Vulnerability. Our collective Achilles heal. The majority of the people on this planet spend their lives doing everything in their power to avoid experiencing pain.
But guess what you cannot have access to if you are not willing to risk feeling pain? That’s right. You guessed it. Without the experience of pain, pleasure is not within our reach.
It’s a simple matter, really. Life is lived along a series of measurable spectrums. There’s the masculine/feminine spectrum. There’s the visible light spectrum. There’s the light/dark spectrum. There’s the love/hate spectrum. These are but a few examples. But for the sake of this discussion, we’re referring to the pain/pleasure spectrum.
Pain is scary. From the moment we are born, we walk around with our hearts on our sleeves, open, bleeding, desperate souls. Love is a human requirement for growth, and yet, so many of us were denied the love we so desperately craved. And that hurt.
When we got a taste of it, it soured in our mouths because it came with conditions. Or we allowed ourselves to believe in it romantically (parental love can be romanticized too), and it was viciously yanked away from us. Or we thought it was supposed to look one way, when it really doesn’t look like that at all, and so we were disappointed, over and over and over again. As a result, we stopped believing in love. We hardened our hearts, we locked away our souls, we built walls so high that no wandering tentacle of love could overcome, and we decided that this was NORMAL, this was OKAY, that we were WRONG about love and we’d learned our lessons, and we were done trying.
In our minds, love was the pleasure we thought we deserved but we were wrong to expect. If only we were the best daughter, the best spouse, the best mother, the best friend, so long as we did everything everyone asked of us perfectly, or made ourselves small so as not to ruffle feathers, the love we wanted would come to us. But then it didn’t and we got so, so sad. So we wrote a story about ourselves that was designed to keep us safe from those sad feelings, and we did everything in our power to avoid any chance of this story being re-written. Because if not for this story that was about us in relationship to the entire world around us and how dangerous it was, aka our walls, then who the heck were we? No walls = No us.
Right? I’m not so far off base here?
Yes, we ALL deserve love. Yes, we should expect love. All of us. True, unconditional, unshakeable, reliable love. Divine love. Mother love. Imagine the kind of humans we’d be if we’d never doubted for one second that we were TRULY loved, for who we are, and not for who we’re told we’re supposed to be? I truly believe that it’s our right to receive love. But this is a belief built on my own experience of childhood, where love was abundant and to be trusted, and I recognize that I may be, sadly, exceptional in this experience, and so I’m able to understand what it is meant to look like in ways that others aren’t able to…yet. Because the simple fact of the matter is that we are humans dealing with humans. And every single one of us on this planet, without exception, is, by default, doing everything we can do to not get hurt. And do you know why? No one has EVER taught us the value of pain, that pain is the currency that pays for the pleasure. The only way to get to the pleasure is through the pain. Pleasure is a reward for pain.
You cannot expect to know the pleasure if you are not willing to risk the pain. This is a universal human truth. This concept will show up in every sort of ancient text or esoteric book on the planet, so long as it thirty years old or older. New-age emotional by-passers need not apply.
We cannot run from our pain. The body cannot distinguish between emotional and physical pain, which is why say we feel the pain of a breakup in our hearts. We actually do. And repressed emotional pain will manifest as physical pain with enough time and avoidance. It’s a story as old as time.
So. What’s a person to do? Here you are, a full-grown adult, with the Story of You that is safe but offers little in the way of reward, with walls as high as the sky, a shrunken, sad little heart, a flat, dull, grey existence without pleasure, and at all costs YOU CANNOT GET HURT AGAIN. The Story of You tells you that your very essence is at risk of extinction if more pain comes your way, because you have felt enough pain, more than the average person, and therefore it is your right to not experience anymore pain. I will channel some Mark Manson here, from his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, and politely suggest that you put a place holder in the Story of You, put it down, and pick up a fresh, blank book now. Because it’s time for some fresh eyes on your situation.
In whatever chapter of the Story of You you are on, at that place where you put that bookmark, you cannot get hurt again. Or can you? Let me ask you this – Are you still alive? Are you still getting up every morning and breathing the air? If you’ve answered yes to those three questions, or at least to two of the three, then you are still alive. So guess what? YOU DID NOT DIE. The pain did not kill you. It may have brought you to your knees. You may have THOUGHT you were going to die. You may have experienced the death of the values and beliefs you held dear, or the death of a relationship (which, in the new book of you, will become the birth of possibility). But your physical body did not die, and the essence of YOU is still hanging around, waiting for the opportunity to introduce itself and become KNOWN.
