Ever had that dream of being out in public, say at the grocery store, at work or at school, when you suddenly look down and are mortified to realize that you’re stark naked?
Let’s face it, we’ve all had that dream at one time or another. It’s a metaphor for our innate fear of being vulnerable, stripped of our defenses. But have you ever noticed that in the naked dream, the people around you aren’t the first to notice your state of undress? Quite often, they barely react – it’s our intense embarrassment that is so jarring. Being caught naked reflects our shame of being exposed.
Most of us learn at a young age to disguise our weaknesses. We’ve learned from experience what happens when we let our defenses down and show our true selves too soon: people find our Achilles heels, exploit our frailties or break our hearts. So we learn to hold back in order to protect ourselves. I can’t imagine a time this is more prevalent than following divorce.
It’s especially frightening to let yourself be vulnerable again after healing old relationship wounds. After my divorce, the scar that I carry with me is that I am not enough. When I put myself out there only to be rejected – that is the message that haunts me. As a result, I often hide my vulnerability by moving into overachieving superwoman mode to compensate or cover any weakness.
Last week, I was in a situation that forced me to be vulnerable. I had my wisdom teeth removed. It was not unexpected, as my dentist had been cautioning me for years about the increasing health hazards of holding on to them for too long. But after the divorce, I was without extensive insurance coverage and only had my kids at home, enabling me to put off the procedure. This fall, I had no longer had a choice in the matter as a possible tumor had developed alongside one of the troublesome teeth.
One of the most difficult aspects of being sick or injured, for me at least, is being vulnerable. I am not comfortable with being the patient, even under doctor’s orders to take it easy. I struggle with asking for help. I’m usually the caregiver, not the one being cared for, so it was really hard for me to rely on my partner for the first couple days of my recovery.
Lying in bed, scooping yogurt and watching Food Network, gave me a lot of time to think about why I shy away from being vulnerable. I re-watched Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. Once again, I was struck by how important it is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in order to engage and to build connections. Without it, we risk missing out on some wonderful and important things: Trust. Healing. Intimacy.
“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it,” she says. “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
I’ve thought about times when I have been vulnerable and was rejected – leading to that all-too familiar feeling that, once again, I am not enough.
One that came to mind was an experience I had while post-divorce dating. I remember going into it thinking that the best defense against pain was a smart offense. But it’s never been my nature to not want to build a connection with someone, even if it’s only over coffee. In order to do that, I had to risk being vulnerable.
My date asked me about my divorce, and in that moment, I was faced with whether or not to open up to him. So I chose to reveal how I’d been dealing with the grief of betrayal. His reaction? “No big deal. It happens to everyone these days.”
My story was met with crushing apathy when I needed empathy. I shared my truth and he brushed it off like I had suffered an emotional hangnail. My guard went back up.
Going forward, I minimized my pain by pretending divorce had been nothing more than a mere bump in the road and not the threatening sinkhole it felt like. Of course, it was exhausting to put on a happy face and it certainly kept me from building any type of genuine connection with anyone. The opposite of being vulnerable is a closed heart.
Fortunately, things were different when I met my partner. We’d both had our own life-altering struggles and were in our own unique stages of healing. There was comfort in that. It was like we’d finally found a safe place to share our experiences and show ourselves fully to one another. After holding things in for so long, it was okay to be vulnerable with him because he was willing to be equally vulnerable with me. Letting ourselves be seen and known was the key to cultivating love.
And that took courage. Of all things.
“To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen – to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee – that’s really hard. Vulnerability is the courage to show up and be seen when the outcome is unknown,” Brené Brown says. “It is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
She explains that vulnerability coerces us to be comfortable with uncertainty (and how I do love well organized, square-cornered certainty in my life). We risk rejection when we put ourselves out there, whether it’s sharing our story, saying “I love you” first, admitting when we are weak or scared, or asking for help when we are sick.
Being in a state of limbo, uncertain how the other person will respond, causes us discomfort. Yet it’s only by taking that risk that we learn to tolerate the tension. Vulnerability stretches and expands us, making us more resilient in other areas of risk in our lives.
Brené reminds us that while we are in limbo, we need to “just stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, say, ‘I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.’”
I am presently struggling in my relationship with someone who has all but completely blocked me from their life. When I attempted to reach out to them recently, my gesture was shunned. It hurt. Without an explanation of what is wrong, I could only deduct that I must be the reason – who I am is not enough.
But then this timely message (there are no coincidences!) made its way to me: “Staying real and vulnerable in a world that’s doing its best to tell you that you’re not good enough is true courage. Have the strength to show up and be seen as the imperfect human you are today.”
Although I am tempted to close my heart so as not to be hurt again, I know I must summon the courage to remain open if we are ever going to rebuild a connection. So I will take the risk to stay real, and yes, naked, remembering that to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.