Kirstin Heidler
Vulnerability and Grandiosity in Relationships

Recovering my vulnerability

Conquering Vulnerability with Grandiosity?

When do self-confidence and self-esteem become unhealthy and and begin to go into grandiosity? Getting closer to one of the defenses to cover up and suppress feeling vulnerable.

The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.
When the barrier is our belief about vulnerability, the question becomes: ‘Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can’t control the outcome?’
When the barrier to vulnerability is about safety, the question becomes: ‘Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen?
Brené Brown

When do self-confidence and self-esteem, which are agreed to be qualities that are part of health, become unhealthy and begin to go into grandiosity?

Grandiosity is defined as feeling superior to others, as if one was better or more special than others.
While I don’t think grandiosity is part of my personality, I can recognize that I sometimes show up in ways that may seem to others as if I was thinking I am better in some way.

Learning about vulnerability

I started my journey to learn about feelings, recover my full authenticity and reconnect with my vulnerability when I was 15. Years later - when I was 23 - Nonviolent Communication1 began to give me the tools to do this in a more deliberate way and it connected me with others on the same journey. This journey has included learning about my insecurities and showing up in ways that are transparent, warm and approachable.

Still, from time to time I get the feedback that I come across as if “I know it all”. Or people feel as if the only way to be in conversation with me, is to agree with me. Or people are confused or even shocked by the seeming confidence I bring to things, sometimes even when it turns out that I don’t know exactly.

I feel discomfort and pain about the ways in which I show up, that hide and conceal my soft-belly parts, making me unapproachable and aloof.

At the same time, there is a painful conundrum for me in this. On the one hand I long for connection and I want others to feel the respect and care I have for them. It also pains me to hear that they are feeling as if I was putting them down, as if they don’t know or aren’t smart enough. On the other hand I want to trust that there is space for me and what I have can be a valuable maybe even unique contribution. It’s a mixture of on the one hand authentic expression and sometimes even meaning or mattering. And I struggle to make sense in every moment of whether my way of showing up with something I know, is simply a celebration, or as other people sometimes feel it, a way of “asserting myself, conquering the space and looking down on others”.

It comes back to the age-old struggle every human being faces in some way:
How do I find connection and live authenticity at the same time?

In many ways it would be too easy to put all of the reaction I receive down to “the projections of the other person, who is having an issue with feeling worthless and inferior, finding in me someone to blame for their pain of not finding their voice”. While some of what is happening may be explained by what the other person is bringing to the situation, I also want to look at: what is it that I am doing that might be contributing to this?

My context: Where does my vulnerability come from?

As a child and teenager vulnerability was not safe. I was judged for many things and there was nobody I felt safe enough with to share anything about what was going on in me. The loneliness goes deep, and hence my defenses hardened to almost impenetrable thickness. I learned to hide my vulnerability by “pretending” to not feel, and seeming confident. My intellect and ability to talk was one of the few things I was regularly appreciated for by the adults in my life. I honed this skill and made it my strongest defence.

It is very tragic that longing to be held and met with gentleness, I learned to show up with a hardness and confidence that unsettles others and contributes to them feeling inferior. An experience that might lead them to feeling dejected, low, in shame, frustrated, angry, resentful and many other feelings - all leading to disconnection. While I long for connection and tenderness.
It is heartbreaking and the grief about seeing this goes deep in me.

Over the years I have discovered and worked a lot on the patterns of shame that I have developed. And yet, I can see how my shame still plays out and can become prominent in particular in intimate relationships. Instead of being vulnerable and humble I can seem as if I portray myself as superior and others can feel intimidated and small. In many ways this strategy is working very well for protecting me from feeling the vulnerability. However, it also alienates and separates me from the people I love most.

Because of the loneliness I feel, I struggle to feel the company of others, in particular in these matters of shame. I am willing to unfold them - in many ways I long to unfold them - but I feel so vulnerable and fragile, that I struggle to trust the other will hold me with gentleness and care. I am prone to hear almost anything as judgement, giving moralistic value to anything I say or do. And deep down I worry about losing the relationship, because the other evaluates me as deficient or lacking, irredeemably broken.

The grandiosity I sometimes go to only covers up the pain and shame.

Where I see myself

Looking at myself and hearing the feedback from others, I am also reminded of encounters and experiences with a famous NVC trainer. I remember being frustrated and furious with her for “turning things around to focus on her pain” when someone was trying to share something about a pain that they had encountered with this NVC trainer.

Recently, I received the feedback that something similar was happening with me. As someone was trying to talk about a topic to me that was very painful and important for them, I got worried about not being seen and being put into a box. From the perspective of the other the topic of the conversation seemingly diverted to something completely different, somewhere where they hadn’t intended to go.

I guess our vulnerability can go deep and be intense. More intense than may be easily understood by others. It can be difficult to understand that the seeming diversion of topic may be the way. It may be the way to connect more deeply. Insecurity and vulnerability come up, because they want to be met. Maybe the pain that comes up in response to the imagined suggestion that “one might have done something morally wrong”, is just too overwhelming.
This perspective is bringing new empathy and tenderness for the NVC trainer. And it is also bringing more understanding and care for the person who got frustrated with me.

So can I conquer my vulnerability with gradiosity?

- No, not really. It stays, just others might get fooled and hence I might even propagate some of the shame I feel. Very far from what I long for. I protect my vulnerability - but the only thing I gain is disconnection and resentment.

What is the alternative? The patterns that show up in me go back far and go deep. It is not easy to change them, in particular because the pain they attach to is not easy to heal. I may be 32, but sometimes I act as if I was 7 years old. Change will come almost imperceptibly slowly and in small changes sustained over time.

Things I want to try:

  • journal about situations in which I see or get the feedback that the way I showed up was dismissive or overly-confident
  • do roleplays of situations in which I am prone to or have in the past shown up with invulnerable or otherwise dismissive ways
  • regularly check in and ask for feedback about how my close relationships receive me
  • get plenty of appreciation and care and be cerished for the ways that are contributing to others

May we all feel the gentle holding of mother earth
embracing us with nurturance and love
so that we may know, that we are not alone
and we are held
and we are loved
Even as pain swallows us
there is meaning in this
the untold story of how excruciating and lonely the past was
drenched to the bone with grief
that longs to be witnessed
too immense to contain alone
clawing greedily, relentless
and yet feeling like a baby
scared and in panic
for life that is too overwhelming
where did the lightness go?
why is it so painful?
it just doesn’t make sense
all has space

  1. Nonviolent Communication is a framework for communication developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg that describes principles, attitudes and practical methods for communicating in a way that is more likely to lead to hearful connection between people. You can find out more here