Vulnerability vs. Perfection

Photo by Mercedes Ranca├▒o Otero/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Mercedes Ranca├▒o Otero/iStock / Getty Images

By: Aaron Mitchum, LPC

The tension

This is the bind: we all have parts of our lives that are messy and yet we live in a culture that places a lot of pressure on us to pretend that we have it all together. The following scene, from the movie This is 40, gives a great picture of this. Larry (Debbie’s father-in-law) has been struggling with finances and depression. Debbie is encouraging him to open up to his wife (Claire) instead of dumping it on his son all the time.

DEBBIE He worries about you. It puts a lot of pressure on him.
LARRY I know. I just don't have anyone else to talk to about it.
DEBBIE You can talk to Claire.
LARRY No. If I open up to her she'll leave me.
DEBBIE No, she won't, Larry, she loves you.
LARRY I know, but there's a certain point at which you just can't stay.

Do you see the bind? Pretend everything is perfect but feel alone or go with transparency and risk rejection.

In pretending we’re perfect we get a shroud of security that we can use in order to feel less needy.  In short, we project the picture-perfect because it makes us feel more desirable (and more secure about keeping our relationships)...not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.

So that's on the one hand, on the other we have the option of vulnerability. This is where we acknowledge ourselves as we are; not perfect but also not complete crap. Instead of projecting that we serenely exist above the fray we actually admit to things like: not recycling, enjoying the blockbuster more than the "thoughtful” independent film, having a dirty house, eating fast food, freaking out at our kids, feeling lonely, struggling with money, struggling with sex, struggling with power, and so on. As well as we admit to the fact that we did love our kids in a that really important moment, that we are capable, that we did perform well, that we do have some stuff together, that we do have a ton to offer. Taking that fuller kind of stance though leaves us often feeling exposed and anxious about being rejected or left out, things that as humans we fear the most. Actually from an attachment perspective this is the idea that sounds crazy, not the pretending we're perfect! What is attachment? I'm glad you asked.

Attachment Theory and Styles

From the beginning we are assessing our world through the emotional receptors in our brain with one central question in mind, "will you be there for me?" and based on our earliest relationships with our caretakers (as well as genetics) we develop a sort of go to set of assumptions for this question. Then barring any further major relationships in our lives that would teach us otherwise we basically navigate life according to our set of assumptions. This is the basis for attachment theory, the widely credited scientific theory for how relationships impact our development and survival.

Attachment styles are the ways in which we interact with others (the more important a relationship is to us the more we see our attachment style come out) and are influenced by our internal attachment assumptions.

The styles are:

Secure - evenly asking from others as well as giving.
Dismissive or Avoidant - convincing ourselves and others that we don't need others. We stay reserved but eventually, given enough tension, we blow.
Anxious or Preoccupied - we are fearful of losing others and the more we fear the more we cling.
Disorganized or Fearful - we fear losing others but also fear others attacking us for our need of them (this is a result from feeling attacked ourselves for our needs - whether early in life or during a trauma later in life). So we seek others and reject others at the same time.  (I need you ...actually go away. OR I'll dump you before you can dump me).

Attachment styles influence our relational navigation. However, those internal assumptions may not always be the most accurate to operate out of. Which leads me to the final thought of this post.

What If!?

What would happen if we experimented with crazy? Meaning, what if we focused more on trusting others to be there for us as well as showing others we will be there for them? The attachment research would seem to predict increased joy in two parts of our lives if we did this.

First, towards ourselves we might become less judgmental and more accepting (I am worth connecting with). Second, with others we might find that courageous vulnerability is contagious. This is because when others are willing to be real it gives off the implicit message of "this is a safe place".  When two people are inspired by each other to be there for each other, relationship becomes connected, genuine and deeply satisfying.
Of course the pursuit of honest and secure living is a life-long one and one that cannot be done alone. It demands courage and loving responses to our healthy reaching out. Courage to put ourselves out there, to fail and keep trying and to hold our own anxieties about being abandoned, rejected or isolated longer than is comfortable. Assuredly we will at times feel like we've made a huge mistake (any Arrested Development fans?). Yet, this path is one that is worth the risk. For at the end is a more complete, more human self. Which is really what all the pretenders want anyways.