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What I Learned From A Black Teletherapist On How To Be More Vulnerable

It's about to get real vulnerable up in here.

Wellness

By now we know it takes vulnerability to establish long-lasting and healthy relationships of all kinds. For someone like me, who is aware of this but a hot mess when it comes to execution, this is easier said than done. So, I spoke to a professional on tangible tips to explore my vulnerable side. India Douglas, LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker) works at a school in Brooklyn, New York teaching underserved kids the fundamentals when it comes to understanding feelings. She also became a teletherapist at Brooklyn Center for Psychotherapy to all ages and genders during the pandemic at a time when vulnerability issues became a hot topic of discussion. Her background with the building blocks of emotions, I felt was perfect to break down the root of my vulnerability issues and how to move forward.

While she has never treated me, for the purposes of this story, I did share with her a few intimate details about my struggles with opening up wholeheartedly with those I care about. "Your diagnosis would probably be somewhere within the anxiety wheelhouse. It sounds as if you have issues opening up because you fear the response of what would happen if you did and the what-ifs," she explained. "If you get treated at Brooklyn Center for Psychotherapy, you might get an unspecified anxiety disorder diagnosis (found in the DSM-5). Later, they might put a specifier in there, based on whatever past experiences you share with your therapist."

Below find her tips for myself and others like me to navigate the ins and outs of being vulnerable.

How You Should Work On Being More Vulnerable

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"Before you get vulnerable with someone else, that vulnerability needs to start with yourself. You have to start by asking yourself the questions that you've been dodging in the back of your head. Begin journaling and really thinking about any traumas that you've had. Also, if something that you struggle with is anxiety—which is just the fear of the unknown—write down a list of what you're afraid of, and then the possible outcomes. Ask yourself, 'What if that did happen? Is it the worst thing? Is it the end of the world? What are you fearing from being that vulnerable? What reaction am I afraid of getting?' Write it down, look at it, stare at it and then figure out, 'OK, if this happened how would I respond to it?' It takes away that fear of the unknown.

"Vulnerability lies a lot with understanding your triggers. A lot of people are triggered by things that are attached to trauma or situations that happened in their childhood. When another person doesn't know these triggers, their reaction can come off negative. But when they do, then you open up a conversation and better communication between each other. So, if you're not open to understanding what your triggers are, how can you possibly be open to being vulnerable with somebody else? That's why people need to take time before they get into romantic relationships to get to know themselves—which can sometimes take years. That doesn't mean you can't date in the meantime, but it does mean that the more you know about yourself, the more you can share with your partner."

How To Be More Vulnerable In Your Relationships

"When it comes to a romantic partner, I suggest taking each other out on dates. One takes the other out on a date and on that date, that's the date planners' day to be vulnerable and talk their about things. Don't approach the date like 'I got a bone to pick with you.' It shouldn't feel like a meeting or something you're dreading. It should be more like, 'This is my date day so I get to pick the spot and choose the topic of discussion this time.' And then next week is your date day to go where you want to go and discuss what you want to discuss. You can do this with family members too, if you're trying to build or repair that relationship. Maybe not indefinitely, but for a period of time that gets you both to a better place.

"The number one thing I recommend is couples counseling. The best relationships are where you're in therapy, your partner is in therapy, and you are jointly in therapy. That is the best way to move forward. [Also,] there are card games like We're Not Really Strangers. That's a fun way to kind of get to know someone that you're interested in a bit deeper, and literally laying your cards on the table."

How To Be Open & Expressive If You're Afraid Of Being Vulnerable

"For someone who is not good at being vulnerable, it might feel like, 'I want to be vulnerable with you but I'm scared of being vulnerable with you, and by me having even this conversation with you, is me being vulnerable.' Lean into your strengths instead of focusing on your weaknesses.

"If your strength is drawing, draw a picture that expresses how you feel; if your strength is music, play a song that expresses how you feel; if writing is your strength, write a letter or a card—everybody has certain strengths. You want to play off those strengths, they will empower you."

Being Vulnerable With Someone Who Is Not Receptive

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"If you do step out of your comfort zone and are vulnerable with someone, and they're not receptive, then that is a sign that this person is not ready to be vulnerable back with you. It takes two. Instead, focus on why you're seeking validation from this person who's incapable of giving you what you're giving of yourself. If you feel like this is a person that you want to work on things with, speak to them about it. Have them own up to it. And if they're unable to do that, then move on to somebody else who's willing and ready to be just as vulnerable as you, because it doesn't work if one person is putting in all the work."

How To Receive Someone’s Vulnerability When Being Outwardly Emotional Doesn’t Come Natural

"By saying to them that you hear them and you are appreciative of them being vulnerable with you. Then add that you need some time to digest what was just said to you so that you can give them the proper reaction to that vulnerability. Sometimes when people have a hard time being vulnerable and then other people being vulnerable back, they go into a shell. That's something that needs to be shared with the other person so that they don't feel like, 'Wow, I just laid it all on the line and this person just blinked at me.'"

Patterns, Behaviors and Language That Should Be Established To Create A Space For Vulnerability

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"Setting boundaries is a good place to start because once you establish your boundaries, you can figure out who you can trust. Once that trust is established, then the vulnerability just spills out. I feel statements which go something like, 'I feel like this and because of that, I would like this from you moving forward.' Ifeel statements are good because you're starting from the feelings and it's not an attack on that person. It's just you talking about how you feel."

For more of India, follow her on Instagram.

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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