Put on your galoshes, kids because we’re going in deep today. Vulnerability. Before you continue reading, think on that word for a moment and think about what it means to you and what it looks like to you. It means a lot of different things and looks so many different ways, doesn’t it? And naturally, it’s going to mean and look different for everyone.
I got started on this vulnerability thought process because, again, my therapist possesses voodoo magic and just has the most epic timing of anyone I know. She assigned me a TED talk video about vulnerability (given by Brené Brown) to watch for homework this week (and, as always, this blog post was not assigned as homework but so many fucking epiphanies and light bulbs went off that it HAD to be a blog post) and she assigned it not knowing I had already seen it (for once, I had a one-up on her) but I was told that I could watch it again if I wanted to (but I didn’t have to) but come back next session ready to discuss the subject.
Brené Brown is an amazing speaker and has some abso-fucking-lutely amazing ideas and thoughts and theories. Her book, “Daring Greatly”, has been in my “To Read” pile of books for…probably a year? (I’ve been having a hard time with concentration don’t read as much as I once did/as much as I would like to). I don’t know when I first came across her but when I did, her words hit me like a sack of potatoes. So true and so real…right in the gut.
Before I talk about Brené’s version of vulnerability and why it strikes a chord with me…I want to talk about MY version of vulnerability, how my therapist’s timing couldn’t be any better and why all this matters to me.
First, the actual definition of vulnerable:
adjective \ˈvəl-n(ə-)rə-bəl, ˈvəl-nər-bəl\
For me personally, vulnerability means shedding my protective outer shell (which is like titanium) and…like a turtle in the same position, I suppose…stand there naked as a jay bird and deal with whatever comes my way. I don’t like to be vulnerable. At. All. Because it sucks and it leaves me open to so many wounds and punches to the gut and if I just keep my titanium shell on, no one can penetrate that and thus, I don’t have to deal with all the hurt and emotions that come from allowing myself to be vulnerable. I’ve come to use and rely on my protective outer coating more in the last two years than I ever have before. You aren’t born with a shell…you build it with experience…or at least I did. You get burned once or twice, so you start out with maybe like a paper bag shell…then you get burned/taken advantage of a again and you upgrade to maybe aluminum foil and so on and so on. Not everyone is like this, of course…and I envy those people…those who can be vulnerable and take whatever comes their way. Personally, I’m tired of picking up the pieces each time being vulnerable backfires on me and I find it easier to just completely shutdown and guard myself (and my heart) rather than even chance a good or bad outcome (because really, that’s a lot of what vulnerability is…taking chances).
As I thought about this topic and the ways in which I myself am (or choose to be) vulnerable…I noticed marked contrasts in my life. I have NO problem whatsoever in being completely vulnerable with my therapist, M (and even her cohort, K…who worked very hard to break through that titanium shell). But I have a HUGE problem being vulnerable with my friends, family and other people I encounter in my everyday life. Why? With M, I have complete trust in her as well as complete confidentiality…by law, no less. By law, she is required to keep my shit to herself and not divulge it to anyone unless she feels I am a danger to myself or those around me. That means, for example, that if my mom isn’t getting her way at home and she thinks I’m the problem, she can call up M all she wants but M cannot (and would not) tell her anything I said, even if our last session was all about that very issue: mom. I think there are a lot of different components that allow me to be vulnerable with M…I’ve been seeing her for a long time, I’ve had time to build up the trust I have in her (I didn’t just waltz into her office and spill my guts during our first session), and the laws just happen to work in my favor in this situation/relationship. I know M talks to K about me and I get brought up in meetings and with other therapists too and when I first found out about that, I didn’t like it…but once I realized that me and my case are still confidential, that it never leaves their offices, I was like, “Aiight, cool…whatevs.” I think it’s great that I can be vulnerable in the very place where I should be vulnerable…in my therapist’s office. If I didn’t let it all out there, nothing would ever get accomplished and our time together would be completely futile.
