Facilitating Vulnerability- Part 3, Golden Rules

When the teenager is speaking with another person (not one he/she is upset with), that person is most helpful if he/she validates the person’s feelings, AND challenges his/her interpretation of the actions and motivations of the other individual not present. Unfortunately, the people an aggrieved teenager may speak to will most likely be other teenagers aggrieved about their parents or teachers. And thus, their peers are likely to validate grievances against a common “adversary”- that is, insensitive adult authority, “Yeah… yeah… that is SO messed up!” but without questioning the teenager’s possibly self-righteous and self-serving perspectives.  Such automatic unfiltered validation may be from a golden rule of sorts. An “Us Against Them” game where one must agree with teenage peers of how messed adults- particularly, parents are to “us.” As well-intended helpers, however peers can be quite off-base following that rule/game.

Both Sides

On the other hand, an open-minded person can move in and speak for the other person- for the parent or other adult authority figure possibly. That does not mean taking the teenager or the parent or adult’s side. Both sides may be responsible for problems. Being an adult does not ensure being mature! Or, wise! The helper may be involved with the teenager alone or when both persons are present. For example, if the teenager (or parent or adult) is bullying, being unreasonable, or unrealistic, such a helping person can offer perspective, including speaking from the other’s point of view. The key would be to challenge toxic assumptions by the teenager about the adult, AND in the case of both being present, mutual toxic assumptions about each other and inflammatory reactions from either of the two people. This may be an informal situation with a friend, family member, respected authority figure, or in a professional situation with a psychotherapist.

Each person is seeking validation through seeking to be identified as the one who is “right.” That is why it is so easy for a teenager to complain to other upset teenagers, and for parents to complain to other stressed parents (and teachers to other frustrated teachers) about the other party. Rather than be drawn to make judgement (one often would tend to decide, “You’re both screwed up!”), it is best for a helper to identify the deeper emotional needs.

  • “When he/she gets loud and insulting, you just stop listening to your outrage and focus on why you’re trying to make this work.”
  • Or, “It must be really frustrating to be thought of as being controlling when you’re trying to be supportive.”
  • Or, “All these rules feel like he/she thinks you aren’t mature or responsible. That feels disrespectful.”

Whoever this is said to, usually likes this… feels validated, and subsequently, is more likely to look at things from the point of view of another person. When one feels another (including an outside party such as a helper) has empathy for him/her, it becomes easier to reciprocate and have empathy for the other person. Someone- the teenager or the adult or another involved person can verbalize that everyone should hold oneself and each other to a powerful but implicit contract of sensitivity, attention, compassion, and appropriate response.

Golden Rules of Relationships

There are “golden rules” of a healthy relationship, which can also be seen as a relationship game rules. More or less, one important rule is

  • “If one loves and respects the other, then he/she will be automatically sensitive to any vulnerability the other person experiences.
  • He/she is expected to be naturally and intuitively attentive to any vulnerability without the other person drawing his/her attention to them.
  • He/she then is to immediately have compassion for any vulnerability the other experiences.
  • And of course, he/she is to respond with the appropriate communication and/or behavior without any guidance.”

Why wouldn’t someone tell an important person to him/her that something is bothering him/her and what he/she needs from the other? The implicit addendum to the prior golden rule is,

  • “Because it doesn’t count if I have to tell him/her!”

These golden rules of intimate relationships are normally not expressed, but often rigorously enforced. Since the first rule is in the form of an “If… then…” structure, the complementary rule becomes “If not… then not…” The failure of the criticized person, especially an intimate person to respond appropriately as desired by the aggrieved person results in the conclusion that criticized person does not love or respect the aggrieved person. As a result, the teenager (or adult) who is disappointed feels fundamentally betrayed in relationship contract. Often an avoidant or defensive reaction of the criticized person becomes tantamount to a second betrayal. After failing in the first round, even with the vulnerability having been expressed openly or directly (violating the “telling” part of the golden rule addendum), the avoidant or defensive response further betrays the aggrieved person.

In many difficult or problematic relationships, often neither person is able to identify much less verbalize his/her vulnerabilities. Or, when feeling vulnerable, are they unable to refrain from avoidant, defensive, and eventually aggressive or passive-aggressive communication and behaviors. Yet, both will still hold each other implicitly responsible to adhere to some “golden rule” of sensitivity, attention, compassion, and appropriate response to vulnerability. The more overtly intimate the relationship is such as a romantic couple or a family, the stricter is the golden rule. However, such rules also exist to some degree in casual, work, or other social or institutional relationships. One has expectations of colleagues, superiors, leaders, etc. In all cases, to some degree failure becomes betrayal. Underlying betrayal is the expectation of trust and investment in each other to enter into the relationship contract (child-parent, work, mentor-mentee, teacher-student, government-citizen, etc.). Trust and investment comes from caring about the other person. When vulnerability is betrayed and the relationship falls into swirling anger, caring is often forgotten. With too many failed interactions, one or both people may be afraid to care or be vulnerable. Or, the relationship is deeply and painfully dysfunctional. Sometimes, an individual has endured (particularly a parent or other adult) a long lifetime trail of relationship wreckages and devastated self-esteem. Repeated cycles of dysfunctional communication, which may start in the family between children or teenagers and parents will be duplicated in any new relationship with new people unless the individual recognizes the issues and takes responsibility to take action to change. Current dysfunctional relationships therefore are rooted in previous relationship problems and predict problematic future relationships romantically, socially, at work, etc.

