Today’s #fridaytalk on Twitter was all about vulnerability and authenticity. If you know me at all, and have ever read any of my plays/poems/stories, you probably know that both of these themes are primary obsessions for me. So, I was happy to chime in when the topics were presented…though I found it difficult to articulate what I meant. Mostly because my relationship with both of these words is pretty complex. I’m going to give it a go here, but I may be completely nonsensical. This will meander, probably quite a bit. Be patient. I always get to the point, but it takes me a while to get there…and yep, all the details matter.
When I talk to people about vulnerability and authenticity, I often see them roll their eyes. They see these words as meaningless buzzwords that self-involved people tend to use. Myself, I find that puzzling–mostly because I’ve never known many people who used these words. And when I use them, I use them in particular ways to describe my journey to being me–so when people question my usage, I kind of get offended. These words, for me, are closely linked to integrity.
I wouldn’t say I have a long history with these words. As a kid, I was probably my most vulnerable in that I was constantly in some sort of danger. But I was also at my least vulnerable because I kept everyone at arm’s length. Which probably made me more vulnerable, despite how hard I protected myself. And that was just it. My arm’s length approach to life was not conscious–it was always defensive. It came about because, when I was a defenseless little kid, I learned that vulnerability was a bad thing. I never had any other reality. And my goal in life wasn’t to be me–or to be self-actualized or even happy. It was to survive. Once I survived, then I could do whatever I wanted. But, until then, I didn’t have that luxury. If I was going to survive, I had to be strong. I had to be smarter than everyone else. I had to be more focused. I had to be more ambitious. Stupid feelings would just get in my way.
Of course, I was a sensitive kid. As hard as I tried–I still felt way too much. I would randomly break down for no reason whatsoever. I was incredibly angry at times, too. Usually at the most inconvenient times. But most of the time, nothing fazed me. I got through, and eventually, that survival thing? Yea…I did that. And yes, I was really lonely. But, nope–I didn’t much care. Because, honestly, I had done what most people like me didn’t do. I created options for myself. And while I’m sad that I spent so many days alone as a kid, I don’t regret fighting for the life I have now.
When I was older, after I accomplished all the goals that kept me sane and out of trouble, I started to realize that I was lonely. I started to see that the way I had existed for so long had created that loneliness–while supporting my survival. I started realizing that what had existed during my childhood no longer existed–but I was acting like it did–and I didn’t need to keep people at arm’s length. That the act of doing so was now threatening my life. And like any good survivor, I decided to change–to let people know me…to (gasp) voluntarily feel things. Except I didn’t know how.
Most people look at me cross-eyed when I tell them this. They don’t understand how someone could possibly be so out of touch with their emotions that feelings are foreign concepts. But, for me, that was true. And only a friend’s death could make me realize how truly messed up I was.
I made a decision to not be alone. I never had been, really. I’d been surrounded by plenty of people who cared about me, but none of them knew me, so–no matter how loved I was, I always felt alone. I decided that I would actually pursue a romantic relationship–and, moreover, that I would be 100% vulnerable with this person. Because, I decided, that was the only way I’d ever feel loved. And I was kinda right.
And as soon as I decided this, I found someone to love me. A great someone who really did love me. And I told him absolutely everything. Things I never even told myself. And it was wonderful for a while. And then, it wasn’t. Since then, I’ve been a mostly vulnerable, authentic person every day–even when my instinct was to shut down and run screaming in the opposite direction.
I’ve found that there are many shades of authentic and vulnerable–that they are often similar and then also often at odds. That vulnerability isn’t always appropriate, kind, or constructive. That it’s just as destructive, often, as shutting down and can be emotionally violent. That–like many things–you have to consider the situation and the people and your goals.
What I’m describing pretty much only applies to me. I am no expert on anything. I’m certainly as crazy as anyone else, and everything I do in my life is based on trial and error. I’m still learning and growing. I will never pretend to know more than anyone when it comes to relating. This is all just what I’ve learned–what I practice in my own life–and what I’ve known to be true (for me).
First, it’s probably helpful to define all these things.
Authenticity: Often referred to as being real. To me, it’s the heart of who I am. It cannot be mimicked. It cannot be put on. It’s me when the masks are torn off. It’s me when I’m not pretty. It’s me when you cut through all the layers. It requires absolutely nothing except my existence and open heart. And usually, I have no choice in the matter. Whether I intend to be authentic or not, when I’m enjoying life and in the world, I will be authentic. When I’m raw and crying, I am authentic. I don’t have to do or be anything. I just am. Of course, this can also be voluntary. You can intend to be more authentic–but, sometimes, that makes you inauthentic. Authenticity is never really a bad thing. Even if it rubs someone the wrong way, chances are, the person will respect you and wish they were more like you.
Vulnerability: A conscious choice to expose my authentic self when it’s unsafe, unwise, or confusing. A choice to be weak in order to be strong or vice versa. A choice to connect or disconnect. Wearing my heart on my sleeve. It is always intentional, and it is always risky. And it always makes me feel more alive. And hurt. And sad. And everything else.
