Sunday, January 2, 2011

Vulnerability, I Once Considered You a Curse Word


Sometime in the first few weeks of 2010 I set a personal goal that scared me more than any goal I’d ever set in my life.  I decided to allow myself - no, let’s go a step farther - to make myself vulnerable.  I’ve always been known for speaking my mind, but I’m not always good at expressing my innermost feelings.  This would surprise some people who probably don’t understand that for me speaking my mind and expressing my emotions is two VERY different things.

I have no problem giving you my opinion about anything or helping you analyze a problem.  I can even discuss the emotional ramifications related to the problem with ease.  I can discuss the ins and outs of your personal problems, politics, religion, current issues, and myriad other things without hesitation.  I don’t even care if we disagree.  Either I’ll learn something new or I’ll share something that helps you better understand my point of view.  Perhaps we’ll even find a solution to some problem or the other.  I can do that for hours.
I’m even fairly good at letting people know I care about them.  Okay, not great if I’m unsure how they feel about me, but still….  I worked on that this year.  While I wasn’t perfect, I got a little better.

I’m not very good at letting people know when something they’ve said or done hurts me deeply.  Those things I tend to keep deep inside for fear of coming off as a drama queen or exposing a vulnerability someone can use against me.  I may react in the moment, but even that will be controlled.  I may show you anger, but the pain attached I’ll bury inside.  Anger doesn’t make me feel vulnerable.  Letting you see what hurts me does, so that I will disguise.  If anger doesn’t work, I’ll go silent.  Silence is when you should worry.  I know this about myself.  Silence means you’ve cut deeper than you can mend.  It’s a pain that will live in my heart and mind if not forever at least for a very long time.  It’s a pain that will change the way I view you, perhaps even the way I feel about you, and will most likely irrevocably change our relationship.
 
Silence doesn’t necessarily mean I quit talking to you completely.  It may mean I change the way I talk to you.  Our conversations will become superficial.  The things that truly matter to me will no longer be yours to know.  My deepest emotions will no longer be yours to share.  I will guard myself from giving you ammunition to hurt me again.  It may also mean that I will respond when you initiate, but I will no longer initiate contact.  It may also mean I quit talking to you altogether.

Oh, and tears may accompany both extreme anger and silence.  If you’ve hurt me enough to bring me to tears, well, my best advice to you is to quietly slink away and wait for me to decide what comes next.  Above all, keep your mouth shut.  Anything you say is likely to only make matters worse.  In this situation the words “You misunderstood….  That’s not what I meant…  You’re being too sensitive… I was just being honest”  should not pass your lips - probably would be best if you don’t even think them if you’re anywhere near me.  It’s unlikely “I’m sorry” will even receive anything more than a murderous glare.  I’m just saying…

Long ago, I learned to avoid giving people this ammunition while letting them think I was open emotionally.  I became quite adept at allowing people to think they knew everything about me while still guarding the things I valued most.  This protects me from getting hurt, but it also stands in the way of being truly close to anyone.  Many friends have accused me of having a tendency to get close and then pull away completely and often suddenly.  I can’t argue with them.  When a relationship gets too comfortable, my first instinct is to run and hide. My second is to do or say something to see if the person will run away.  My third is to test the waters and share something that could make me a tad vulnerable - not too vulnerable just a tad.  If I don’t like the person’s reaction, I’m outta there.

I don’t trust easily.  If I ever tell you I trust you, it just might be the most vulnerable thing I can do.  It just might mean more than if I said I love you.  It just might be a surprise even to me.  Oh, and if you break that trust after I’ve given it to you, there’s likely no going back.  See above paragraphs on anger, silence, and tears, especially tears….

Okay, so back to this year.  I decided to make myself more vulnerable and to do so publicly to some extent.  Part of this was to be more honest with myself, to be more honest with those around me, and to post feelings or beliefs that made me FEEL vulnerable on Facebook as well as to blog about them.  The goal was to see if my life would be enriched, devastated, or unchanged by the exercise.  I took a deep breath and started my experiment.  One year of making myself more vulnerable.  Oh, and as part of the vulnerability experiment, I had to do this without telling people I was actively making myself more vulnerable.  I did eventually have to tell a few people when certain concerns needed to be addressed.

It didn’t take long for me to ask myself what the hell I’d gotten myself into, but I didn’t quit.  I’m no quitter.
My first move was a rather safe one.  I told my friend, Kelly, I loved her.  Okay, not so big of a risk because I know Kelly loves me, and she isn’t afraid of expressing her love for others.  BUT, I said it FIRST.  I heard the surprise in her voice as she responded, but she didn’t question me.
 
My next one was easy, too.  I told my friend, Lori, I loved her.  I dropped the comment in casually but deliberately at the end of a conversation.  Once again, I knew Lori loved me, so the risk was minimal. I also know she doesn’t express her emotions quite as easily as Kelly does.  She’s a bit more guarded, like me.  Still, she responded in kind even if she also sounded a bit confused.

Okay, I decided to move to something harder.
 