Implicit Rules

The aggrieved person’s complaints and accusations can be interpreted to reveal his/her underlying emotions and needs. The person may be unable to reveal his/her vulnerability (not surprising for many teenagers- males in particular). A more reflective and emotionally self-aware teenager may for example, say “It hurts that you don’t (he/she doesn’t) spend time with me.” The other person if wise and non-reactive (or someone assisting the duo) may say, “That sounds like you felt alone and abandoned.” Often this type of interpretation will shift the person from anger to sadness or hurt. Avoidant or defensive responses by the criticized person if present can be interrupted with, “Do you… did you mean to hurt him/her?” If sufficiently self-aware, either person (that often means the hopefully more mature and wise adult) can say “I don’t mean to hurt you,” “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” or “I hope you aren’t trying to hurt me. That really makes me sad.” The prompt by a helper may be “I wonder if he/she was trying to hurt you or maybe instead of being clumsy.” This shifts the attention from arguing the minutia of supposedly absolute reality of what happened to the implicit accusation that is so sensational. The other person may respond, “Of course not. I didn’t want to hurt him/her” or the individual may consider, “Maybe he she wasn’t trying to hurt me.” Being accused (however tangentially) of purposely trying to hurt a person and in particular, ones partner is impugns ones integrity.

Another potential implicit intimate relationship rule is that everyone is supposed to know each other and care for each other well enough to know that the other person would not do anything that might be hurtful. If he/she does, it is interpreted as being purposely hurtful. This is kind of a secret internal game- the “You Know, So You Won’t” game where the other person is held to the rules without telling him/her of the rules! A valuable approach would be to bring such implicit rules to the surface so an individual or both people (teenager and parent) can examine, re-affirm, or adjust the rules- perhaps, with the helper’s assistance. Once re-affirmed or adjusted, people can then discuss which communications and behaviors were experienced as betrayals of these rules. This brings intent and motivation to the conversational table instead of the individuals just identifying, much less repeating lousy techniques and disastrous consequences.

Revealing Harm

The helper or whoever (teenager or adult) s aware enough to do so, should focus everyone on the emotional injuries that have been caused by the communication and behavior, rather than allowing the interaction to degenerate to one or another making accusations or assigning blame to others present or not. Revealing harm suffered exposes ones vulnerability and gives the other person a chance to be compassionate and caring. This of course, breaks the rules of the “Be Stoic, Don’t Reveal” game that many insecure people play. Either person or the helper may choose initially to model compassion rather than immediately prompt another person’s response. “If you thought he/she didn’t care, that would really hurt,” or “It must be scary to think he/she wanted to hurt you” pointedly emphasizes the vulnerability. Anyone can assert, “Trying to hurt him/her… not caring… that doesn’t sound like the person (son, daughter, parent, teacher, friend, etc.) you want to be.” The specific communication will depend on individuals’ styles and culture and his/her sense of the security in the interaction and/or relationship. However, effective communication to repair the relationship must encourage, if not require participants to risk vulnerability and trust. Either person or perhaps the helper should acknowledge the difficulty- specifically the extreme discomfort involved in risking vulnerability. The people involved may benefit from acknowledging and exploring that the difficulty in risking vulnerability; whether it may be personally or culturally based… or from negative experiences. Personal discomfort with risking vulnerability may come from prior harmful relationship experiences with the same person or with others. Cultural discomfort may be gender-based for some men or come from other cultural relationship and communal rules. In addition, there may be discomfort in experiencing the vulnerability of another person similar or comparable cultural or family dynamics. The approach just discussed may or may not be applicable or successful to a particular individual, couple, or family… for a particular teenager and parent. Nevertheless, the two or more people must first risk vulnerability and second, to honor each other or another’s vulnerability.


In some situations, the adult- parent for example OR the teenager may have sufficient ability to step aside the dynamics and give third-party observations of problematic dynamics and suggest healthier approaches. By oneself, either person can take responsibility to become self-aware and insightful at his/her ineffective words and behaviors. And then, change and interrupt the process by reacting and responding differently- hopefully, more productively. That largely starts with NOT saying or doing the same old things that have been inflammatory and toxic to the relationship. If this proves too difficult for the two to manage themselves, seeking assistance would be highly recommended. The helper in some cases may need to be a particularly experienced and skilled professional such as a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist or other similarly trained person. The next blog looks at facilitating self-expression or addressing the “Talk to the Hand” game of stoic silence!



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