Home Opinion The mortifying ordeal of vulnerability

The mortifying ordeal of vulnerability

“If we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.”

Tim Kreider may have wrote these words in a column for the New York Times almost eight years ago, but the lesson they teach remains just as important today as it was then. Simply put, we have to be vulnerable in order to be known, and we have to be truly known in order to be truly loved.

Much easier said than done, I know.

When I was a kid, I desperately wanted a “best friend.” I craved connecting and understanding even as I shied away from it at almost every opportunity. As humans, we want to avoid pain and stress. We don’t tell people what we really think, we cut them out of our lives when it gets too difficult and we don’t say things that we think might hurt ourselves or others.

We do all these things, then we wonder why we never feel truly seen. I wanted a best friend, but I was unwilling to open up enough to invite that relationship to form. The result? I was left sad and yearning for something that might have been completely within my grasp.

Unfortunately, I did not learn from this behavior and instead continued living in my fear of vulnerability into my freshman year of high school, when I joined the speech and debate team. As an impressionable freshman is wont to do, I immediately began idolizing the varsity members. One night, I wrote a letter in my journal to one of them.

“I want to tell her how much I appreciate what she does,” I wrote. “But turns out I’ve made myself pretty bad at saying those kind of things. So I’ll just tell my journal, and maybe someday it’ll get to her.”

Why was I so afraid of telling someone I truly cared for and appreciated them? In my mind, this student was eons ahead of me, cool as a cucumber and might feel awkward in the face of my gratitude and care. In reality, she was only a sophomore, struggling with the same sort of things I was. If I had told her how I felt, it probably would have brought us closer.

Don’t worry, I did eventually send my letter to her when I rediscovered the journal entry earlier this year. With the excuse of distance, it was much easier to tell her how I felt because it was no longer “how I feel in this moment.” If she didn’t respond or rejected my outreach, I could tell myself it didn’t matter.

When we take off our mask by being vulnerable, we invite those around us to do the same.
When we take off our mask by being vulnerable, we invite those around us to do the same. Image credit: Artem Podrez Photo credit: Artem Podrez

But this distance also lessened the joy of vulnerability. I was happy when she responded with gratitude, but not as happy as I would have been had the exchange happened during my emotionally tumultuous freshman year.

It’s enticing to only be vulnerable about the past, but it’s important to do the same for the present as well, to tell someone “this, right now, is what you mean to me, and this is how I feel.” Yes, it can be terrifying to face an unknown reaction. Yes, it can be awkward to try to communicate past misunderstandings. But it is so worth it to take on all of these challenges.

Part of me still wants to justify my reluctance to be vulnerable.

As part of writing this article, I asked on my Instagram, “What does ‘I love you’ mean to you?” I expected to get a wide variety of responses, which I could use to justify my fear of saying those exact words. After all, how can I say anything when there is such a threat of misinterpretation or misunderstanding?

In the end, I did get a variety of responses. But instead of fear, I felt overwhelmed by the sincere emotion present in every response. Each person who responded may have described love in a different way, but it was clear that in each case, the importance was not in the exact words they were saying but in the vulnerability behind those words.

“What happens to you matters to me.”

“It’s a thank you, it’s a promise, and it’s a representation of what I feel.”

“It means that I really care about someone and I would do anything for them.”

“That you accept me for who I am and love me for everything that makes me different.”

“I’m important to them and they are willing to be vulnerable with me.”

Image credit: Felipe Galvan
Image credit: Felipe Galvan Photo credit: Felipe Galvan

Now that I’m older, I know how to be vulnerable. I’m still scared of it most of the time, but I understand the great rewards that come with it. “The rewards of being loved,” as Kreider put it.

They are there in the hour-long phone calls I have with my mom when I need to cry. They’re the way my best friend always says “happy tomorrow” when we stay up past midnight together. They’re the heart my boyfriend drew on the dusty dash of my car and the patience with which my older sister helps me sew a costume.

The rewards of being loved are the result of every moment I’ve thought to myself, “This feels cringey,” before sending or saying something vulnerable, and they prove to me how absolutely necessary vulnerability is for me to build and maintain truly fulfilling relationships.

As poet Mary Oliver wrote, “If the doors of my heart ever close, I am as good as dead. Every morning, so far, I am alive.”

Or, as the poet Ideahlism wrote, “there is so much joy in being brave (and there is so much i still want to be brave for).”

Or, as I wrote way back in 2016,

“I don’t want to leave this sadness
because it’s the only thing I know how to deal with
but I must break free
my happiness is not a myth”

Turns out my happiness never was a myth. It was within me all along; I just had to learn how to share it.

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