For a long time I’d wanted to apologize to someone from my past, but I feared making the initial contact to open the lines of communication.  (See Apologies: Better Late Than Never?)  Anyway, I decided to take the risk even though it made me feel more vulnerable than I had in years.  I found him on Facebook.  I hovered the pointer over “add as friend” for a long time before I finally clicked on it.  My heart pounded and I asked myself “What’s the worst that can happen?”  At that question, I started to rescind the invitation.  Instead, I shut down my computer.  The next morning I awoke with every intention of rescinding the invitation because I feared he would either not accept, refuse the apology I planned to give if he accepted the friend invitation, or demand an explanation I didn’t have.  Too late!!!  He’d accepted my friendship request and sent me a message in which he actually sounded happy to hear from me.  That response hadn’t figured into my list of possibilities at all!!!  Now what to do…

Over the next several months I practiced being more vulnerable.  I made apologies.  I expressed how I felt.  I posted my “truth” on Facebook instead of what I thought made me look good.  I wrote blog posts about what I felt especially when I couldn’t express those emotions to the person in question, or when I needed to figure out what I felt or what was happening.  I talked to my close friends about the things that hurt me.  I even asked for help!!  I let go of the image I believed I’d cultivated that I lived some unbelievably perfect life.  Some of my friends actually sighed with relief!!  I started letting my sense of humor out to play, and people laughed!!!

I sent a “Thank you” message (20 years overdue) to a friend who intervened at a particularly self-destructive point in my life and saved my life.  This resulted in a very nice note from him as well as him reaching out and encouraging his friends to let the people in their lives know if they’d made a difference.

I told people when they hurt me - well, sometimes.  I wasn’t anywhere near perfect in this process.  There are few things I still haven’t found the courage to fully express but I’ve tried.

Eventually, it actually became easier to be vulnerable, and I actually felt more genuine.  I felt like I was being true to myself, like I’d been freed from a self-imposed exile from the world.  If this kind of closeness, lightness, and laughter could come from being vulnerable, it just might be worth it.

I also got hurt…  Unforgettable words were spoken that crushed my ego, caused me to doubt myself, and created doubt about important relationships.  People didn’t live up to some set of expectations I didn’t even know I’d set for them until I felt the disappointment that they weren’t what I expected.

Even with that pain, my friendships grew stronger.  I came to realize people genuinely cared about me and my life.  I came to realize that I didn’t have to be perfect for my friends to want me in their lives.  I came to realize I could laugh even when life hurt.

I learned that making myself vulnerable is one thing, but expressing myself and hurting someone else is something entirely different.  Sometimes it’s easy to use not wanting to hurt someone else as an excuse for not expressing what will make me vulnerable.  Sometimes my vulnerabilities have been exposed when other people expressed things under the guise of just being honest and sharing themselves.

People aren’t nearly as hard on me as I am on myself.  When I make myself vulnerable, people tell me they care!!  When I give love, I receive love!  When I express the truth in my heart, truth lives in my life.

Sometimes that truth isn’t what one expects and sometimes it hurts, but at least it’s honest.  Honest pain is better than dishonest happiness.  Well, that sounds good, but I’m still having a hard time grasping that one.
My writing even improved.  When I struggled to express an emotion or to figure out what I was feeling, the words flowed into poems and stories.  I wrote more poems in the last year than I had in several years combined!  I started several pieces that didn’t go anywhere, but they started.  I started a new, deeply emotional short story.  I worked on a short story I’d started and abandoned the previous year.  I worked on my novel again.  I blogged.  I wrote reviews.  I shared my poetry.  I wrote and wrote and wrote.  And, it felt GREAT!!

I remembered my past without feeling like it would consume me or strangle me.  I embraced the present and let today’s knowledge guide the words to express yesterday’s experience.  I looked toward the future and thought about what was best for me.  I let words be my guide and embraced who I was, who I am, and who I will be.

I wrote so many blog posts this year that explore my experiment with vulnerability.  I wanted to link to them all, but there are just too many.  There’s an exploration of expectations.  Many of The Prosperous Writer posts talk about my vulnerabilities.  Other blog posts talk about events, large and small.  Some talk about emotions and revelations that bubbled to the surface.  In the end, I’ve decided to only highlight a few.  A sampling: Another Thought on Goodbye, The Destruction of Hate, Creativity Creators and Drains, Asking for Help, Changing for Others’ Happiness, Setting Rules, Boundaries, & Limitations: A Tribute to TJ .  Okay, that hits a few of the posts that touch on vulnerability. There are many others, so feel free to check out the entire year’s worth of posts as many of them touch on my vulnerability experiment and others clearly demonstrate my avoidance of dealing with the issue of vulnerability.

I no longer consider vulnerability a curse word.  I embrace it as another part of life.  Vulnerability has the power to help us grow closer to one another as well as to rip us apart though I think way too often we focus on the latter.  No one likes to feel the pain vulnerability can bring, but do we really want to miss the joys vulnerability can bring to protect ourselves from potential pain?  I’ve decided I don’t.  You may have to remind me of this decision from time to time, but that’s okay.  I’m not perfect, and I’m okay with that.

I invite you to be vulnerable with me!!!

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