I cannot, however, be vulnerable with a lot of my friends. Well…I should say that I choose not to be vulnerable with others. Why? I’ll tell you why. I have tried to be vulnerable on several occasions and with several different friends over the course of my twenty-nine years of existence. Sometimes it’s paid off but more often than not, I end up hurt. (Don’t take that to mean I’ve dumped a friendship down the drain once I got hurt, I may just “tweak” the relationship and be more selective about what I share with a particular person.) When it comes to friendships, I hate to toot my own horn but I feel as if I am the exception rather than the rule when it comes to being a good friend. I am honest (sometimes to a fault) and I always mean what I say and say what I mean. So, for example, if you tell me something in confidence and say, “Please don’t share this with anyone.” I won’t. And even if you don’t tell me to keep my mouth shut, I probably will keep my mouth shut anyway, guessing that what you say is not anything you want all over the 5 o’clock news whether you said so or not. (I like to think I’m rather good when it comes to using discretion.) What you say to me is between us, whether or not it’s a “secret”. I don’t need to go tell someone everything you tell me. I am not the National Enquirer. To further illustrate this concept (and further explain why my therapist’s timing is so eerily pertinent), I’m going to tell you a real story about something that just happened in my life. Well actually…I’m going to tell you two:
1: A few months ago, I had a friend that I’ve known forever but am not very close to message me one day and confide in me a secret. She told me to keep it quiet and just wanted someone to talk to…so I just listened and didn’t say a word to anyone, despite our many mutual friends. It was a pretty big secret but I felt no need to go and spill the beans. A month or so after that conversation, one of our mutual friends came to me and said, “I can’t keep this a secret; I have to tell someone! And if anyone asks, you know NOTHING!” And then she proceeded to divulge the very same secret that the first friend told me. I didn’t let this second friend know that I already knew what she was telling me, I just played along and acted surprised, interjecting “ooohs” and “awwws” and “OHMYGODs” where appropriate. I didn’t even go skipping back to the first friend that confided in me saying that second friend spilled the beans or anything like that. Consider me a vault…the Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts. I can take secrets to the grave. (Don’t take this to mean I wouldn’t “tattle” if I felt someone was in trouble or anything…just know that I can keep my mouth shut.) Unfortunately, just because I can do this doesn’t mean that everyone/all my friends can…which leads me to vulnerability story two…
2: I hit rock bottom again a little over a month ago. I don’t want to type out all the drama here because really, I still don’t even know all that happened and who said what to who…I don’t really even care. Ain’t nobody got time for that. One night, I was desperate…and I made the mistake of letting myself become completely vulnerable during a conversation with one person…a person, a “friend”, that I thought I could trust. I clearly stated that anything I said stayed there in our messages. She gave me her word. The next morning, it had made the morning news (not literally but a lot of people knew things I never told them and I knew it was the aforementioned friend I was vulnerable with the night before that broke my confidence because she is the only one I talked to about the things that everyone else was now talking about). So it was then that I made a mental note to myself to never confide in her again. I still have (and will keep) the friendship, but I will never again allow myself to be vulnerable in front of her.
When people engage in conversation with me and ask that certain things be kept between the two of us, I always do just that. I don’t go to the next friend down on my list and go, “OHMYGOD can you believe what Sally just said/did/told me?!” No no no no no NO. Again, I seem to be the exception rather than the rule. A close friend I’ve mentioned on here before, C, is an exception right along with me. She is one of the few people I am completely vulnerable with no matter the subject matter and she is the same with me in return. We often say that we know too much about each other to NOT be friends. There’s a lot of shit each of us will be taking to our graves and I am A-okay with that…even grateful. I’ve known her for a long time and I have yet to ever hear/see my confidence broken in regards to things I’ve shared with her…and it goes both ways. I just don’t understand why it’s so hard to keep your mouth shut. I find it relatively easy and I don’t understand why I can’t receive the same respect in return. But it is what it is (thank you radical acceptance) and that is why I am so guarded and not vulnerable with a majority of people. Being vulnerable runs the risk of being kicked when you’re down and for punches to the gut that just really really hurt when you’re already hurting. Don’t get me wrong, there is a good side to vulnerability too. If you decide to be vulnerable and tell your crush your real feelings, you may marry and live happily ever after…and if you decide to not be vulnerable and never tell that person how you feel, how will you know? Again, I can see both sides of the coin…both sides of the story. Just like when you gamble, you risk winning or losing…and it’s just that, a gamble…a risk…a chance you take. Are you prepared/can you handle the outcome, whatever it may be…even if it’s not what you want? I’m more apt to say no, I can’t handle it…which is why I don’t engage in vulnerability often. I seem to prefer this shitty safety net of emotions and stay stuck feeling this way rather than risk the chance of maybe getting better and maybe not, or even maybe feeling worse than I had before I opened myself up. It’s easier and I feel that it’s a lot less taxing on my mind and heart to stay in one place rather than bounce up and down all the time.