That’s the beautiful thing about pain – It’s our most powerful teacher. It teaches us that we can’t touch a hot stove or we’ll get burned. It teaches us that if we jump off the shed roof, we are likely to break a bone. Pain keeps us safe. Pain KEEPS US ALIVE. Pain, in theory, at least for some, prevents us from being reckless with our bodies and with our hearts. It helps us to learn our limits. And, if we are lucky, it will have helped us to develop healthy emotional boundaries so that we didn’t have to erect shifty walls that give us the illusion of safety. But I am not writing this essay based on that possibility because I have yet to encounter a single individual who has not written a book on boundaries who truly seems to know what they are about. I’m pretty new to this game myself. I’m hoping to be able to write about boundaries soon, based on what I’ve learned.
Most of us are not that lucky. BUT. Here’s the big but – WE ARE STILL ALIVE. And this means, we still have a shit ton of opportunity to grow and learn new things.
At the time of writing this post I am about two weeks away from my 41st birthday. You know what I realized the other day? I have spent only about 20 of my 41 years in the adult form of my body. And I’ve spent maybe 15 of those years in the adult form of my brain. I could EASILY have another 50 years of adult body and adult brain ahead of me. I am a BABY. I am in the infancy of my adulthood. I have potentially still got 70% of my adult life still ahead of me. I know nothing about anything. Yup, that’s me – humble to the EXTREME.
So how am I going to spend this ENORMOUS amount of time yawning before me? Am I going to roll over and resign myself to a life that is how I have decided it is, how the majority of 40 year olds on this continent decide it is, full of insurmountable obstacles that will prevent them from the pleasure that they strongly believe they are entitled to, but are blocked by external forces from having access to, so why bother to try, because to try means to experience more pain? Victimhood is a REALLY comfortable state for most of us to stay in, because it means that we are not responsible for the experiences of our lives, for the things that “happen” to us. At no point do we have to own up to the VERY painful reality that if our lives are shitty, it’s because we actually chose the shittiness. But honestly, that gets old pretty darn quickly, doesn’t it? At some point we get absolutely sick of hearing our own whiny voices over and over again. Or I did, anyways.
I consider myself EXTREMELY fortunate in that I came in to this world wired to DO, to push through, to set intentions for myself and follow them, with a serious hard-on for the process and without too much attachment to outcomes. I have had the privilege of loving and reliable familial relationships, for the most part, and I am a part of a cultural group that takes care of its own. I recall three months in university where I thought I would die from the loneliness, and I didn’t really find my tribe until I became a mother, but I never felt consistently disconnected from the thread of humanity. I recognize that all this is enormously and sadly exceptional, and that it gave me a leg up. Through this I’ve developed an ability to be mindful about how I connect to people. I have rarely been “betrayed” by my fellow human, in the sense that I’m solid enough in myself, with strong enough boundaries, that I do not take the actions of others with weak boundaries as reflection of my own worth, and subsequently, that I do not rely as much on others to complete my sense of self as some others would. I’m creative and passionate and driven. One of the characteristics I value most about myself is my ability to look at an issue not as an insurmountable obstacle, but as a problem waiting to be solved. And as I accumulate years, I am becoming more discerning about judging which problems are worth my time, and where I’m taking on burdens that are not mine to take on. Boundary setting is an overwhelming theme. I’ve got a powerful mental arrangement that tells me that stagnation equals death, and I do NOT want to die. I’m a mover and a shaker and a doer and a grasper and an early adopter and thanks to these growth-mindset characteristics, I’ve learned something, through experience, through collective wisdom, and from PAYING ATTENTION, that I’m going to share with you.
You need to choose the pain. You need to choose the suffering. You need to expose that precious little heart of yours and risk it getting smashed to a pulp so that you can CHOOSE PLEASURE. It’s more resilient than you’ve led yourself to believe. I realize that, given all that I’ve outlined above, you may choose to reject my stance at this point because what the heck can I possibly know, but remember, pain is relative. On the scale of human suffering, I may not yet have experienced the same kind of pain that you have, but every person’s perception of pain is relative to their own life experience, and the measure of pain does NOT reflect the measure of pleasure that one can derive from the immersion into the pain sensation. This is what I like to call Ninja Math, ie – we can total up the experience of our humanity to more than that 100% on a scale. I may have to suffer only 5% pain to get 150% pleasure that first time. That’s the beauty of this exercise in vulnerability – you gotta start somewhere, but be prepared to be FLABBERGASTED by the size of your return on investment.
