There’s a quote from one of my favorite movies, Almost Famous, that epitomizes my struggle:
I know this.
I understand that vulnerability is the key ingredient to a healthy relationship. I’ve personally experienced the deep connection and sense of belonging that comes when I’ve taken down my wall and allowed another person to see who I truly am – flaws and all.
And as great as it may feel on the other side - when the person with whom I’ve been vulnerable responds with kindness and compassion and says they care about me even more for having been real with them – no matter how good this new bond may feel, I never get there intentionally.
It is generally my conscious intent to avoid that very dynamic: the one where I’m exposed to personal judgement or rejection.
Which brings me to why I’m so focused on it today.
I’m in week 5 of teaching Relationship Skills Boot Camp, my 9-week online course where Steph and I take students by the hand and teach them everything they need to know to have amazing relationships.
This week’s lesson is about the power of vulnerability, and in Office Hours, my students asked me to give them examples of how they can practice vulnerability on a daily basis.
When I’m posed with a question in RSBC that I can’t answer on the fly, I tell them that I’ll spend some time thinking about their question and follow up with a PDF worksheet in the coming days – and so I’ve been thinking about vulnerability ever since.
Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how practicing it makes my skin crawl.
I do not come by the act of emotionally unzipping from neck to groin with ease.
It’s more of an internal wrestling match with my pride in one corner and my knowledge as a relationship expert in the other corner, the former aiming to hide any evidence that I’m not good enough, and the later knowing that the only way to achieve real human connection is by engaging in vulnerability.
Which sucks for me.
It mostly sucks because as a result of my inability to come up with quick examples of vulnerability, I decided to spend my entire day engaging in acts that I find to be vulnerable, so I can report back to my students on those everyday opportunities that most of us bypass.
Vulnerability is subjective: What feels vulnerable to you won’t to me and vice versa.
The things that make us feel vulnerable are generally caused by an embarrassing, painful, or shameful past event. In our quest to avoid experiencing that pain again, we assign meaning to those events that allows us to maintain a sense of control. We turn that 'meaning' into armor, and in the process we bury a little part of ourselves.
As a college student, I was de-pledged (read: thrown out) of the sorority I’d been pledging for 6 months because I’m incurably oppositional when rules don’t make sense to me. Said differently: I sucked as a pledge.
I started off strong, attending events, swallowing the nasty way the sisters spoke to us, smiling when two sisters showed up unannounced at my home over Thanksgiving break to see if I was wearing my pledge pin (I was, surprisingly).
But after winter break I lost steam, missing countless events, essentially telling them to fuck off when my phone rang at 3 a.m. in the dead of winter and I was told to report to an outdoor space immediately. I’m sure there were more examples.
It wasn't getting de-pledged that scarred me. It was the humiliation that did.
I was at a sorority event which was something like a mid-term exam for pledges in which the sisters evaluated each of our performance (as a pledge), determining whether we’d be allowed to continue or be asked to leave.
One-by-one, we were taken to a room lit by candles, where a handful of sisters determined our fraternal fate.
After failing to remember the sorority president’s last name (it probably bears mentioning that my sister was the former president of the sorority which probably ads some layer of meaning to this event but I’m too close to it to see it. Feel free to analyze it for me), and after failing other basic tests of competence like being able to recite the Greek alphabet, I was told to hand over my pledge pin, gather my things from the living room, and leave.
When I walked into that room, my entire pledge class (51 girls) along with all the sisters were sitting waiting for me, and as I scooped up my books and walked toward the door, they all said in unison, “Good bye, Darcy.”
I can’t explain why that broke me in two, but it stands today as the most humiliating experience I've ever had.
You might go through that same experience and barely remember it.
Not only do I remember it, I’m aware that at the end of this month, when I attend my 30th high school reunion, I’ll see one of the sisters who voted to oust me – because we went to high school together – and I’m not exactly sure how I feel about it.
I walked away from that experience armored with a commitment to excellence: If I never fall short of others’ expectations, I’ll never feel that humiliation again. I just have to work harder, try harder, perform better…
Perhaps you can see how this is an unsustainable takeaway.
My boot from that sorority happened when I was 21. I don’t think I stopped competing in the Perfect daughter/sister/friend/therapist/wife Olympics until my early 40’s. I’m now 48.
For me, vulnerability is saying No, I can’t promise to call you every week – no matter who you are.
If that’s not good enough – if it risks you’ll strike the nerve that’s still a little raw inside of me from that sorority – I’ll chance it.
The alternative, in which I lived for about 2 decades, is to remain anxiously attached to those I love. To fear that any inconsistency in my outreach, my attention, or my time, will result in getting booted from the lives of the people I love.
Ironically, when I lived like that, I managed to keep people in my life who would perpetuate that fear in me.
Now that I’ve stopped pretending to be perfect, my attachments are more secure.
When I can, I invest myself in the people I love. It doesn’t set up any expectation that it will go on for perpetuity. People get that life changes. My life, for sure.
All of this is to say that if you’re someone who runs for the hills at the thought of exposing yourself emotionally…
If subjecting yourself to rejection seems about as wise as drinking cleaning fluid…
If opening yourself up to the judgement of others (or possible humiliation) fills you with dread…
I feel you.
Because I am you.
The struggle is real.
And it’s also necessary.
Like any muscle, it begins to atrophy when you don’t use it.
My daily acts of vulnerability today showed me how rusty I’ve become.
But I also know that it gets easier with practice.
It took me all day to figure out how to better explain what those daily opportunities are, and I think I’m finally clear:
They’re the acts that would cause you to interact in your world differently than you normally do.
Maybe it’s offering to walk a blind person across the street (and risking being told that your help isn’t wanted).
Or offering to cover someone who doesn’t have enough money to buy their coffee (and risking being told to mind your own fucking business).
Or, the next time you’re standing on a packed subway, calling out the self-absorbed millennials who are glued to their phones by saying, “Hey kids…You see the elderly people who are standing? It would be amazing if you’d offer them your seat!” even when you’re clearly outnumbered because you’re on the goddamned L Train where all the douchebags from Williamsburg live.