Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Freedom of Vulnerability

Long ago, on the schoolyard, we learned to hide what others might consider odd. Lest we commit the ultimate sin by letting them see us cry.

Being vulnerable means opening yourself up to ridicule. Knowing they can and they will, yet still wearing it proud. The downside: the horrible shame and humiliation you feel when someone disapproves of your core self. The self you really are, no masks, no deceit, everything completely laid bare.

The upside (and, yes, there is one): when your core self is revealed, with its obvious weaknesses and unattractiveness, and you are accepted anyway. It's the most amazing feeling a human can experience.

And vulnerability in romantic relationships … well, that is an entirely new level of hurt. Is the risk worth the reward?

Only when I finally let myself be truly vulnerable to others was I really free to be myself. I didn't have to fret about being caught with my guard down. What will so-and-so think about my such-and-such? What a breath of fresh air to be really free from ridicule. That's not to say I wasn't or won't be ridiculed. That people won't disagree with me. (I hope they do. What a boring world it would be otherwise!) 

Being disapproved of by others can be painful. We have a built-in evolutionary need to feel accepted by our peers. In order to minimize our hurt we develop defense mechanisms. We (1) avoid relationships as much as possible, (2) adopt a mask, which hides the core self, or (3) build sturdy fences (or sometimes walls) around the relationship making it theoretically impossible to be hurt by one's partner.

What makes ridicule so powerful, so penetrative, is that others illuminate the very things we are trying to hide. That I have a crappy job, I look silly when I dance, I cringe when I hear my father’s voice, or that my body bulges in unattractive ways.

A truly vulnerable person looks at her own weaknesses and opens them up voluntarily. Maybe this is along the same lines as comedians who make fun of themselves? "I'm not fat. I'm fluffy." Who can really make fun of us when we’re already laughing?

Some people feel this sense of vulnerability more than others. And the greater the chance of pain, the more defense mechanisms, fences, walls, and dark, dank dungeons we feel to be necessary.

As a teen, and even in my early adult years, I was terrified of being "revealed" to disapproving eyes. It didn't really matter what my supposed offense might be. The thought of being unacceptable to others, especially peers and potential partners, drove me to hide behind a mask of rigid toughness. Still, somewhere in my private fantasy world, I was looking for that safe relationship where I could reveal myself in totality and be completely accepted.

For many years I was told and believed that I could find this "total acceptance" in a relationship with "god". This of course was little more than my imagination playing with itself. Even grownups can find comfort in imaginary, I guess.

Of course, the answer is always the most obvious and the most complicated. I had to accept myself. I had to ultimately not care what others thought of me, while still caring, lest I be lost to cynicism. I had to know my place, and love my place.

Being vulnerable is the single-most quality that has opened up my life. For the first time I am available. Available, open, and able to confidently address whatever comes my way.

After being married (and mono) for almost ten years, I began a new relationship. It was a whole new experience of vulnerability. Dating in my early twenties was a game of masks (not Thrones, sorry), always being more savvy than the next potential partner. Keeping my secret love of all things nerdy, and my total lack of sexual experience completely hidden.

Even after marrying, it was a long struggle to bring down walls. And I don't think I truly accomplished that until recently, becoming poly, and letting the last hidden piece of myself be revealed. At the time, I didn't know how it would work out. I told my hubby I was in love with someone else (too). And it certainly wasn't a walk in the park for him. But ultimately, he chose to accept me, all of me. And I have never felt so loved by him as I did that day. And every day after …

Being vulnerable in my new relationship was a whole other thing. I'm not a shallow teenager anymore. I like to think that I've matured beyond playing the boyfriend trophy game. This was going to be something really different. Dating as a grown-up ... hmmm ... a post for another day?

For this new relationship, I wanted to be entirely myself, entirely vulnerable, from the start. If I couldn't do that, then the relationship would be a real waste of my time. But it wasn't as easy as I thought. I mean, being completely vulnerable to a new person is scary. Rejection, even if it's only in the form of a blank stare, hurts, especially if it's someone whose opinion means something.

What a lucky dumbfuck I am! TheTotalPackage (his choice of name, btw) turned out to be the most amazing, understanding human being I could have hoped for. But, fuck, it was scary. I must have made a total fool of myself trying not to be so shy and stupid, but also not put a false front.

All those lofty defenses I'd erected early in life were awfully tiring and only got me further away from where I wanted to be. Being loved for the picture of perfection I wish I was just left me feeling dissatisfied in the end.

Here is your own personal invitation to open up your vulnerable self to people. Start by opening up to just one. But make sure it’s really your whole self, no hiding the parts you don't like. See how it feels. Don't let someone's bad mood or lack of tact put you off. It's okay if you get rejected or meet blank stares. It won't kill you, and you are headed toward a lofty goal.