So back to your fear – You will not die. On the contrary. If you CHOOSE to expose yourself to the pain, you will grow. You will flourish. You will soar. You will FEEL. You will feel the yuck, yes. That’s part of the package, but you will make space for the pleasure, the joy, and eventually, for the rapture.
I’m telling you this because I know it to be true, because I’ve seen it for myself. So that’s why I’m writing about it. This is my story, but another version of it is within your reach – your version.
I’m on a pretty fun personal journey right now. For those that have been following me the last few years, you’ll know that I have used my deep interest in health and wellness to pull myself from the brink of anxiety and depression to mental wellness, and that I changed the trajectory of my body from chronic-pain riddled premature aging to eternal youth (I’m living in the moment here – tomorrow may present another story). But as much as I strive to be an open book and show you all my truths so my experiences can make room for your experiences, the biggest challenge along the way has beenletting go of this instinct to save myself from the pain of exposing my heart. We all do this. We react and our responsibility to ourselves ends in the space of the reaction. We RARELY risk going past the reaction to experience the actual feelings that the situation has illicited in us. In fact, we fight tooth and nail to avoid possibly feeling those feelings.
Until extremely recently, in my 41st year on this planet, I had NEVER allowed myself to be vulnerable. Like, truly, dangerously, riskily vulnerable. Like showing someone my SOUL and my fear.
In four years, I can count on one hand the number of times I have cried. Actually, it’s less than a hand’s worth. Until very recently, I had not realized how completely afraid I was of breaking down and falling apart and becoming Humpty Dumpty. I honestly thought that if I surrendered to the tears I might never stop crying and that would be the end of me. What a delusion I trapped myself in. What a limiting self-belief I’d condemned myself to. How much pleasure and connection did I deny myself simply because I was afraid that I would get so badly hurt I’d never be able to put myself back to together again?
When confronted with a painful situation, especially when it feels completely out of my control, my protective instinct kicks in and either I jump into don’t-feel mode, pushing myself to DO in order not to BE, or, if I’ve been attacked, I have to do everything in my power not to respond in kind. I have to SOLVE THAT PROBLEM of those feelings. I almost never allow myself to actually feel my true feelings at that moment because they leave me feeling so exposed and so unsafe. The worst thing I can think of, by default, is that I might break down, and breaking down feels inherently unsafe. To CHOOSE to feel safe seems simply stupid. Like why would ANYONE deliberatey put themselves at risk? I’d say this is pretty standard for the human experience. But normal is not what I’ve striving for. So I went further, and I hope that after reading this essay, you will decide to as well.
Here’s a thought – What if breaking down was not actually falling apart? What if breaking down was actually breaking through a wall of self-preservation, which was actually a wall of self-limitation? Either way, recently I found myself at a crossroads, which turned out to be the final crossroads of my current relationship with myself IN THIS MOMENT, and at crossroads I have to choose a path. I don’t like to get stuck at intersections waiting for the light to change. Time is precious and every moment is supercharged with DO. So I change the light. My mandate is to always choose the path that gets me to my goal most quickly. I’d rather walk over the hot coals and deal with healing my feet to get to the goal more efficiently than take twice as long by walking through the woods and running my fingers over the bark, feeling the grass beneath my feet, listening to the birdsong, and arriving without blistered feet, you know? I’m not squandering one second of the next 50 years! Some prefer the opposite path, and maybe one day I will choose to walk another path as well, but right now, I have a neeeeeeed for speeeeeeeeeeed. I love the wind in my hair.
