On Vulnerability

Definition: “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded”

(courtesy of Merriam-Webster)

At an undetermined point during my youth, I made a decision. Being an INFP and generally anti-confrontation and avoidant of difficult or painful situations, I became more intentional about trying not to put myself in places where I could be hurt or emotionally wounded by others. What better way to avoid pain than by avoiding activities that could involve pain? So what if some of those same activities also had the opportunity for real connection, warmth, love, and healing? Guess I missed out.

The goal was to protect me from any more pain.

As I hinted at above, the problem with protecting yourself from pain means you’re also going to “protect” yourself from authentic relationships and real feelings. Authenticity can get ugly. It requires us to give more fully of ourselves. And when we have to give everything we have into a relationship, inevitably that will mean we’re going to drudge up the less presentable parts of our character and past that we usually work to hide. We end up revealing that we’re not perfect, that we have faults and we don’t have it all together. The fact that we are not emotionally invincible will be revealed.

My natural (or more accurately, learned) instinct is to avoid showing signs of weakness or need. I instead am prone to give off the persona of the stable friend and to be a “rock” to others, whether in individual relationships or groups. In school, I was the guy people relied on for help with homework. To friends, I provide that listening ear when a friend was going through a tough time. I have openly encouraged others to talk to me, to open up. I wanted them to be vulnerable with me, but I often wasn’t with them. And over the years, many have done so much to my joy. I genuinely love being there for people, to listen, to ask questions, to sit alongside when words are just too much.

However, I have categorized whatever troubles I have as not important enough to burden others with. A part of me believes I subconsciously suppressed my opinions or needs for the greater good of the family unit or group. (I feel like a complete and obedient Asian writing that last sentence.) I’ll be fine, I said. Don’t worry about me. Showing vulnerability, in my mind, meant that everyone else couldn’t see or know my struggles or pains.

Everyone else already has enough stuff that they’re dealing with; why should I add onto the pile?  

My introverted tendencies and personality characteristics lead me to be selective about who I let in. Getting to know “inner Greg” or “real Greg” is a rare occurrence; it is a time-intensive process. The journey should be taken with caution and slow, deliberate actions and words. The amount of vulnerability I have with people is often directly correlated to the amount of time we spend together. Presence matters. You can’t speed or fast forward to reach the deeper places. Be patient, but most importantly: be there. That’s how I know you’re real and that I can be too. As much as is possible, I want to know you’re not going to hurt me intentionally. Even with all that, I will be slow to open up.

This quote below perhaps best encapsulates my fears about opening up & being vulnerable:

“Am I important to the people I’m supposed to be important to?”

I understand that opening your heart and life carries risks and almost zero guarantees of a pain-free experience. But I want to have this unattainable guarantee that when I decide to share all my messy stuff, it will be handled with care. To have that fragile part of me dropped, grossly misunderstood, or quietly ignored to me is even more pain-inducing than the feeling of not being known in the first place.  This fear of not being “handled with care” and feeling more broken, even after I put this huge “FRAGILE” sticker across my face, is what often scares me away from openness. It is one of the hardest things about relationships with one another: the lack of guarantees of receiving the same amount of love you give.

Without all these risks of being hurt, I will miss out on receiving that closeness, love, and grace I want others to experience. Sometimes you have to give up that sense of control and open yourself up when it doesn’t feel comfortable. Be vulnerable so others can serve and take care of you.