Vulnerability is tricky. It’s almost like split personality phenomenon and is completely personal and subjective. Some revel in it and some avoid it like the plague. But the most incredible thing I learned, is that vulnerability evolves as you do.
Earlier in my life, in the thick of my 20s, my biggest concerns were mostly steeped in vanity. What would I wear out Saturday night with my friends? How would I fit in a manicure and pedicure before weekend plans? What’s the nicest car I could afford on my measly, fresh out of college salary of 25K? While I’ve always been a sensitive soul who cries at the drop of a hat, I kept a lot of my feelings inside. Maybe sharing small bits but mostly internalizing most of it.
In my 20s, before marriage and kids, I had my fair share of tumultuous experiences, including an on-again, off-again relationship and my parents going through a nasty divorce. However, I didn’t want to acknowledge those feelings by sharing. I think it was equal parts fear and shame. I would confide in a couple of friends here and there without ever really digging all the way down to the root. You know, where all the really messy stuff is. Once you open up, it’s out there and you can’t take it back. The words you share with someone else will hang in the air forever. They will be reflected upon. They may even be shared. And worst case scenario – they might be thrown in your face down the road. Letting people in means opening yourself up to others being in your business. And did I really want that? Did I want to discuss troubles in my personal relationship? Did I want people to know that my parents split was acrimonious, uncomfortable and changed everything?
No. Back then I didn’t.
I moved back to my hometown after almost a decade away and shortly thereafter I went through my own divorce. I had a toddler and soon-to-be ex-husband and no job because the plan was to focus on getting my daughter settled in preschool, get my bearings and figure everything else out in due time. I was heartsick, angry, sad, panicked and broken. I was also a newbie in a preschool known to be swimming with sharks of the worst kind. The species who smile to your face and talk about you behind your back. The kind who judge you for eating carbs and have blowouts scheduled as they’re being wheeled in to deliver their child. The kind who feed on gossip and other’s misfortune like a vampire feeds on blood. The kind who actually have others call friends of yours to get the scoop on your ex-husband’s dateability factor. Adult mean girls masking insecurity with elitist attitudes, just waiting to pounce to fuel their visceral need for drama. This is the peer group I’m supposed to be vulnerable to during one of the most difficult and emotionally draining times of my life? Nope! And just when I thought I was safe and found a few good eggs in the basket of bad apples, I got kicked in the gut. Of the few friends I made that I thought were genuine, I did open up. I vented and cried and shared. Not everything. But enough. Only to have that moment and those words thrown back at me as one of them gossiped about me with someone I didn’t even know.
So the wall went right back up. Because you cannot have vulnerability without trust. They are completely intertwined, and one does not work without the other.
Then my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t have a partner to lean on. Sure I have family, but they all live far away. And I have a best friend who is more like a sister who knows literally EVERYTHING. My mother and she made up my true support system. I had to be strong for my mom and put my proverbial game-face on. I could not possibly be vulnerable with her. So that knocked out half of my team. I cried a lot. Prayed a lot. Bargained with the powers that be, like many of us do in the face of crisis. But I was drowning emotionally. I mostly shut-down because coming off the heels of my divorce, dipping my 30-something toes in the dating waters as a single mom and now my mom’s diagnosis and pending treatment, my world was rocked. Even after my mom’s successful surgery and treatment making her an official “survivor”, my willingness to expose myself and my feelings was hanging by a thread once again.
The biggest paradox is that I spent my whole life as the poster child of an extrovert but learned that being outgoing has nothing to do with your willingness to be vulnerable. I threw everything I had into my child – my world. I resigned myself to the fact that outside of my small support system, my camaraderie with new mom friends at preschool would remain limited to the three friends I forged meaningful relationships with. And I convinced myself that I was okay reigning in my vulnerability. It made me feel weak and susceptible to scrutiny from the wrong people. Stripped of any protection. Naked. The truth is that in addition to the fear of trusting others, I was severely uncomfortable in my own skin. It’s a weird feeling for an extrovert. I was in a relationship and a marriage for so long that I don’t even know if I knew myself. I knew myself as a wife, as a mother, as a sister, daughter and friend. But I lost touch with who I was at my core and being vulnerable would require me to admit that and do something about it. Something I wasn’t ready for.
I can’t tell you the exact moment it happened or what caused it. There’s no magical story I can share with a fairy tale ending. But I can tell you that after therapy and introspection and trusting my gut for once instead of listening to all the noise in my head and from others, the pieces of a very intricate puzzle came together, and I found vulnerability in a way I never thought I would.
After meeting and marrying my second husband and rebuilding my family, it was like an emotional domino effect. There was newness at every turn. My life experiences led me to a job I thought I loved, but I didn’t. I stuck around in a place that made me feel awful and it was a way too familiar feeling having stuck around to try and make a marriage work and then weathering a devastatingly painful divorce. It triggered me in ways I didn’t even understand until now. The “life is too short” mentality was literally overtaking me, and I needed out. So I started to write. It started with fun stories about my family. Then came fun stories about dating after divorce. I focused on levity and lighthearted things at first. My friends were reading but before I knew it so were complete strangers. I received messages and comments and emails dripping with words like “real” and “relatable” followed by virtual pats on the back. In that moment, I realized that not only was I being vulnerable by putting little bits and pieces of my life wrapped in humor, out there on display. But people were connecting to it. Validating it. Validating me and I them. It was a cyclical exercise and it was downright therapeutic.
We get so bogged down by the minutiae of life that we forget how vulnerability comes in so many different ways. We forget that vulnerability evolves as we do. And nothing drove that point further home for me than when I took some departures from the funny stuff and started to dig deeper. I wrote about divorce, experiencing a miscarriage, the pain of sharing custody of a child, hammering out logistics of a blended family. I went all in. Sharing the good and bad because you can’t have one without the other. I let people in. I traded messages with readers and forged bonds with others over similar experiences. Without even knowing it, I created a safe-space for other women to open up and they did the same for me.
And at 42-years-old, after a series of ups, downs and every other facet of an emotional roller coaster, I figured out that not only does vulnerability evolve, but it transforms from something you associate with weakness, to something that represents strength. It takes strength to open up and share yourself with others. Everything about it is the opposite of fear and shame. It’s a hallmark of knowing who you are and embracing all of those parts. It’s acknowledging things from your past you may not want to relive, but you can admit and understand how they shaped you. Instead of feeling paralyzing and alienating, vulnerability feels liberating and organic.
Everyone’s journey with vulnerability is different as is the moment of clarity that happens when you figure out that vulnerability is not something to hide from. When you can finally embrace it, the ability to bare your soul begets strength, power and confidence. And that moment it happens changes everything.