So for the first time in a very, very long time, I allowed myself to break down. It was a small breakdown. I thought about the one thing that has historically triggered tears, the thing I used to spend a lot of energy avoiding thinking about so I wouldn’t cry and break down – the fact that my father will one day die and leave me (and by the way, he almost did about four years ago when he had a heart attack and triple bypass surgery so I’ve tasted the sensation of abandonment) and I let myself break down. And through that breakdown, I found my wound. I met the scared 6 year old who, through exposure to a concept she was not emotionally ready for thanks to Shirley Temple and Hollywood, realized that she was separate from her father and that everything that kept her safe could be taken from her. And through the father wound, I found an aspect of ME that I’d been denying myself access to for 35 years – an authentic relationship with my father, and a deep, unshakeable knowledge that I AM as safe as I can ever hope to be, in as far as anyone can truly feel safe. Ironic that the thing that led me to my breakthrough was the thing I’d been avoiding so I wouldn’t break down. Life is funny.
But do you see what I did there?
I CHOSE to be vulnerable. Not just in that moment of letting my tears flow in front of a witness, but here, too on this page. I chose to reveal my soft underbelly. I chose to make myself targetable. And I took a photo to prove that I cried. I happen to really love that photo. See above.
I wasn’t alone when that breakdown happened, though I desperately wanted to be. I was at the office and it was after hours and it was just my business partner and me, and she happens to be the closest thing I have to a sister, really, and she’s amazing and one of my most cherished relationships. But until I had that breakdown, I didn’t fully see how AFRAID it left me feeling to show someone I was sad. I did know, on some level, that if I didn’t seize my moment, it was going to be a while until another one presented itself. I took a chance and I wept. I cried real, hot, wonderful tears.
So here is where my Practice of Active Vulnerability comes into play. This practice is NOT true vulnerability, in my very humble opinion. Granted, I haven’t done enough reading on or experiencing of vulnerability to be able to say with any sort of authority what it actually is (who can?), but in my experience of it, vulnerability is not something you control. And I’m, historically, a bit controlling. But man, is it just me or is the idea of being MADE vulnerable not the scariest thing you can think of? It’s like that dream where you find yourself on stage in front of an audience with no clothes on. Although, come to think of it, that dream is incredibly stimulating now, but you know the feeling I’m referring to. When I’m done writing this essay I will take the time to listen to what Brené Brown has to say on the subject. If anyone knows the real deal, it is she! I enjoy seeing how much I can figure out on my own and then doing the reading to confirm my findings.
(Updated to add that The Gifts of Imperfection kind of fell back into my lap and I picked it up and inhaled it, so it’s definitely influencing, in a very good way, how I’m sharing this story).
Readers, there is a real crisis of faith happening at this point in my story. Here I am, owning my shit, healing my body, healing my brain, becoming fully accountable for my reactions to the things around me, setting boundaries in my relationships, setting boundaries with myself, digging digging digging through all the layers of delusion I’ve carried with me into my 41st year, and yet, I still do not feel safe. I still do not trust that if I TRULY allow myself to be vulnerable, that I will be safe. Do you? Who the heck does? I wouldn’t blame you if you thought I was off my rocker for even suggesting that such a thing is possible. But it is. Oh, it is…
Because at the core of it all, we have to remember that we are 100% responsible for how we react to every given situation. And all our reactions are based on how our brains have recorded our experiences and really, not much else. Most of how we perceive our worlds is through the distorted lens of our own vision. Lenses get cracked and warped and discoloured if you don’t ever change them or clean them. They get brittle through neglect and we end up losing the ability to adapt, and we get rigid and inflexible because of our lenses. You’ve seen how what you perceive as painful will not affect another person in the same way at all. Your reality is just that – YOUR reality. It’s not more or less legitimate than anyone else’s experience of reality, and it’s made up of the same problems as other people, but it’s yours and yours alone to navigate. And The Practice of Active Vulnerability involves a gentle kind of individualized reprogramming of our experiences, to make room for the knowledge that we are safe and loved and seen, to make room for true faith. We choose when and how we expose our hearts, but we COMMIT to exposing our hearts, a slice at a time. And in the longer term, through this practice, we see that the world isn’t the scary, loveless place we always thought it was. We learn who is safe and who is not, and how to be discerning in our relationships. We learn to let others in, to let them see us for who we really are, and not for who we think they think we’re supposed to be. We learn that what looks like an end is actually an amazing chance for a new beginning, we let go of that story of us and start to gently write a new one, with more of a choose-your-own-adventure kind of feel to it. One flash of our hearts at a time, we make way for the joy and pleasure that is part of the experience of living with an open heart, and that is a reward for or companion to our pain and suffering.
