If you think about it, in our culture, to be vulnerable is to be weak. Being vulnerable means that you have a weakness that can – and some would say should be – exploited. It is a bad thing in our eyes, and so we try to avoid it. But something I have been learning is that you can’t have meaningful relationships, and connect deeply with others, without being vulnerable. If you can’t open up, you will never have a deep, close, heartfelt relationship, because you will be too busy trying to protect yourself from pain to let anyone see that you can occasionally let your guard down. This is something that Brene Brown, a researcher into shame and vulnerability, talks about in one of her TED Talks:
I have a hard time being vulnerable. This is not news to those people who know me; it is hard work to get close enough to me that you can see past the outside armor I wear to the bits on the inside that I keep hidden away. I have spent most of my life wearing emotional armor that would make the armor medieval knights wore look like lace undergarments. I avoided most people, most of the people I did talk to I tended to be very taciturn, and even when I got to know people I used humor to keep from having to be serious – because if I was serious, then I was vulnerable. Being vulnerable meant a chance of being truly, deeply hurt, and I didn’t want that to ever happen again.
I would literally try to numb myself to things that made me feel emotions – if a song I heard made me tear up and feel like crying, I would listen to that song over and over until I had no reaction to it anymore. If it hurt to do something, I would do that repeatedly until I couldn’t feel the pain. Being numb was an easier way to face the world than being open, because being open meant pain. I had not felt joy for so long that I couldn’t remember how it felt, and so I didn’t believe I would ever have it again – and if I never had that again, why would I want to feel anything? What I didn’t realize was that this was very self-fulfilling – that by numbing myself to sadness, fear, pain, and guilt, I was also making myself incapable of feeling joy, because you can’t numb just one emotion – you numb one of them, you numb them all.
There were a few people who saw past my walls, mostly through perseverance and dedication and being good friends, but there were times that I put up walls that even they couldn’t breach – though they didn’t know it. My most recent suicide attempt in January is a sad testament to this fact; I had just spent almost two weeks with some of my very closest friends, and though I had been planning to kill myself for months, they never saw any sign of it. It was only after I had tried, and failed, to kill myself that I realized what I was doing to the people around me who cared about me – I had thought they would be better off if my useless, unworthy self wasn’t around anymore, but all I did was cause them immense amounts of pain, guilt, and sadness, as well as some anger.
So when I came to Menninger, I told myself that there, in that place, I would be totally open. I would be vulnerable. I would tell anyone who cared to ask anything they wanted to know about me, no matter how painful, or shameful, or difficult. This was hard at first, because I am a shy person – I am far more articulate writing here on this blog than I am in person, because I have time to organize my thoughts here. But little by little, I opened up. I told the truth, even when it was hard. I told people about things I had been hiding for years. I spoke up in groups even when I was embarrassed to talk. I let everyone in, and let everyone see the many truths about me – and they accepted me. I think that openness, that vulnerability, is why I made so many friends in Menninger – we were all in a place where being vulnerable was expected, where we could tell each other anything and it was safe. So we formed close bonds through shared suffering, through trying to help one another.
I began to see that the person I had thought I wanted to be wasn’t who I was. It was something that I was moving towards because it was a familiar path, because it was something I thought was expected of me, but I didn’t know that that person was who I was, or who I wanted to be. I fought a lot of this; I still have problems being told I am worthy, that I am a good person, that people would fight to be my friend because I am such a kind and loyal person – I feel such a deep sense of being unworthy, being unlovable, that my first reaction is to reject those things automatically. But When I look at those reactions, I don’t know why I have them. I’ve never killed anyone, or sexually assaulted anyone; I’ve never enslaved anyone, or kidnapped someone. I have done nothing to deserve those feelings. So instead of feeling like I an unworthy of the things people say to me, that they must be saying them about someone they think I am, I need to try and accept them for what they are. I need to let myself feel those compliments.
Things will be difficult. Being vulnerable does mean we can leave ourselves open to all kinds of pain. There’s nothing that says being aware of myself and being compassionate to myself and being open to others means that the next girl I ask out will say yes. All it means is that being turned down like that won’t be the end of the world; it won’t be the universe pointing at me and saying “Ha! I told you so! Nobody will ever love you!”, but just one girl saying no to one request. The pain doesn’t go away. What it means is that I can accept the things others say, positive and negative, and take them in without always assuming and feeling and thinking the worst. By embracing vulnerability, I am showing a kind of weakness, yes, but I am also showing strength, and that is worth so much more.
I’m still trying to maintain that openness. If you want to know something about me, just ask, and I’ll respond; I might do so privately as opposed to publicly, but I will tell you anything you want to know about me.