The first time I remember being vulnerable was in the fourth grade. It was Valentine’s Day and I was in love – or so I thought.
While waiting for my mom to pick me up from after school daycare (I distinctly recall this memory to this day), my best friend and crush at the time, his friend, and I all sat in a circle playing Jenga by the child-sized lockers. In the middle of our game, he looked up at me, and asked, “So who do you have a crush on?”
My heart stopped. He continued staring as though he already knew the answer, as though my eyes must have given it away, but said nothing and waited for me to respond.
With a bit of hesitation, I raised my finger, pointed at him, and said, “You.”
He smiled, and for a moment, I thought that he would say the same. I assumed his smile meant the feeling was mutual and he liked me too. But, of course, I thought wrong.
The next words out his mouth nearly ruined Valentine’s Day forever for me. He said, “That’s cute…well I have a crush on Natasha [who was my other best friend at the time].”
Looking back, it’s almost comical how quickly my emotions changed within the instant. I went from blissful, hopeful, excited, and nervous to confused, angry, mortified, and ashamed.
How could he? I thought. How could she? (Even though she wouldn’t even found out until middle school).
I was hurt, yes, but even more so I was upset at myself for allowing him to make me feel such a way – a way which made me feel as if my whole world was collapsing all around me and I had no control in the matter.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but this was the first time I’d ever felt truly vulnerable. And it was one of the worst vulnerable moments in my life, but arguably amongst the most important too.
Earlier this year, I experienced a situation similar to my Valentine’s Day catastrophe. Instead of crying into my parents’ arms for five straight hours, I decided to do some self-therapy and seek out advice from others going through the same thing.
So I read The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, wrote some admittedly melodramatic songs, and cried a little, of course, but I also discovered a Ted Talk called The Power of Vulnerability.
By this time, I’d grown up enough to realize what I was going through was a result of my inherently vulnerable nature. I had put myself out there, without my initial hesitation, and fallen flat on my face in the midst of great expectation.
However, when I watched Brene Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability” talk, I felt the puzzle pieces start to come together in my head. It was as if she was speaking directly to me, but indirectly, by speaking about vulnerability.
In her research, Brown started off by talking about the idea of connection and how humans have this ingrained desire and need to connect with others saying, “In order to allow for connection, we have to be seen, really seen.”
She went on to say that she’d discovered this factor hindering us from connecting with those around us that stemmed from a sense of fear and insecurity. What she’d found was shame.
And underlying that shame and sense of unworthiness was excruciating vulnerability.
When reading The Year of Magical Thinking, I thought what I was going through was a subset of grief – an unnamed, but universal feeling of loss that we have all experienced at the signs of an end. But when I watched Brown’s video, I realized it was the all-too-familiar emotion of shame.
It was the fear that maybe I wasn’t good enough, maybe there was something wrong with me that made it impossible to continue this connection I’d established. In hindsight, I didn’t need the validation of my worthiness, but I wanted it. I wanted to know I wasn’t still that little girl who wasn’t enough for her first valentine.
I needed to know I was wanted for me.
“When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak…when you ask people about connection, they’ll tell you about disconnection,” Brown pointed out. I realized I was no different then, and admittedly I’m still not.
In being vulnerable and revealing an unseen layer to someone else, I had lost something of myself. I had lost that part of me that feared the unknown, but in doing so, opened myself up to the possibility of rejection. And rejected was exactly how I felt.
But as the video went on and Brown delved further into shame and vulnerability and connection, I realized it was not my vulnerability that had made me feel weakened in the circumstance. Rather, it was my willingness to be vulnerable that made me stronger, and my feeling of shame and rejection that instead belittled me.
Brown’s research then switched to focusing on this idea of “the wholehearted” who are “people who had a strong sense of love and belonging because they believed they were worthy of love and belonging.” She explained that these people had three factors in common: courage, compassion, and connection.
“They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be what they were,” Brown said.
And even though I had gone through a whirlwind of negative emotions following periods of vulnerability in my life, it occurred to me then and there that I was a wholehearted person. The only difference being that I thought I should be the opposite.
One thing that my best friend has said to me time and time again, which is now lodged in my brain forever, is that she sees me as someone who gives their full 100% when it comes to what I love.
I love to write so when I do, I put my whole self into my writing. I love music so when I produce songs, I practice them until they’re perfect. And when I love someone, I give everything of myself to that person, even if the future looks unclear or unfruitful.
But when it comes to whom I choose to be with, I expect that same effort. I expect it because I was given that overabundance of love from my parents. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it definitely raised my expectations for relationships beyond the average idealist.
For a long time though, I thought it was a bad thing. I believed myself to be too loving, too caring, and too emotional, which translated into needy, dependent, and irrational for most people.
However, in watching “The Power of Vulnerability,” I started to see that it wasn’t that I was these things. I was anything but needy, having chosen to balance my friends and my relationships equally ever since I could date. My dedication to all aspects of my life reflected a stronger sense of independence than any Beyoncé song could convey.
And irrational could only begin to describe the list of words loosely tossed at me in a feeble attempt to diminish my sense of intuitive knowledge and self.
It was that I was willing to be vulnerable, and thus willing to feel such a way I had.
After the video ended, I spent a great deal of time thinking, really thinking, about who I was. And by the end of it, a whole two hours later of list-making and songwriting, I came to the obvious, but not as understood realization that I was human.
I made mistakes. I wasn’t perfect, and I certainly didn’t try to pretend I was. But above all, I was open enough with myself in order to be vulnerable. And that was arguably what was most beautiful about me.
All of us fear the idea of vulnerability, whether we like to admit it or not. We build walls around us to keep out what scares us most like heartbreak, pain, jealousy, rejection and endings. We distract ourselves with things, places, and people that may not give us much joy, but certainly help us avoid the thoughts that torture us.
But as Brown states in her video, “When we numb the bad, we numb the good too.”
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m terrified of change. I’m terrified of what will happen, or what won’t. To be honest, most of the time I’m crossing my fingers behind my back and hoping to God that a miracle in the shape of a comfortable reality will lend itself my way. But I know that’s not the way it goes.
And ultimately I don’t think I’d accept such a fate.
“To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, even if there’s no guarantee, we must love with our whole hearts…practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror…and to believe we are enough.”
In life, there’s no sticker of guarantee. There’s no promise you’re going to make the varsity team, get straight A’s, graduate from college, find the job of your dreams or settle down with the person of your dreams. But if we never try, then there’s a positive guarantee we’ll only be disappointing ourselves.
At the end of the day, I know I’m not perfect. I know I have a lifetime of learning left to go and a list of lessons I have yet to fill. I know I’m still that same little girl who cries to her parents, gives her whole heart and loves even with a question mark hanging in the balance.
But I am enough, whether or not I have a valentine to call my own.
And in looking back, I’m so grateful for those moments of vulnerability and heartbreak and pain because it gave me the courage I needed to continue on, become stronger, and to never give up, even in the face of uncertainty.
It’s not easy to be vulnerable, but who says it has to be a bad thing? I know I wouldn’t have it any other way, and deep down, neither would Brene Brown.
Featured photo credit: vulnerability/rebecca nicole montana via flickr.com