The Power of Vulnerability

The Power of Vulnerability

By Barry and Joyce Vissell

“The risk to love is the risk to become vulnerable. We can only love if we risk being hurt.” – Risk To Be Healed

Preparing to write this article, I did a search on our website for the word “vulnerability,” to see what we had previously written. I found a few things, but I noticed Google tried to be helpful by including the following reference: “Identify and eliminate security vulnerabilities on your network.” And yes, there is a kind of vulnerability that you don’t want. You don’t want viruses on your computer, or identity theft from your trash. You may not want to walk into a dark alley in a big city late at night.

But there’s a kind of vulnerability that is good – and very healing.

When we invited participants to be vulnerable during one of our workshops, Leon said, “No way. When people learn my secret, I’m guaranteed to get judged and rejected.”

We looked around the room. Many of the participants had just expressed truths about themselves that they judged would make them look weak or unloveable, and quite the contrary happened. Each person’s expression of vulnerability made them more attractive and loveable to the rest of the group.

We had prepared the group for this outcome in this way. Have you ever bumped into an acquaintance or friend while doing errands, and asked him or her, “how are you?” And have you ever had this person bragged about how great their life is? Does this bragging make you feel close to this person? Probably not. When someone hides their vulnerability – their pain, fear, shame, etc. – it can feel like they are pushing you away, keeping you at a distance.

On the other hand, what if this person tells you they are having a terrible day, and lets you know a smile from you would mean so much? You probably would not hesitate to smile – or even hug – this person. Their vulnerability helps you to open your heart toward them. In fact, their vulnerability can make them more attractive and beautiful, and makes their heart more accessible to you, so you feel closer and connected.

Even Leon’s partner, Sherri, told us his closest friends and family had rejected him when they found out his secret. Undaunted, we said, “Then the acceptance and love of this group is that much more needed. Give us the chance.”

Now sweating profusely, Leon told the group about his recent sex change. HE used to be a SHE. As a woman, he and Sherri had a lesbian relationship, although inside, she always felt like a man. To make matters even more complicated, he (she) had a teenage son who was having difficulty with his mother now becoming his father.

The tension in the room vanished as everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The words of love and acceptance poured out from one after another of us. One participant said, “For a moment I was worried you were going to admit to being an axe murderer, but this is a piece of cake to accept.”

Both Leon and Sherri alternated between sobbing and laughing, so great was their joy. They had never been so deeply accepted. Months after the workshop, we received a grateful letter from them. They referred that workshop as the turning point in their lives, the beginning of a whole, new life.

That’s the power of vulnerability.

Yet, perhaps nowhere is vulnerability more important than in a committed, intimate relationship. Without true vulnerability, a deep, fulfilling, connected relationship is not possible. To really be in love, two partners need to have access to all of one another’s feelings, to the totality of one another’s souls.

Early in our relationship, I used to hide my fear, sadness, and pain from Joyce – and from everyone. All my life I learned to hide the feelings which I believed would betray my weakness. I tried to only show her my strength, happiness and caring, but she often saw through my façade.

In 1970, Leo Buscaglia loved Joyce. More than being her preceptor in her master’s program at the University of Southern California, he was a spiritual teacher and friend. And through Joyce, I had also felt close to Leo, although most of my time was occupied as a medical student at the same university.

“Whatever she feels is written all over her face,” he used to say to me. “When she’s sad, she cries. When she’s happy, she smiles. When she’s angry, it’s visible. When she’s at peace, her face is relaxed.” Then, with sometimes brutal honesty, he’d say to me, “Sometimes I don’t know what you’re feeling. You can smile when you’re angry, or look peaceful when you’re sad. So I can’t trust your smile or your peaceful appearance. Stop being phoney Barry!”

He was right, albeit blunt. I was hiding my sadness, anger, fear, pain, and every other emotion I considered unpleasant, including my human emotional need for Joyce – and for love in general. I had learned all my life, as many of us have, to cover up and ignore these unpopular feelings which I believed would betray my weakness. I tried to only show my strength, happiness and caring.