Integrity: Actions meeting thoughts and values. It means you are consistently vulnerable and people can count on you to be authentic. You do what you say you’ll do. You are who you seem to be. At least, you really really try to be.
The thing about life? We don’t control everything. As much as we want to think we’re mysterious and impenetrable, people see us. They see through it all. They may not understand why. They may not be wading in deep waters. But they do have a sense for who we are. And that’s really good. Because so many of us try so hard to not be seen.
Even I was known to some extent when I tried so hard not to be. That’s our essential self acting…the footprint we leave when we’re not looking–conscious or not. We do this by just existing.
I’m not really one for just existing, though. I’m a do-er. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that I get really dissatisfied when I’m passive. I hate not feeling connected. I hate feeling like I don’t matter.
There are many ways to exist. I choose to actively exist. And so, in most cases, I actively choose authenticity and vulnerability. If I’m not choosing that, I consider it a lack of my own integrity. Part of that is because so much of this is a discovery process for me. I often find that I think out loud. I get completely confused by emotions because they’re like a foreign language to me. I don’t know how to deal with things. So, in my conscious choice to be vulnerable–and in my conscious choice to be known–I share my thoughts…good or bad…with strangers, acquaintances, or friends.
I’ve gotten better at this over the years. Mostly because I spent a long time blogging to strangers about the most intimate parts of my life–as a way of coping and not reverting to past behaviors–a conscious choice to be me. Because I knew I’d fall down the rabbit hole if I didn’t.
I am like that in most areas of my life. But I’ve encountered a few problems, or barriers to this process…
- Some people can’t handle me when I share everything. I think a lot. I feel a lot. I expect a lot. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it still hurts me, and I still want to fix myself. I’ve had to learn that some people are intimidated by me or afraid of my emotions because of their stuff. And that’s okay too.
- As much as I don’t want to believe it, there are people in this world who do not care about me or my emotions. Or anyone’s. There are people who are mean. Who cannot be trusted. There are people who are indifferent. There are people with too much stuff of their own to deal with anyone else sensitively. It’s not about me, but those people can hurt me. So, I can choose to be hurt by them all the time–and be a raw nerve–or not. To my own detriment, I tend to err toward vulnerability–which means I am hurt by people A LOT. I am angry toward people a lot. And it is toxic. I am struggling with this a lot lately. The thing is–it goes with the territory. So, for all the good you get out of being you, being you can make it rough to just be. When I’m strong, it’s easier to stomach the mean people. When I’m not, it makes it really hard not to protect myself.
- Work. Like it or not, I’ve chosen a profession built on appearances. If I’m having a bad day, it’s not alright to burst into tears or go into some tirade about my frustrations. I’m there to do a job. My job isn’t about me. If I connect with someone on a personal level? Great. But it’s about the work first. That doesn’t mean I am not myself. People know me from the way I speak to them. Every word I use conveys that I care about them. That’s also my job. If someone brings up a death of a loved one, I will tell them I understand–and why I understand. When my boss was going through a tough time, we talked about it. And I was supportive. But there was a distance built-in, and honestly, I was grateful for it.
The thing is–as much as I’d love to connect with everyone, it’s impossible to do that. If I was best friends with my boss, she’d probably find it hard to criticize me. We’re close as it is, and I often feel like that has hurt me professionally–mostly because she assumes I’ll put up with more. And some things do need to belong to you and just you. Sharing absolutely everything almost dilutes the power of being vulnerable because it doesn’t mean as much to you anymore.
I guess that sort of relates to erecting boundaries–something I’ve always found really, really hard–and something that’s always burned me pretty bad when I failed to define them. After much trial and error, I come at everything from an intentional place. I look at the people I’m interacting with. Does my sharing help them? Does it make whatever we’re doing easier? Is connecting with them something I want to do? Are they trustworthy? Is it welcome? Will being vulnerable with this person make others I love vulnerable as well? Am I empowered to make that choice? Is this person willing to be vulnerable with me? How important am I to this person and their development as a human being?
A lot of it is a collective dance. We don’t exist in static situations where we’re in control of everything. We have to deal with other people–their authenticity, vulnerability, and acceptance of both in us. Like any human interaction, there are so many variables to consider and many of these variables can derail us from any number of things.
For me, it’s far easier to be intentionally authentic. To make every interaction be one where the person has a strong sense of who I am, my goals, and the nature of my intentions. I do this by choosing my words carefully, paying attention, and working hard to listen. I also do this by trying really hard to understand situations. Coming from that place, the choice to be vulnerable is easier and usually better received. I think I’m most successful with this no matter who I’m interacting with. I think everyone I meet knows that I’m a good person with good intentions doing the best I can. They may not know how afraid I am or how lonely I am or how unsure I am. But maybe they don’t need to. You can’t be vulnerable all the time. Vulnerability is hard–both for those who give it and those who receive it. So, we should be discerning and cognizant of where we place that energy. Because, ultimately, that energy defines our lives.