So what does The Practice of Active Vulnerability look like? Well, it doesn’t look like a huge undertaking, that’s for sure. There are a lot of aspects of ourselves we can integrate by making huge shifts (like, for instance, by jumping in, both first feet, to a Whole 30 and making changes to how we nourish ourselves, with food), but for all the stuff involving the heart and a lifetime of self-protective defence mechanisms…it’s more like building an entirely new muscle set. If you push past your limit, you’ll sprain your heart muscle. You’ll risk a pain that your body and your soul can’t absorb and heal quickly enough for the practice to make sense. We don’t want insurmountable setbacks from introducing new, traumatic situations. We want incremental, solid steps towards a whole experience of ourselves, and with each set of new fibres developed, we bring more and more pleasure into our hearts and our lives. Sounds pretty cool, huh?
I’m not a fan of tunnel vision, in the bigger picture, but for the purpose of this exercise, stick your head in that tunnel, okay? I want you to narrow your vision and really inject yourself into the NOW. For this exercise to work, tomorrow cannot exist. You’re in the moment, holding your own hand, standing at the edge of the cliff, preparing to jump, okay?
Here’s how I’ve been doing it:
Let’s say I have a really good male friend I really enjoy talking to and exchanging with. The dynamic is one of mutual attraction along with a deep emotional connection. The relationship is marked by very pivotal exchanges that have led to new perspectives for both of us. It’s a pure mirror type of situation, in that the entire purpose of the relationship is to help both parties grow. Lots of really good and really not so good stuff is exchanged, with both of us inching towards the ultimate goal of complete ownership and accountability within the relationship (meaning, everyone is responsible for the energy they inject into the shared space, and 100%, without exception, responsible for their reactions). One step forward, two steps back, one step, forward, two steps back. Time and patience are required, two aspects of live on this plane that I’m not totally at ease with. All this represents powerful, cathartic, beautiful, painful lessons. And eventually, the hope is that the pace of our progress will transition to two steps forward and one step back, as our rhythms align and start to see some real momentum and…YES…pleasure infuse itself into the bulk of our exchanges. The ultimate goal is a seamless flow of energy between us, without blocks. This flow is called Unconditional Love. This is what the ultimate goal of most meaningful relationships is.
But through most of this relationship, without being fully aware, I’d been elevating myself, as my default, as my protection against pain. I’d been offering advice and guidance in one direction based on my own experiences, but not sharing the actual experiences themselves, the proof of my humanity, which, understandably, made me less credible as a resource. I was asking to see his heart and not willing to show mine. I was trying to present a perfect version of myself that, while not entirely untrue, was not entirely honest. That’s what we do. We cherry pick the best bits of ourselves and offer those up to others for consumption. But that’s not committing to authenticity, is it? That’s image crafting, and it’s dishonest and lacking in transparency. Image crafting is the ultimate heart-blocker. Now you know.
In my larger, unofficial practice of mentoring and guiding, I’ve noticed that individuals who make themselves inaccessible, like I did, who try to dehumanize themselves and appear perfect, end up falling from on high. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, or something like that. It’s happened to me many times. When the people who step into my path looking for salvation (which I do not offer, by the way – not part of my Goddess Mandate) discover that I am actually human and don’t have all the answers, the response is deep disillusionment and disappointment, which gets projected on to me in all sorts of fun ways I’d prefer to avoid. And I’m not trying to avoid because I’m running from the pain, either, but because this is a perfect example wherein a little upfront investment in authenticity can prevent longer term energy leaks. Also, I have had to take responsibility for the extent to which I’d encouraged this false idolatry in order to avoid stepping into the same traps over and over again. The more times you fall, the harder it can be to get back up. Energy vampire situations will, eventually, drain you of all energy.
So, back to this relationship of mine, I’d give advice and offer suggestions but without the PROOF that I knew what the heck I was talking about, because in doing so, there was a chance, in my mind, that I’d LOSE credibility. Like, how can I know anything about anything if my life isn’t perfect? How does that make me a better source of information than anyone else? Why would anyone ever listen to what I have to say if I don’t maintain the illusion that I know what the heck I’m talking about?
