It has been a long day after a long weekend but a commitment has been made so here I am again. I promised yesterday that I would talk about my relationship with vulnerability in a more personal way, after posting Brene Brown's talk last night. This is, you might have guessed, far more uncomfortable than sticking with the academic argument of how great vulnerability is. Therefore, I hope you will forgive the clumsy attempt. I will get plenty of practice on becoming more articulate on this subject over the next 363 days!
One of the things I love about the talk I posted yesterday is how she frames vulnerability as essential not just to connection but to resilience. I have vague memories of not being scared of vulnerability as a child. I know that, somehow, no matter how scared I felt, something kept open even as a teenager. Maybe it was my desire for connection or authenticity. Maybe it was a survival mechanism. Whatever it was, part of me managed to stay in touch with vulnerability. However, over the years, I also learnt that the over-culture does not always have an easy relationship with vulnerability. As I moved within more Anglo-American cultural contexts in my late adolescence (mostly through literature and music), eventually physically relocating to the UK at 22, I picked up other messages about vulnerability. Vulnerability seemed to be read as weakness. This seemed applicable to both physical and emotional vulnerability. Furthermore who I was seemed to be associated negatively with vulnerability by several people. At the time, I was a femme presenting person and this seemed to somehow imply some interesting messages: an expectation of grace, fragility, muted tones, passivity, receptivity, and possibly a need to be rescued by a knight in shining armor. Please understand that this is not what I believe to be true about femininity but rather it was part of my experience as I started to navigate adulthood and relationships, initially with heterosexual men and later with butches and some femme-identified women. I am also not saying that Italy has an easier relationship with vulnerability, especially when it comes to constructions of masculinity and femininity! This is just my current understanding of how some of those contexts shaped my relationship with vulnerability, as well as with emotions. There are many contexts and many stories, which I have not touched on at all for this post, such as how coming from a working class background shaped my beliefs about vulnerability as a luxury or how white-flighting to me meant distancing myself from passion and strong emotions and how those two contexts intersect to create stories of shame and fear. But I won't tell all those stories in this post because I am trying to give a broad strokes overview of why I chose this project.
My 20s was also the time when I encountered therapy and starting to unpack some vulnerability around having survived domestic violence, first as a child, then as an adult. It was the time when my health started to deteriorate and I was eventually diagnosed first with adult-onset asthma and then with fibromyalgia syndrome (although the latter took nearly 5 years of doctors' appointment and self-advocacy). I felt physically and emotionally vulnerable and I equated this with weakness and associated it with danger. I was also experiencing an increasing sense of alienation as an Italian transplant to England, an emotionally colder cultural context. The latter in many ways created the privacy I had craved for and in other ways judged my 'passionate, emotional' nature as somewhat less evolved. The therapist who helped me through a heartbreak, the decision to move to the States and the early stages of coming out as trans, found it incredibly funny and interesting that I would choose to move to Minnesota while reflecting on the impact of 15 years of living in an emotionally constipated climate! But I digress. It would take far too many hours of writing, and probably some editing, to unpack how my relationship with vulnerability was shaped through my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. For this post, suffice to say, it was an uneasy relationship and ultimately I judged vulnerability as my weakness, possibly a wound and definitely a nuisance.
In my late 30s my relationship to vulnerability began to change. I realized that I had compartmentalized my emotions somewhat and that my ability to only be vulnerable with some people and in some contexts was not leading me towards a balanced life, or the connection and authenticity I craved in my relationships. Rather, it was fueling an increasing sense of alienation, where I often felt alone in the proverbial crowd of acquaintances who could not be friends, because they really had no idea of who I was, although they might have known my politics and opinions pretty well. My walls were firm and tall, even though they were painted in pretty, friendly colors. I started to understand that my framing of vulnerability as a problem was at odds with my beliefs, hopes and dreams, which were all about authentic and intentional relationships in the world and between worlds. So the rebuilding of the relationship with myself began, the slow process of trusting myself, listening, and being able to be vulnerable with myself began. I am getting tired, and I want to be able to listen to my body as I will need to rely on having enough energy for boot camp at the YWCA at 6am tomorrow morning, so I will cut a long story short. Somehow, along the way, and thanks to so many people, my relationship with Mystery, parenting and community, I realized that vulnerability was one of my strengths. It always had been and it had been patiently waiting for me to notice, being there when I needed it the most to survive. I also realized that changing my relationship to vulnerability was increasing my capacity for joy. As I became more able to be present to the whole of myself, my tolerance for the whole range of emotions expanded and my life became more deeply rooted in joy. Not the singing robins, everything-is-picture-perfect kind of joy but the kind of joy that knows that everything passes and yet somehow what is authentic remains and feeds us. The joy rooted in my connection to wholeness, and to others and to myself. And that is why I think it is worth embarking in this process of opening to vulnerability, including the slightly public commitment to blogging, because I can certainly do with more of this kind of joy.