Strong and Vulnerable: How I Learned to Let People In

“Vulnerability is hard. And it’s scary, and it feels dangerous. But it’s not as hard, scary, or dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and having to ask ourselves, ’What if I would have shown up?’” ~Brené Brown

January – 2012

I remember sitting in a small, dark room waiting for the surgeon to arrive.

My son had just had major surgery to treat a complex condition that had cost him his small bowel, and it had taken much longer than expected.

My stomach felt tense as the surgeon sat in the chair opposite us.

He looked at the floor as he started to speak.

“It’s not good news,” he said.

“We think he has a week left to live.”

After that, my mind switched off. I felt my wife’s head on my shoulder and heard her tears.

Was it a bad dream?

June – 2017

My feet feel heavy as I am nervously walking toward the divorce court.

Twelve years has come to an end, and it’s time to let her go.

We lived under extreme stress for five years, up every night with our son, constantly in the hospital. I think the only thing worse than being in a war zone is being in intensive care for twelve months and seeing children die next to you.

I know I did my best, but somehow, we lost each other. Both stuck in our own pain, with me unwilling to be vulnerable and unable to fully let her in.

As I stand outside the court in a small, smelly room waiting for the hearing, my thoughts drift back.

May – 1988

I am in the hallway after school, surrounded by three bigger guys.

They are laughing at me and pushing me. I know what’s coming, and I can feel my heartbeat increasing, and my stomach feels tense.

I wish I could be anywhere else but here, but there is no way out. I am surrounded.

I feel the kick in my chest as I fall to the floor and struggle to breathe. A few more punches and I hear their voices fading as they walk away.

I get up embarrassed and in pain, but I pretend I am okay. I remember what I have learned. Never show weakness…

August – 1998

This reminds me of something I have experienced before. I am in a harbor surrounded by three big guys with tattoos down their arms and neck.

I don’t see the guy that has circled me, and suddenly I feel the punch on my ear. I drop to the floor.

Slowly, I get up and say, “Are we done?”

I get kicked in the stomach and fly backward.

Slowly, I get up and ask, “Are we done?”

And another round.

I should not show any emotions. That is how I survive. I know this game…

June – 2017

I hear a voice and snap out of my thoughts.

It’s the court lady, and she says the hearing is canceled.

As I get on the London underground, I close my eyes and drift off again…

March – 2014

This is where it started.

He is an optimistic, energetic Italian scientist who I found online while researching leading experts around the world, and he is my only hope.

I tell him the story of my son and that only the regenerative medicine treatment he is researching can save my boy.

He tells me that we need to raise $7.5 million to do the research.

He looks at me in disbelief as I say, “Okay, I will get that.”

Whatever it takes to save my little boy…

June – 2017

I finally got home from the divorce court.

I am looking out the window, and despite everything I have achieved, I feel empty.

My son is still here five years later, and we managed to raise $8 million. I have many friends, and I had a business that I built from scratch with fifty staff members.

So why do I feel so empty?

I know the answer but am afraid to admit it because I am a man. I am strong, and I don’t need anyone.

I had survived violent confrontations, built a business from nothing, helped save my boy when he was given no chance, I am helping to innovate medical science, and I have fought and won legal battles against our national health service…

I know I am strong, but I feel alone. Disconnected from others.

Suddenly I realize that I have made myself alone. Because I learned to only count on myself and to never show vulnerability.

I google vulnerability and find Brené Brown’s TED talk, and suddenly I realize I have lived my entire life in fear. In survival mode.

While survival is essential and served me at a time in life, it’s not really living.

But somehow being vulnerable and depending on others feels scarier than a fistfight. Scarier than death.

So, I know what I have to do. I have to let my protective angle go as he is no longer needed, and he is holding me back from living.

I sign up for a course over the summer and jump on a plane to San Francisco.

All these hippies are scary. They are so relaxed with touch. It makes me uncomfortable.

They share things and cry, making my stomach cringe because I am terrified of having to do the same.

I want everyone to see how strong and manly I am.

It’s circle time. Oh, I hate these. And, this time we have to share vulnerability with the group.

I am praying that someone will burst through the door and shoot me. It’s America, after all. But to my despair, nothing happens.

As it becomes my turn, I am still alive. F…

I can feel I am shaking.

I tell the group about my son and the long, dark nights I would stand and cry in the living room, scared to my core that he would not be alive the next day.

I never used to let anyone see me cry, as they had to think I had it all together. But I was scared, so scared.

I finally break down and cry in front of the group. I cry like a baby.

They all look at me with love and compassion. They even seem more connected to me, and I feel more connected to them.

Something has happened that I have never experience before. I don’t even know these people, yet they now know me better than my ex-wife, family, or childhood friends.

I feel I can finally be me. Strong and vulnerable.

I get a friend of mine who is a masseuse to give me a gentle massage on my stomach and chest, as I know how much I dislike touch there.

I don’t know why, but I can feel my body being tense and resisting.

I close my eyes and slowly let go. As I let the tension go, I can feel a little hurt and violated child inside me cry, and I let it. I am in hippie land now, so why now?

Something extraordinary happens. I am enjoying the touch. Yes, I really like it.

It no longer feels irritating. As I leave the course, I realize touch is one of my love languages, and I can’t get enough.

Who knew that summer would change my life?

My friendships, my relationships, everything has changed since I came home.

I feel more seen and accepted now that I’m more open, and I’m better able to see and accept the people around me, which helps them be more open too.

I found the missing formula to intimacy and love, toward myself and others.

And it’s not complicated. It just takes courage.

Like a plant needs air, water, and sun to grow, love requires safety, vulnerability, and acceptance.

I found the force. May the force be with you.

About Thomas Westenholz

Thomas is the Founder of Zensensa.com the leading institute for relationship intimacy. He is the author of two books and the host of the Zensensa podcast.  A dating coach, relationship coach, and confidence coach.Provides premarital counseling, couples therapy, online marriage counseling, relationship counseling & marriage therapy. Marriage counseling near you. Trained in Somatic relationships therapy. Created the 3-step love model and end people pleaser syndrome.

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