The truth is, I practice what I preach. I will not offer an opinion on something I don’t know to be true FROM MY OWN REALITY, from the Story of Me. And because my reality is what I make it, it is never, ever “wrong”. But I’m still human and I am still sensitive to how I’m received. Like everyone else, I don’t want to offer the people who do not stand in full ownership of their reactions ammunition to use against me. Because they will. Or they’ll try to, anyways. Good luck with THAT. Ha ha. See what I did there? I just acted like I’m inhuman and I don’t feel the pain of being targeted…NOT TRUE. I feel it. Gah.
The same friend from the scenario outlined above once said to me, in a moment of pique when confronted with his own truth, “But can you handle being wrong?” It wasn’t the first time he’d ask me this and I’d had time to think about the answer, which was that I’m never wrong about ME. As someone with a decent level of emotional intelligence, I’m always right in my evaluation of where I am at the time, but as my reality is constantly evolving, my previous right simply becomes outmoded and irrelevant. So I have nothing to lose by being certain in a moment, so long as I’m able to recognize that my certainty may not apply in the next moment. Which I am. Now. Now I’m flexible and adaptable. This was not always the case. Now I feel strongly that it is. But I digress.
In every conversation about growth, the key to achieving the intentions we set for ourselves is in the removing of EVERYONE else from the dialogue. The plain truth of the matter is that relying on others’ reactions to tell us how we feel about ourselves means we will never take full responsibility for how WE react to every situation. If we say that society has to stop referring to certain body types, for instance, “bigger” ones, as any different than not big ones (a totally subjective analysis), in order for us to learn to love our bodies, we are passing the buck by suggesting that it is someone else’s responsibility to protect us from our feelings of worthlessness. While in the collective sense this idea holds value, because we should understand that judgement of others is judgement of self, at the end of the day, we’re facing ourselves in the mirror of life and it’s our choice which lens we put on that morning. It is up to us to truly learn to love our bodies for what they are, or accept that we currently don’t and that’s NOT because some external locus of control told us we shouldn’t. It’s because we’re not whole in ourselves, because we’re afraid to be vulnerable, because we’re afraid to see that maybe we actually are not worthy of love. In the most ninja-like of ways, we call on ALL the socially-acceptable language available to us to avoid being exposed, to avoid being MADE to feel vulnerable, to avoid admitting that we can’t handle the fact that what we least like about ourselves is something we imposed upon ourselves. This idea might stop you in your tracks and turn you off anything further I have to say, but this is precisely what I’m writing about – so go to those feelings and CHOOSE not to run away from them. Deep down you know that what I’ve said has quite a bit of truth to it, and you’re not going to die from accepting this. You’re simply going to have to rewrite the story of you. No problem.
In relationships with others, we tend to put SO much value on how the other people in our lives mirror our worth back to us. We tend not to take into consideration that the mirror of the other that we are gazing into might have been fractured into a million pieces and badly reassembled so that everything is distorted. We automatically assume that we are wrong and everyone else is right, or we assume that we are SO right that everyone else must be wrong. Either way, we’re striving for a bit more equilbrium here because neither extreme is desirable. Both cause mucho unnecessary pain. Removing the other from the conversation is the fastest path to wholeness. The broken mirrors provide perspective we cannot gain on our own. Our worth cannot be tied into someone else’s broken mirror. No one else can complete us, no matter how many Renée Zellwegers and Tom Cruises we collect, or how many movies we watch.
In the conversation with the friend I referenced earlier, I mentioned that my historic tendency had been to lay down a little tidbit of information about myself, and that my worth in the relationship, as I saw it, was determined by whether he noticed, picked up the tidbit and asked me about it, or if he ignored it and moved on in the conversation to something else, or saw it (because HOW COULD HE MISS IT? I ONLY SANDWICHED IT BETWEEN FIVE OTHER TEXTS AND OF COURES HE READS EVERY SINGLE ONE) glossed over it, and didn’t give it enough attention for my liking. Most of the time I would not provide enough information for him to even notice that there was something I needed to talk about, which wasn’t fair to anyone and created a distorted situation, an unmet expectation.
Many articles on the internet will attest to the fact that unmet expectations are the killer of relationships. They threaten our relationships with ourselves and they destroy relationships with others. Expectations are not the same as standards and healthy standards only become the benchmark for relationships when healthy boundaries are established. But this is fodder for another essay entirely!
So why didn’t I give him ALL the information up front? Why didn’t I say, “Hey, this is bugging me and I need to tell you about it?”