After having an affair to try to prove (mostly to myself) that I didn’t need Joyce, my life collapsed. Joyce left our apartment and the marriage and I was alone – with my feelings. And up to the surface they came – agonizing pain, an aching hole of sadness in my heart. I was shocked and surprised by the intensity of these feelings.

After enduring the agony for a few days, I knew I needed to see Leo. Our apartment was a few houses down the street from his, in the Highland Park suburb of Los Angeles. I slumped up to his door and knocked. Leo came out and looked at me inquisitively. Completely devoid of self-pride, I blurted out my despair, my face and tears finally matching my inner pain. Leo studied me until I finished blubbering. Then, to my utter surprise, a giant smile lit up his face and he grabbed me in one of his famous hugs. While squeezing me, he excitedly spoke, “Barry, you’re finally real … you’re finally real!!”

Although in that moment I didn’t share his rejoicing, I knew he was right. I was no longer pretending not to have pain. And it did feel good to finally let my feelings out, and be comforted by another human being – and a very loving one.

That evening, for the first time in my life, I made peace with a little boy inside me that needed love, acceptance, and nurturing – the part of me that needed Joyce, needed God, needed everyone and everything. I made peace with my humanity, instead of pretending to be above it. I had been convinced that need and dependence, sadness and fear, and all so-called “negative” feelings, were signs of weakness. Now I realized the courage and strength it took to feel all my feelings. I had been convinced that feeling my humanity would prevent me from feeling my divinity. Now I knew that feeling my divinity depended upon my feeling my humanity. We are human beings on a spiritual journey, and spiritual beings on a human journey.

Now I invite you to be courageous and feel your feelings. Show on the surface what you are feeling inside, especially to those closest to you. Risk being real.

Leo Busgalia opened Barry’s and my eyes to many new and wonderful ideas. One of the many books he had us read was “Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?”, by John Powell. This tiny book opened my heart to a new way of being and became part of the foundation by which we do our work. The essence of the book for me is simply if you want another person to open up to you, then you first must open up and reveal yourself.

I remember a time twelve years ago. Barry and I were expecting a large group for a couple’s retreat at our home-center. We let physical details go until the last two days, and then began to feel stressed. The stress built and built and soon we were saying hurtful things, and ended up completely shut down from each other. By the time the couple’s started walking in the door, we had begun the process of healing, but were not complete. They were all smiles and excitement. We tried to match their joy, but inside there was still the heaviness from the recent days.

Lying in bed that night we talked and admitted we weren’t being authentic. We were still healing from hurtful words and working towards harmony, but we weren’t there. We decided to tell the group the next day. That morning a young friend, in a position of leadership with other young people, came over to help us with breakfast. He had been aware of our inharmony, and the pain that we had been feeling. We told him we were going to tell the group about our pain and inharmony. A look of utter shock came upon his face as he said, “You can’t do that. You must always be strong. They will never trust you.”

Against his warning we did share with the group that very morning. We were humble, honest and sincere. Everyone in the room opened their hearts to us and held us. With their love and acceptance, we were able to very quickly come back together again. Our sharing with the group was like a powerful catalyst compelling each couple to share very honestly and openly. We have done many couple’s retreats since then, but that one remains one of the most powerful in that every single person shared so deeply.

A beautiful part of our work that we never anticipated, are the strong connections made in the workshops. When people are real with each other they want to continue the connection. We know of many people who have formed lasting friendships as a result of being real and sharing their vulnerability. Is there someone you would like to be closer to? Being real and vulnerable are magic ingredients.

Barry and Joyce Vissell

Here are a few opportunities to bring more love and growth into your life, at the following longer events led by Barry and Joyce Vissell: Jul 15-20White Water Adventure in Northern CA; Jul 22-27Breitenbush Hot Springs Summer Renewal in Oregon; Nov 2007-Apr 20086 Month Personal Mentorship Program; Feb 3-10, 2008Hawaii “Couples in Paradise” Retreat.

Joyce and Barry Vissell, a nurse and medical doctor couple since 1964, are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom and Meant To Be.

Call TOLL-FREE 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for free newsletter from Barry and Joyce, further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.

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