Let’s Talk About Vulnerability

Are you squirming already?

Because I am.

Vulnerability is difficult to talk about. The fact that it’s so difficult to talk about is part of what has made Brene Brown so wildly popular (I’ve written before about my thoughts about “shame” and Brown, and won’t rehash them here) — many people feel they’ve finally been given a way to articulate the shame they feel at being vulnerable, the ways being vulnerable can leave them feeling exposed.

Part of what makes it difficult to talk about vulnerability is that we often don’t have the language to talk about it. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, we aren’t given or shown the skills to talk about ourselves — our insecurities, our fears, our shameful parts we’ve learned to keep hidden (even if they are things we shouldn’t be ashamed of). This is something that is rarely modeled in a healthy way, and that we certainly don’t teach as part of an affirmative, sex-positive culture.

Instead, we continue to tell people the ways they should be ashamed.

How can we expect people to love themselves, much less each other, if we continue to tell people that they are unworthy? If we continue to tell people that the tough things that befall them are their fault? If we continue to buy into myths about scarcity in our relationships with ourselves and our families and our friends and our lovers?

How can we expect ourselves — or anyone else — to be vulnerable when, too often, simply being vulnerable is stigmatized? How can we expect people to be vulnerable when we live in a society that is increasingly disconnected? When we know most people have experienced a traumatic event that they are told they should be ashamed of?

Let me tell you a personal story: two years ago, when I was still learning to be vulnerable, I shared some tough parts of my history with some of my roommates. I was later accused of manipulating them by telling them this information “too soon,” something they identified as a pattern in my habits. They told me that because of this, I was no longer welcome in our community, my home.

I clammed up. I felt deep shame and questioned everything I thought I understood about myself and my personality. I questioned whether I was worth caring about — because the clear message from my community was that I was not okay, that I was not worthy, that I was disposable.

I became, again, afraid to tell people those parts of my history. I’m still, if I’m being honest, sometimes afraid to tell people those parts of my history. Sometimes, I wish math would give me a formula for that type of social interaction. It’d probably look something like:

(TimeX * (Amount of Sharing Other Person Has Done  + My Perceived Level of Other Person’s Compassion + %Of Time Other Person Identifies as an Anarchist) * Our Level of Physical and/or Emotional Intimacy on Other Things) – (Number of Times I’ve Cried and Chosen Not To Explain It + Number of Times I Wish They’d Followed Up on One of My Statements with a Question and Didn’t)

But, really, I’d ask, “So there’s an app for that?”

I’d never use the formula anyway.

Because the thing is, people who want to act destructively can always claim manipulation as one of the tactics whoever it is they’re working to destroy used. They can always use gaslighting, and other abusive tactics, to work on eroding someone’s sense of self-worth and to cause that person to question their reality.

That is something I learned from that experience.

Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. Some people don’t want the heavy parts of friendship. Some people don’t want to accept that anyone besides them is complex. Some people carry their own trauma. Some people don’t know how to react and maybe I don’t have the energy (or investment in them) to tell them what isn’t helpful to hear. Some people simply don’t, and won’t, believe whatever you tell them because, reasons.

There’s nothing, really, we can do to change any of that.

And that’s the really sticky part about this whole vulnerability thing. Not only do those of us living with particular traumas, meaning those which required our silence for survival, have to figure out who we want to tell  and how to break our own barriers of silence that no longer serve us — we have to accept the very real possibility that we might be disbelieved. That we might be blamed. That it could actually cause people to turn against us.

This is deeper than just insecurity.

This runs up against our survival mechanisms. Not just the community-building ones (“don’t exclude me!”) intrinsic to human nature, but ones we actually experienced, ones we lived through to be in this moment making the decisions Do I tell this person, THIS, now? It runs up against our learned silence, even if that learned silence was only a few minutes long so that we didn’t literally die in a moment. Because whether we would have literally died or not, our brains reacted like that was a possibility.

This is deeper than just being turned down or getting fired or firing someone, although those are very real too, and ways to practice being vulnerable.

Brene Brown talks a lot about numbing. She talks about numbing with food, and with other addictions. She talks about faith in religion as a form of numbing. She talks about blame (“a way to discharge pain and discomfort”) as a form of numbing. And, of course, we all participate in ways of numbing.

Because we can’t be vulnerable all the time.

And that’s okay.

Because the thing with vulnerability is that we must practice it. I once had a conversation with someone, I wish I remembered who, where we talked about levels of vulnerability: where we talked about how me talking about my experience with sexual assault in adulthood might be just as (or perhaps even less so, for me) vulnerable as someone else talking about how they are worried about the results of a mammogram or the way they feel about a parent’s failing memory or how they ate a pint of ice cream or the fact that they flushed a live goldfish down the toilet when they were 6.

We have to practice telling less vulnerable stories to tell the more vulnerable ones.

I say that because my experience with sexual assault in adulthood is something I’ve talked about with a lot of people — something I’ve practiced a lot, in a strange sense. You can find my writing about it on the interwebs with a quick search of my name. But it took me a while to get there. It took finding people who were compassionate and present when I told other stories. It took not being rejected when I told other vulnerable stories. It took a multitude of women writing about their experiences with sexual assault, which created a community on the internet that I knew would understand. There are still stories I don’t tell. There are still parts of that story I don’t tell.

Because shame and silence and stigma. Because of negative reactions, like those of my roommates, mentioned above. Because we live in a culture where we still blame people for how they react to, or are affected by, systems of oppression. Because we live in a culture where we tell people that they can “make it” if only they work hard enough at whatever it is they want to make it at.

Because of blame. If we can blame people, we believe, we protect ourselves from the same things that befell our fellows. And because we want to believe in dreams.

Dreams can be beautiful. But if we believe that it is our personal failing if something doesn’t work out as we hoped, or if we experience bad news or trauma, then we set ourselves up to fail in our relationships with ourselves and each other. We set ourselves up to feel shame. We set ourselves up to need to numb ourselves.

Here’s the thing though. I’m sure life has been hard, at points. Maybe at a lot of points. Maybe people have told you that because you’re [fill in the blank], you’re not worthy of love, you’re not worthy of care, you’re just not worthy. But you are. You are beautiful and complex and you’ve made it this far, and being vulnerable is super fucking hard, and sometimes something shitty happens and it makes you think that being vulnerable isn’t worth it. And you might be right, in that moment with that person, because you absolutely have the right to choose who you’re vulnerable with. But, you, yourself, are worthy of love. You are allowed to be who you are, even if that person is complex and sometimes messy.

Breaking down that protective wall is hard work, and scary work, and work you should be doing on your timeline and no one else’s. It is, I think, ultimately, worth it.



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