Because I was afraid, of course. It is ALWAYS fear of the unknown that prevents us from taking risks. The crappiness of the day to day is generally NOT unbearable and gets sustained far longer than it should simply because this crap is known and the crap waiting around the corner for us could be WAY worse, so why take that risk? I was using this friend’s broken mirror to indicate to me that I was okay, and I was really quite scared that if I told him the whole truth about my situation he’d be annoyed or bored or turned off and I’d fall from that pedestal I’d used to elevate myself in an attempt to keep myself safe, and he’d stop giving me the attention that I was relying on to prove to myself that I was safe. If he could see me then I was worth seeing. I was deeply fearful that he’d see that I was human after all and that would be that. It was better to cling to my pedestal way longer than I should have and forfeit a deeper level of connection than to risk being rejected and abandoned, wasn’t it?
The simple fact of the matter is that most of the time I didn’t even speak enough words for him to notice that I was trying to get his attention about something that was bugging on me. And so I misplaced my anger at myself for my apparent lack of worthiness and subsequent feelings of unsafe on to him, and misplaced anger always just kind of puddles around ones feet in the wettest of useless ways. It causes icy, mucky breakdown in communication, and in this context, breakdown is really just tha – a break down. Every breakdown in communication makes breakthrough in a relationship with another less and less possible, though, ironically, it can hasten the arrival of the breakthrough in our relationships with ourselves.
Still with me?
You know what I’ve learned recently, through my Practice of Active Vulnerability? Relationships built on shiny veneers are not sustainable. When the shells we build around ourselves to try to convince others we are worthy of love crack because they can no longer sustain the pressure of external control, relationships crumble because they are not built on who we really are. If they are built on who we think we’re supposed to be, they crash, hard. The shiny veneer turns ashy and grey and dissolves and we are left exposed and vulnerable and unable to relate in a way that really matters.
Moving forward, my Practice of Active Vulnerability means that I am committed to giving more information each and every time. I am committed to not manipulating situations in a way that my story has told me will validate me. I am committing to revealing my humanity with every bit of communication in my safe, trusted, and loving relationships, tidbit by tidbit. When I notice myself fishing with bits of information and not the whole story, I am prepared to SEE that I am doing this and go back and OFFER the fuller picture. And I will risk being boring or uninteresting or a turn off to another with my words. Because more often than not, in my sharing of myself with my safe people, I do not encounter rejection or disinterest, and I learn who is interested in hearing what and how to further engage in discussion and how to tailor the exchange so that there is an unadulterated flow of LOVE between us, no matter who the person is.
So here is my challenge to you. I may have to come back and rewrite this essay a few more times while I solidify the concept, but here is the crux:
Next time you find yourself in an exchange with another person, ESPECIALLY if it involves a pattern of behaviour that you can’t seem to avoid getting stuck in, and you come up against that default reaction, be it anger or defensiveness or hostility, be willing to observe the reaction. There’s a great ability that develops when a person agrees to become aware of their habits – they become able to see that they are defaulting to said habit without even thinking about it. So now I want you to start thinking about it and agree to seeing what you’ve been doing. Only by becoming aware of a default storyline can you rewrite it and release yourself from it. This is how you write a Choose-your-own-adventure Story of You, rather than the IKEA manual with the missing page you’re actually living right now.
So you’ve reacted. And in that reaction your brain is telling you PULL BACK. YOU ARE NOT SAFE. YOU ARE EXPOSING YOUR SOFT UNDERBELLY. THIS PERSON IS GOING TO RIP YOUR GUTS OUT AND TIE THEM IN A KNOT AND HANG YOU WITH THEM.
This is your brain speaking. Your head voice. Your head voice is often not only your voice, it’s also the voice of a fear-based society that doesn’t want you to ever feel safe because safety doesn’t get people to part with their money. It’s also the voices of those who have come before you and been hurt and are trying to save you from pain, whether benevolently or incidentally, and it’s your childhood voice reminding you that once you may not actually have been safe. You still may not be safe. Don’t get me wrong. But until you are willing to move past the reaction, you’ll never know if your feelings of unsafe are legitimate or if they are a distortion based on the Story of You.
