What is it about being real that scares us so much? Why is it so difficult to be vulnerable with others (and sometimes even with ourselves)?
A few days ago I had coffee with a friend who is incredibly near and dear to my heart. From the very beginning of our friendship, many many years ago, we connected on a deeper level. The ensuing years brought life changes, life upheavals, challenges, and triumphs, and through the majority of it all, we have remained as close as sisters. This friend is one to whom I can tell ANYTHING. She has never judged me (at least if she has, she has remained silent!), she has never shamed me, and she has never questioned my value or character. This, dear readers, is a true gift.
Our coffee date was typical for us: spend some time catching up on life since the last date, then delve into what is new, exciting, troublesome, annoying, bothersome, etc. During this particular conversation, my friend was incredibly vulnerable with me about some things going on in her life, and despite our years of being vulnerable with each other and always being accepted by the other, I could tell it was difficult for her to tell me what was on her mind. But tell me she did, and listen I did, and I know we both left that conversation feeling heard, valued, accepted, and full. You know, the kind of full you feel when you have been cared for emotionally. I don’t know if it is possible to feel that kind of fullness absent vulnerability, because if you think about it, it takes being vulnerable to allow others to see what we need emotionally. If we hide that, we will never experience the fullness that comes from being absolutely heard.
Yet despite knowing this, I find myself facing a very real vulnerability struggle of which I have only very recently become aware, and that is only because I dug deep into the issue with my therapist. I have to admit that my shame almost kept me from opening up about this in our most recent appointment, but thankfully by now I know enough to realize NOT raising this issue and working through it would only keep me stuck. Stuck and in denial. I felt shame about this because I am struggling to be vulnerable with an individual in my life who I believe I “should” be vulnerable with. But it’s hard. And I am not entirely sure why. But I do know that there is a degree of fear lurking around that is keeping me from being vulnerable with this person, and I think it boils down to one simple thing that is not so simple after all: I care what this person thinks about me and I am afraid of being judged and ultimately not liked.
We all care, to some degree, what others think of us. This is a life-long issue. When we are young, it is typically our peers. But that does not always change as we grow older. I think what does change as we grow older is that we may be surprised by who it is and why.
When I was in elementary school I was diagnosed with scoliosis. My spine curvature was severe enough to require medical treatment, and the immediate recommendation was a brace. Think Joan Cusack in Sixteen Candles. Admit it, you laughed at her. So did I. And that is precisely why I decided that my parents could go ahead and get that back brace for me, but there was no way in heck I was going to wear it to school. My plan was to ditch it in the bushes lining the front of our home when I left to walk to the bus stop each morning (thinking, as 10-year olds do, that I would never be caught). I was most certainly not going to be seen by my friends – or anyone else – wearing such a contraption. I was NOT going to be that vulnerable. I would have been mortified. Even now, so many years later, when I tell that story, I can feel what I felt back then. Shame. If I wear that brace, what will people think of me? They won’t like me anymore. They will make fun of me. I will hate my life. Powerful stuff.
Thankfully, I never had to wear a brace. The day of the appointment to be fitted, my parents received excellent advice to seek the second opinion of a physician using a new non-brace treatment for scoliosis. The advice was taken, I began seeing the doctor, and the ensuing treatment which took place only at night, worked to stop the progression of my curve.
The point of my story is that vulnerability shows itself in so many different ways throughout our lives, but it comes down to the same thing: the desire to be accepted and the fear that opening up and showing our true selves will crush that desire.
Knowing this, it is not a big surprise to me that so many people choose to live their lives hiding from vulnerability. It is so scary to open up and show ourselves, even to those who love us dearly, that at times it feels so much safer to keep our thoughts and feelings, fears and struggles, to ourselves. But we are missing out on connection when we keep these things to ourselves. As I said before, when I left my coffee date with my dear friend, I felt so full. I immediately prayed and thanked God for the wonderful friendship He has allowed me to participate in for so many years. I also felt normal – no small feat for me sometimes! – because my friend and I share so many of the same struggles. During our chat, we empathized with one another and as we so often do, laughed about the craziness taking place in each of our lives. Yes, the struggles are real, but we found a way to lighten one another’s loads, if only for a short, but beautiful, time.
I know this message of mine is not new. I have written about vulnerability before, and I will again. You see, it is so important to me. I used to be someone who kept everything inside, so I know firsthand how difficult and scary it is to open up. It’s a huge risk, and I have been burned. But as a result of being burned, I have learned who I can trust with my true self, and who I cannot. And even though I am struggling with a specific vulnerability issue right now, I have also learned that I don’t care as much about what others think of me as I used to. Progress.
The fear of being rejected will probably never entirely go away, but courage builds with every true connection. Take a chance and truly connect with someone today. Experience how full you can feel.