I was having a conversation with a friend last night (because yes, a lot of my internal self-growth comes from having amazing friends that push and challenge my understandings and expectations of the world), and we were talking about vulnerability. At one point, I asked, “Does harm=vulnerability?” and he responded, “Isn’t vulnerability the risk of being harmed?”
I’m not sure I’ve ever connected vulnerability with harm; for me, vulnerability is about risking exposure. It’s not necessarily about the damage that can be inflicted, but it’s about being seen as a whole person, complicated and messy and not quite put together. It’s being a person who doesn’t have it all figured out. A person who fails sometimes.
Which is what I want to be. I believe in integration and don’t want to conceal the ways in which I fail- which are numerous, and they’re an important part of growth. But then, that pesky vulnerability again, reminding me that people prefer the put-together image and the strong cannot afford to fall.
I’ve been taking baby steps with vulnerability lately. I’ve opened up emotional dialogue with friends, allowing them to see the parts of me that are insecure and emotional and goofy and not-completely-figured-out. I had breakfast with a friend who beamed at me as I bounced around his kitchen and told me it was good to see me happy. I tried to tell him I didn’t have time to be giddy; there were fascists to punch. He rightly pointed out that I can do both.
I’ve watched friends as conversations shifted from serious, logical, hypothetical, abstract to emotional, concrete, absurd. I’ve watched their faces change, melting into tenderness when they look at me, the wry smile when they gently tease me about being a human being and not a robot. It makes me happy. It makes me realize that I don’t open myself up to teasing very often because I don’t talk about how I’m feeling in the present; I talk about how I was feeling in a past situation that has already been resolved.
I give the appearance of openness very well. I talk about all sorts of things that seem vulnerable and personal, but the reality is, the only things that truly feel vulnerable are the things that are happening right now that are not resolved. The things where I have to say, “I don’t have an answer or an epiphany or a solution to this thing; it’s just here and existing and I have to sit with it.”
I want to see the demons in other people, but I am often only willing to project a hologram of my own. And if reciprocity is as foundational to who I am as I think it is, then I haven’t been holding up my end of the bargain.
So, radical vulnerability. It’s not about dismissing possible harm that can come from opening ourselves up, but recognizing that we are sometimes inflicting self-harm by keeping ourselves sequestered away. There is damage, a loss of human connection, when we keep the world at arm’s length. Certainly not for everyone, but definitely for me. I am missing something, a piece of myself that I have let fear control too long.
I don’t even know what it is I have been afraid of. Rejection? Sure. But I am a different person, in different communities, with different tools than I had when I was a kid and too young to understand the conscious acts of vulnerability and rejection. I can expose myself with intention, rather than exploding outward to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity.
Shame? There is a fair amount of shame, particularly for a perfectionist who feels that their own emotional experiences requires others to carry a burden out of obligation. But “shame” is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Shame implies an inherent belief that emotional (read: non-logical) responses are wrong or foolish.
It’s a self-stigmatization of emotion because emotion cannot be controlled through logic. Logic is neat, clean, replicable, predictable. Emotions are volatile, raw, messy, and all over the place. And it’s not that I hate emotion; it’s that majority of mistakes I’ve made in my life have come from unrestricted emotional outpouring.
But mistakes are how we grow. Mistakes are how we learn. And if the lesson I learned was that existing in and with emotion is foolish and wrong, then I’ll be butting up against this one forever, because I cannot escape how I feel, nor can I continue to pretend that I have all my shit together (cause spoiler alert: I definitely don’t. And I have a sneaking suspicion that everyone around me already knows this). So maybe I need to rethink the lessons I’ve learned. And maybe I should stop jumping into the deep end of things, then getting frustrated when I flounder. I’m bad at vulnerability, I say, and then put myself in a position that requires more openness and exposure than I have built up the strength and tools to deal with. And it breaks me, and I go, This is why I don’t do vulnerability. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So maybe I start slow. Maybe I let people close to me see me silly and giddy and ridiculous and insecure and tired and brain jumping from topic to topic with no discernable path between them. Maybe I let my friends give me wry smiles and tender eyes and gentle teasing and kisses on top of my head and revel in me being joyous. Maybe I stop worrying about finding the sweet spot between too much and enough. Maybe then, I can start inching my way toward radical vulnerability… not by jumping into the deep end, but wading slowly through the shallows.