necessary for intimacy because letting go is equivalent to being vulnerable.

This applies to our children such that if we as parents are walled off and emotionally unavailable, our children wind up playing the role of castle solicitors, knocking at the drawbridge but never being granted access because we are too afraid to risk harm to ourselves. It is inherently better to invite the risk of pain – knowing that we can indeed endure it – than to shut out potential bliss and ensure damage to our children.

My invitation to you, the reader, as you conclude this series is to look for a way this week to expand your own vulnerability. If you do, you will approach intimacy. And if you achieve it, you just might find true joy in your life.

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