Remember when I said earlier that I can be completely vulnerable with M? If you’re not a regular follower of mine, M is my primary therapist and K is her cohort and also facilitates a DBT therapy group with M that I “graduated” from in February. M didn’t always facilitate with K so in the beginning of my group journey, it was K facilitating with one of two other therapists (and K did not succeed in tearing down my wall until about 10 months later). So here I was, able to be completely me and completely vulnerable one-on-one with M in individual sessions but I could not (or rather, chose not to) do it in group…because I didn’t say a word (literally) for about 10 months. (If you are interested, please refer to my “I’ma let you finish, but…” post for more.) About…oh I don’t know…3-5 months into group therapy, M started facilitating with K. That meant the one person I felt safe around was now facilitating the group I was completely shut down in. You would think that having that “safety net” in the same room with me would give me the comfort, safety and confidence to open up in group. Nope. That didn’t happen for another 6 or 7 months…and it really had nothing at all to do with M being in the group with me. It just happened for reasons I still don’t know. It was what it was. It was a risk I unknowingly took and I was greatly rewarded for it in the end. I just find it…amusing, if you will…that you can bring someone I trust implicitly and someone I can be completely me around into a group setting where I’ve made myself invulnerable and I will still hardheadedly refuse to let myself be vulnerable (never mind the fact that it happened in the end anyway). And just so it’s noted, I never completely let my guard down in group, even after I started talking and participating. I got better at letting it down and I got better at letting my true colors show, but I never fully stepped out of my shell and that was done on purpose and that was a conscious choice I made once I realized what was happening…that I was opening up in group.
Now let’s go back to Brené Brown. I’m going to paraphrase her TED talk here and just take out some of the things that resonated with me. In beginning her research, Brené hit a roadblock when she started to dissect vulnerability. She made two groups…those who allowed themselves to be vulnerable (yes, it is a choice) and those who didn’t and what made them different. In the first group, she noticed that those who chose to be vulnerable had courage, compassion, connection…courage to be imperfect, compassion for themselves first which allowed them to in turn be compassionate towards others, and they had a connection with people based on authenticity…they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to just be who they are. This group of people also believed that what makes them vulnerable is also what makes them beautiful. I could probably save myself (and others) a lot of headaches if I could just embrace this concept because I feel that what makes me vulnerable is what makes me bait, leaves me open to being hurt, and makes me appear weak…and I try my hardest to deflect that on a daily basis. My Facebook page, while not fake, is full of “I got dis shit by the nuts!”…”I am woman, hear me roar!”…in essence, it projects a strong taking-the-world-by-the-horns facade. Again, it’s not fake…but I won’t let myself appear vulnerable, even on social media. So what you see is really me, but it’s all the funny, good and positive stuff…you’re not seeing all the behind-the-scenes things that I’m feeling and thinking because I vehemently refuse to post those things…so you’re only seeing one side of me…the side I want you to see and, oddly enough, the side I find hardest to let show when I’m one-on-one with you in real life and not online. (I’m often very shy at first, feeling you out, deciding if I can trust you or not…but once I get to know you, get ready for some craaaaazy shit.)
One key word I picked up on in watching this TED talk is “willingness”. I always pick up on this word because I tend to be more willFUL than willING. But I’ve gotten better (although I’d like to think I’ve surrendered more than I’ve chosen to be willing). Willingness is a big topic in DBT therapy and is one I am still working on and will probably be working on for the rest of my life because I am SO stubborn. I’ve had to be willing to let therapy (and M) work for me, I’ve had to be willing to give M the benefit of the doubt and let her test out any new “experiments” she comes up with in her laboratory (and she comes up with A LOT!)…I’ve had to be willing just to continue going to therapy at all. It’s not easy and it’s a battle I fight daily. (Small tangent: K hijacked a phone call M made to me a few weeks ago just because she wanted to say hi and during the conversation, she said the DBT group was covering the distress tolerance module and she asked me, in the opinion of a “graduate”, what skill I think they should spend some extra time on. Without hesitating, I said, “Willingness.” K said, “WHAT?! Can you repeat that?” I just laughed and said, “You heard me.” Insert some inside jokes and a mutual understanding of what I said, why I said it and what I meant…which is part of why I love M and K…I don’t have to explain myself 90% of the time. K also knows I’m stubborn as hell and so for the jackass to tell the therapist that the group should focus on the topic of willingness was rather amusing to the both of us. But it was an honest answer and I meant it, even if I said it through gritted teeth, knowing K was going to go, “Say whaaaat?”)
