When Vulnerability Isn’t a Strength

Do you have one of those blessings that feels more like a curse? The curly hair that just won’t behave. The amazing long legs that require custom-tailored jeans because nobody makes your size. I’ll tell you mine: I’ll get really emotionally worked up to the point of crying, and the person I’m talking to, my boss or my professor or whoever, will say “Wow. Not everybody can be so vulnerable. You might not understand it now, but someday you will really appreciate it.” I’ve heard this several times, from several different people, and I think now I do finally understand it — but they were still wrong. Let me explain.

First of all, crying for me doesn’t carry quite the same meaning that it does for most other people. I’ve always experienced very intense emotions, but after a traumatic event in my late teens, I started having panic attacks which manifested with hyperventilation and intense ugly crying. On top of being completely terrified, I was embarrassed about it. And it all felt out of my control. To me, anxiety felt like an allergy that would flare up when I was triggered: instead of breaking out in hives, I would sob. It happened at school, while I was on the clock at work, in front of customers and my own students when I taught classes, in important meetings. Anywhere I had responsibilities. It was also very rare for me to cry when I was just sad, without the anxiety and embarrassment creeping in. I hated crying, and worse, I hated feeling so misunderstood.

I’ve done a lot of work on myself in therapy and outside of it to understand my trauma and my feelings and start to heal. Over the years, the stories I tell myself and others have evolved as I make progress and my environment changes. While of course, crying in front of someone you don’t know very well is a vulnerable position to be in, Brené Brown has famously made the point that “vulnerability without boundaries isn’t vulnerability.” Self-disclosure is not vulnerability either. I haven’t read her book Daring Greatly (yet), but in my search for the meaning of vulnerability, this quote really resonated with me: “Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.”

I think in this case, she was speaking to people who use vulnerability as a form of manipulation. But when I read that quote, it reminded me of how powerless I felt to regulate my own feelings and actively decide which ones I wanted to share with certain people. For me, it often came down to a choice between doing the important thing — raising a concern, solving a problem, facing a rude customer, admitting I need help or that I had messed up — and literally fleeing the room. Brushing it under the rug and changing the topic was never on the list of options. I remember my most recent therapist remarking that I just don’t seem to have the “buffer” most people have that keeps them from getting all emotional at inappropriate times. Hell no, I thought. Wouldn’t that be nice, though?

Even as I didn’t understand what was going on in my own brain, I eventually found a couple of strategies that helped. It occurred to me just before New Year’s 2019 that I could just treat my tears like a fact of life at this point and choose to stop being ashamed of them. Up until then, tears and anxiety were almost inseparable from each other: a chicken-or-the-egg situation, and I didn’t know which came first. Sometimes talking about sensitive topics would bring me to the edge of panic (tears), and sometimes I could breathe through it and sometimes I couldn’t. So I decided that was okay and I had to believe it.

It took a while to take effect, but eventually, I started to see amazing results. I wasn’t panicking or crying as much, and when I finally did separate my tears from a deep feeling of shame, I was able to hold better conversations and get through them without descending into panic. It was crazy to me how different it felt to be able to think clearly while being genuinely sad or upset or exhausted, and not have to divide my focus between the issue at hand and the panic seeping in.

The other thing that helped was actually working on my trauma with a therapist who understood it. Doing EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) ultimately helped me unravel my negative feelings from my shame about my negative feelings and see them as two separate things.

And so this brings me back to my admirable vulnerability. What the heck did anybody mean by “ooh, you’re so vulnerable,” and what was actually going on? Usually, I took it to mean something like, “I admire the way you go ahead and talk about things you know are going to make you cry.” Maybe what they really mean is that they admire my earnestness, but without the crying, I doubt they would have brought it up in the first place.

Eventually, I did come to understand why I was really crying, why I felt so vulnerable all those countless times working customer service jobs, in grad school in front of professors and my own students, on the train in front of God and everybody: it wasn’t because I was putting myself at a real emotional risk. It was an imagined risk paired with shame hanging on from way back in my childhood and teens.

What I want others to learn from this is that vulnerability is a strength when it’s intentional. There’s a very distinct element of consent: I am letting you in on this for a specific reason. There’s also a huge element of ego, which I never would have thought at the time. In the end, a survival mechanism is still a method of putting yourself first. Outgrowing them and leaving them behind is a painful process, but it helps us have healthier relationships. And last, feeling strong emotions and being sensitive to them in other people is not the same as having emotional intelligence. That takes work, and if your parents and your schools don’t teach it, you have to find it yourself. But there are plenty of other people, of all ages and backgrounds, on a similar journey. As we learn to open up safely, we find each other.

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