Vulnerability is…

Stephen Hussey

(Photo: David Vilanova)

I recently read the book Daring Greatly by Dr. Brené Brown.

For those who have never heard of Brené, her famous TED talk has garnered a staggering 25 million views, and she’s lectured around the world on the virtues of being more vulnerable in every area of our lives.

I agree with Brene that the people who get the most joy from their relationships are able to approach love “Wholeheartedly”, that is, without fear, by complete surrender to whatever pain love might bring with it.

The hardened cynic in me wants to take offence at any word like Wholeheartedness (particularly with that troublesome capitalised “W”) – so warm, gooey, fuzzy, just plain un-British. As a native of the land of “Keep Calm and Carry On”, this is exactly the kind of terminology that ought to bounce right off my tough skin, thickened from a lifetime of stiff upper lippishness.

Yet if I’m honest, I know every relationship I’ve ever had, from my first real girlfriend at 16, has been hindered in some way from my inability to truly expose myself.

Having begun my romantic life with a few teenage heartbreaks (translation: being mercilessly dumped), I learnt quickly to keep my guard up every time I felt myself on the verge of falling for someone new. I always wanted to be in control of my emotions to avoid getting knocked out by an unexpected sucker punch, never wanting to be the one who leaned in first again.

The idea of being over-exposed was death to me: if I never gave too much to a girlfriend, I could never be hurt when her feelings changed for the worse.

My twenties have since been one long lean into vulnerability. I found as I got better at allowing myself to show my feelings, I enjoyed more love, experienced greater closeness, and felt more connected to girlfriends than I ever felt in my early relationships.

Part of that is getting older and having more serious partners. But I know I screwed up a lot of those early relationships by trying so hard to keep myself protected, scared to death that the real me might get rejected if ever too much of my true self got revealed.

I would cover up my sensitivity with cocky or loud personas that didn’t really suit me. Girlfriends would sense this falseness and gradually distance themselves as a result. What I saw as their lack of affection was maybe just their way of responding to my own form of avoidance: trying to evade a real connection by hiding my easily bruised underside. I would say the right things when under pressure, but if I’m honest, I was only ever exposing just as much as I could get away with, never really wanting to ‘throw all in’ and risk what might happen with my heart on the line.

Enough time has passed since and I’ve now realised an obvious truth: it takes incredible strength to be vulnerable. Only strong people are able to expose themselves to criticism, put their heart on the line, and take risks for love.

There’s a scene in the movie Boyhood where Ethan Hawke’s character tells his son after a devastating heartbreak “At least you’re feeling stuff, that’s important. As you get older you feel things less. Your skin gets tougher”.

I think my evolution went the opposite direction. I began with being tough (or desperately pretending to be) and only came full circle following my realisation that I was totally going about love the wrong way. Great relationships aren’t about which partner is stronger. Great relationships are so naked that it frightens you how exposed you are.

As you get older, you realise that vulnerable actions are where life happens.

Vulnerable actions are:

  • Sharing your deepest fears, toughest moments, and biggest insecurities with the person you love.
  • Telling your boyfriend exactly how he upset you the other day.
  • Telling your boyfriend how much better your life is for having him in it.
  • Opening up about a geeky hobby you have even if someone will make fun of you.
  • Approaching someone at a party who might shoot you down.
  • Asking your partner about his concerns and fears about your future together.
  • Doing that flirty action that scares you but might just break you out of your shell.
  • Your first attempt to dance in front of that person you fancy.
  • Trying to talk dirty for the first time to turn your partner on.
  • Saying “I love you” without knowing what you’ll hear back.
  • Writing your true feelings in a letter or card and sending it.
  • Calling to say you’re sorry and admitting your girlfriend is right about your flaws.
  • Asking for help from your partner to change your ugly personality traits.
  • Telling her you miss her so much it hurts.

Vulnerability is initially terrifying, but quickly addictive in its own way.

You hold your breath, do the risky thing, realise you didn’t die, and more often than not you notice how much richer all your relationships become (friendships included).

The price is that you’re also always exposed, to the best and worst that can happen to you.

But was life in that shell really so great anyway?

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