Brené Brown also says that vulnerability is the core of shame, fear and our struggle to feel worthy (of love, etc.)…but vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, longing and love. Being a DBT black-belt, I can see both sides of the coin here…my problem is finding the balance. I agree with all that she says and can find examples of all of the above in my own life…what I’ve missed out on by not being vulnerable and what I’ve gained by being vulnerable (sometimes it “pays off” but more often than not in my life, I’ve “gained” shame, fear and a deep-seeded belief that I’m not worthy). One of things Brené says that resonates with me more than anything is that we cannot selectively numb our emotions. Meaning that we can’t choose what emotions to numb and what emotions we don’t want to numb. When you numb the hard things, you, by default, also numb the great things. Once you start to numb yourself to pain, sadness, fear, etc., you also start to numb joy, peace and happiness…even if you don’t mean to. It’s a vicious circle and one I will admit that I am in the midst of. I’m trying so hard to numb all the bad/hard things that I’m not allowing myself the opportunity to experience the good things. Just because I feel like I’m in a bottomless pit doesn’t mean I don’t experience joy or happiness or that I never smile…it’s just that it’s so dark here, I don’t give myself a chance to experience those “good” emotions to the fullest extent when they do happen…almost as if the good is dampened due to the bad I feel…tainted is a better word, I think. I fully admit and own that I do that to myself. I’m working on it…but it’s still a struggle. It’s very hard to overcome 29 years worth of vulnerability backfire in just a few sessions with a skilled therapist. At this point, I’m just grateful that I can be me and be completely vulnerable with at least one person in my life, even if it’s only my therapist. The rest will come in time if it is meant to be.
One example of vulnerability that Brené has used in past lectures that I absolutely love is the example from the movie “Say Anything”. We love seeing vulnerability in other people and see it as courage and bravery, but when we ourselves engage in it, we see it as weakness. In the movie “Say Anything”, John Cusack goes completely vulnerable when he decides to express his true feelings to the girl he loves. No holds bar, all or nothing, this is how I feel, I am showing you and thus, am completely vulnerable as I hold up this boombox and play this song as loud as I can for you. He opened himself to rejection and any of the numerous “repercussions” that could have come from that simple act of vulnerability.
Vulnerability is so hard for me on so many different levels, especially because I see and engage in the two extremes in my own life…completely vulnerable with my therapist…completely shut down with most everyone else. Kudos to M because I never noticed/observed the two extremes before. I have watched many of my friends confide in me and others, only to watch what is said behind their back and watch as the people they have confided in break their confidence. That makes me hurt for my friends and inadvertently, makes me shut down more. If you are like this with that friend and that “simple” secret said to you in confidence, what will you do and say about me when I tell you things in confidence? Not everyone is like this and not all my friends gossip and break confidences, but enough of them do that I choose to stay closed down with everyone rather than taking that boombox-I-love-you risk with everyone or even a select handful of people. There are benefits to reap from taking that risk…but there is also the risk of feeling hurt and other things. Some people are okay with that gamble and I was too…once. But I’m not okay with it anymore and prefer to stay “safe” rather than take that risk. I realize that I lose out on a lot of things by doing that, but it is a choice I consciously make to guard my heart. I hope there comes a time where I feel safe being vulnerable, accepting whatever comes my way as a result, be it good or bad, and just not be scared to be who I am. Because really, that’s all it is…being scared. Being scared of being hurt, scared of broken trusts, etc. If I stay shut down and remain as invulnerable as possible, I am safe…you cannot touch me…you cannot kick me when I’m down. I may remain in this “place” but this “place” is so normal and comfortable to me now that it is better to stay here, a place I know well, than risk the chance of doing or saying something that may help me get out of it…because it’s a risk…which means it may or may not happen. It’s certainty versus uncertainty. I’d rather know than wonder…I would rather know than go, “What if…?” I, along with many others, could do that all day long…”What if…?” Kudos to those of you who can be vulnerable and take those risks and are able to embrace whatever comes your way as a result of taking that risk. Gold stars to those of you who are at least willing to be vulnerable in certain situations and with certain people. Cheerleader pom-poms and a swift kick in the ass to those of you who think you can’t do it and are unwilling to even try.
Lastly, no post is ever complete without a song. Naturally, I stumbled upon this song only recently and I think it speaks volumes (no pun intended) about where and how I choose to be the most vulnerable…here in my blog.
Lyrics: “Brave” by Sara Bareilles
August 14, 2013 – 9:23 AM
PS: Six types of people you shouldn’t be vulnerable with… http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/3392414