Underneath those voices, is your intuition, your gut voice, and that voice is actually YOU. The Practice of Active Vulnerability, with its baby steps towards wholeness, is going to teach you to listen to that You voice for maybe the very first time. And that voice is the one that is actually going to allow you to safely navigate the inevitable pains of humanity so that you can get to the pleasure you’re so deeply aching for. That’s the voice that’s going to allow you to tear down your walls of steel and replace them with flexible membranes of the boundaried sort. And by agreeing to open your mind to the possibility that you have this voice, bit by bit, you’ll learn to hear it.
Agree to move past the reaction. It may not happen immediately, this ability. To use a relatable analogy, picture yourself standing at the edge of a cliff. You probably can’t even do this, because it’s REALLY hard to come close enough to that cliff edge as all your warning signs will kick into high gear to keep you safe. In a situation that provokes our default reactions, we can’t even get close enough to the edge of the cliff to see what is at the bottom because all those self-protective mechanisms kick in to propel us back the other way to perceived safety. Most times, even though the situation itself doesn’t logically seem that scary, our habits have become set to such a sensitive level that we are PUSHED back into the safety zone. We want to approach the edge of that cliff but find ourselves paralyzed.
In this practice, we’re not taking a running leap and throwing ourselves off that cliff without thought for what is waiting for us at the bottom. We’re using each scenario as a new chance to incrimentally edge forward, closer and closer to that cliff edge, one step at a time. We’re not looking way far forward into tomorrow. We’re looking one minute into the future. And then two, and then five, and eventually we’ve become so adept at putting one foot in front of the other that we are standing at the edge of that cliff, gazing into the unknown.
You know what ends up happening to that cliff drop, once you find yourself standing at the edge of it, looking down at the ground which appears to be MILLIONS of feet below you? That ground starts to rise to meet you! It’s true. It does. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the ground rises until one day it’s inline with the cliff itself and there’s no more cliff anymore. There is simply a new path, and it’s not dangerous or treacherous anymore because YOU wrote that path for yourself. You faced yourself in your own mirror and you began to see your heart and learned to listen to your gut voice. You did that.
I have no doubt that I’ll be back to further refine this piece, as I’m working deeply into the nuances of my recent growth experience, and I’ve so fully integrated aspects of myself for the first time that I’m having trouble going back to where I was before to be able to write about them in great detail. For instance, I’ve been wracking my brains for one text exchange example that would illustrate the way I used to withhold information from my friend, and I cannot recall what that would have looked like! So when it comes to me I’ll update this piece, as examples make a concept way more accessible.
In the meantime, I’d love your feedback on this piece and if you’d like to share with me your intention for your own Practice of Active Vulnerability, I’d be thrilled!
3 Comments Add yours
I’ll start by agreeing with you, that the picture is fantastic. I’ve never deeply felt like I was in the infancy of my adulthood, but you’ve piqued my interested by saying that. How funny it is that I feel, at 25, that I am in my adult prime. No chance!
Anyways, I’ve recently started my practice of active vulnerability (for the last year or so, although I didn’t have the terminology for it) and was very happy to see it was a topic that you’ve decided to focus on. I can share my experience.
I was young when my abuse started – I didn’t know that’s what it was until many years later and I questioned whether those memories were real or fabricated. From that time on, I sealed the part of my brain that housed those memories and left them there, locked up forever. I never allowed myself to show an ounce of emotion towards it. It wasn’t until after my brother died in 2013 and our very distant family was all together, that I actually had to face the abuser. Those memories creeped passed the lock I put on my brain and it was then that I KNEW for certain they were authentic. I spent so long telling myself that I made them up, as a way to not deal with what happened. I chose to internalize the emotions that I was feeling, until fairly recently.
My first and only relationship with a man (yes, I’m serious. Just the one!) was/is with my spouse. I saw in him the opposite of everything that abuser was to me and thought that by pushing the past back in its little sealed compartment of my brain, I would be able to move on with my life, with my spouse, and be forever happy. When our son was born December 25, 2015, I suffered from PPD and I lost my ability to ignore what happened so long ago and I broke down, with a similar experience that you’ve described. I’ve since gotten what I need (from professionals), in terms of resources to deal with any repercussions of my past, but am also expression. I’m trying to express those vulnerable emotions when I feel them, so I don’t feel unsafe and unloved. Baby steps.
I’m excited to keep following your posts!
Thank you, Lela! Are you okay with me publishing this?
Yes, sure 🙂