April 10, 2016, instagram post from my high school bedroom:
Radical softness (n): unapologetic vulnerability. In a society that prioritizes fierce self-reliance, it is seen as weak to be emotional, to want support. It takes a different kind of strength to share your emotions openly with other people, to refuse to feel sorry for how you feel.
// January 25-27, 2018; Granada, Nicaragua
For the purpose of this article, vulnerability is defined as the ability to experience one’s emotions as they are, and in doing so, fully embrace the life one is living right now, in its entirety.
Vulnerability is the most rebellious form of self-love that exists in American culture. In an attempt to sell the American Dream, advertising companies and mainstream media moguls have created a culture that idolizes “happiness”, an effortless sense of satisfaction one can achieve simply by working hard and/or looking good. As a result, there is this expectation that to be seen as likeable, one has to seem happy. In conforming to this expectation, I have often felt pressure to exude an unconditionally positive outlook, to radiate a joy I don’t always authentically possess.
To maintain this illusion of happiness, there were emotions I would refuse to let myself feel. I was determined negativity deserved no space in my life, so I wouldbecome otherwise occupied to avoid feeling angry, sad, or scared. Despite my best efforts, my “busyness” tactic never really worked – no matter what activity I convinced myself I was immersed in, the shame was always there, whispering sweet “you’re nothing”s in my ear. The pressure to maintain the illusion of the person I thought I should be would build in the back of my mind, until I couldn’t take it anymore – I would shatter, my soul sharpening words into shards that would surround me. I would use these to shield myself from a version of me I didn’t want to see, but more than anything, the make-believe stalactites cut me off from the person I wanted to be. Sometimes they would turn outwards, on the people I loved the most, for coming too close, for fear of them seeing me in a way I couldn’t bear to see myself.Furthermore, by not allowing myself to feel how upset I was, I wouldn’t learn from the mistakes that caused me pain in the first place. The whole point of our brain’s negative feedback loop is to alert the organism in question that its current environment is not safe anymore, and something needs to change. But how on Earth can I learn to change my actions when I’m so busy pretending everything is fine?
Maintaining this facade of perfection was not only inauthentic, it was exhausting – by cutting myself off from emotions I perceived as negative, I was not experiencing my life to its fullest extent. This was a significant blockage in my relationship with myself that rippled outward to affect my relationship with others, leading me to stay in places I was uncomfortable far longer than I should have.
I realized in my teacher training was that there is nothing intrinsically bad about these so-called “negative” emotions – it’s okay to be hurt, angry, and sad. It means I cared about something enough to get attached to it, and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out. But these feelings don’t define me – it’s what I decide to do with these emotions that determine who I am and how my life will continue.
I let myself cry now. I allow myself to write & think about the things that make me unhappy, without immediately trying to find a solution. Quick fixes never worked, and it’s much less painful to address the underlying problem a single time than treat the symptoms every month or so. Who I really am and what I really feel is valuable; what’s crazy is how long it has taken me to understand this. Unhappiness is a necessary part of life, and the breaking is beautiful in its own way. Accessing these emotions has brought me so much closer to reality, to who I am and who I want to be.
Which brings me to my second point: Vulnerability is the fundamental building block for authentic communication of personal experience that creates connection with another human being. It’s the single most important trait for any meaningful relationship.
I am more connected to others, too – I can call friends & family members now when I’m upset, talk to loved ones about my less positive feelings in the relationship in the hopes of ameliorating it. No one around me has been put off by these real emotions, either; on the contrary, it has made me so much more relatable when I am able to talk about things I am having difficulty with. It makes me a real person, someone others can really connect to; no longer an unattainable golden girl.
I’ve realized vulnerability is what I crave in communication. I would rather have someone cry to me about the shitty breakup they’re going through five times over than deliver a distant anecdote about what they had for lunch. Similarly, the music that resonates with me usually addresses themes of love, pain, sadness, and anger in relationships. These feel authentic, especially when they’re pertinent to my own life.
It takes immense strength to reveal the parts of myself I have always been told are “weak” and “childish”. But I’m finding immeasurable power in accepting what is. True weakness is hiding who I really am from myself and those I love, out of fear of being rejected for not being enough. True immaturity is found in an inability to learn from past mistakes, stemming from a refusal to feel – a lack of vulnerability
Artists are some of the bravest and most open people in our society – they have to be to do their job, which is to create connection, the manifestation of art. That’s what I’m trying to create now, too. Open communication, connection, vulnerable authenticity. Growing into becoming a person who experiences & express herself fully, accepting all aspects of her life.
// How to?
I am by no means an expert on anything, but here are a few tips I’ve found useful in my own personal journey:
– Reach out. I try to open up to people when I’m feeling upset. Sometimes I disregard my own emotions as dumb or unnecessary, but talking to a loved one helps validate them. In addition, articulating my feelings often allows me to understand what I’m really struggling with
– Something really key for my journey in vulnerability that my personal development teacher impressed upon me was to always speak from” I”. Often, in an attempt to distance myself from being vulnerable, I would speak in vague generalities, saying things like “sometimes this happens” or “people do this”. Even using second person & first person plural, “you should / we feel” connotes an element of separation from self. The way to overcome this distance and really connect? Speak from I. After all, the only things I can ever really know are those I experience, so it’s all I can talk about with any certainty.
// Additional resources:
Brene Brown has done some incredible research on the importance of vulnerability in relationship and life satisfaction – I highly recommend any of her works if you want to learn about the concrete effect of vulnerability.