Lies Society Tells Us: Vulnerability is (NOT) Weakness

When I first started guiding Boyfriend through the process of Supporting A Partner With An Eating Disorder, he struggled with expressing the softness I needed during times of stress and frustration. Navigating anorexia recovery and major depression and general anxiety disorder comes with a lot of feelings, and I come from a family that has always encouraged me to be open with my emotions. Boyfriend comes from the school of “suck it up and man up.”

Pro tip: “suck it up and man up” is not a great approach when you’re dealing with a highly sensitive introvert with lots of feelings and too much empathy (seriously, I used to have funerals for toothbrushes). Teaching Boyfriend that it’s okay to be soft and express emotions has been a huge challenge — often, he doesn’t know what to say (often, I don’t know what I need him to say anyway) and sometimes I think he gets overwhelmed with the breadth and depth of feelings I have at any given time.

Society spends so much time convincing us that feeling things completely is “bad” or “weak,” but vulnerability isn’t good or bad! It’s the core of all our emotions — you know, the things that make us human. It’s easy to reject vulnerability as weakness because we associate it with “dark emotions” like shame, sadness, fear, and grief…but vulnerability is also the core of emotions like joy, love, creativity, and courage. If we don’t open ourselves up to the possibility of feeling the “dark” emotions, we close ourselves off from the chance to really feel the “light” ones. I am fortunate that my support system(s) have always encouraged this completeness of feeling, but I still struggle with vulnerability.

My biggest stumbling block is shame. Because I struggle intensely with perfectionism, I am incredibly shame-prone. I am still learning to separate my work/words/looks/etc. from who I am, so something as innocuous as a minor copyedit or bad hair day can be enough to send me into a total shame spiral — “that draft/this outfit/that comment was bad, so I am bad.” Especially given the trauma that characterized my 2017, I am learning to reclaim my worth and find my “enough” even when things aren’t perfect (spoiler alert: they never are).

But sometimes it feels easier to shut off (or try to shut off) my feelings in an effort to armor myself against the pain and frustration of shame. Denying vulnerability can feel empowering in the moment, like you’ve beaten the system and transcended some major weakness in the human condition. I think it’s a similar line of thinking to the “suck it up and man up” approach, but unfortunately we can’t “beat” vulnerability. We can only suppress it or deny it to give ourselves the illusion of invulnerability. The more we let ourselves simply feel as feelings come, the more energy we can spend where it counts.

Boyfriend and I are both learning to get comfortable with the discomfort of vulnerability — him by feeling and expressing things, me by cultivating greater shame-resilience and not letting shame stop me from embracing emotion in all its forms. Without the courage to be vulnerable and feel all the things, we lose an essential component of our human-ness. Without acknowledging the reality of our vulnerability (because every human is vulnerable), we lose the true protection afforded by owning our experiences, feelings, and uncertainties. Seeking protection from the illusion of invulnerability is about as effective as going to battle with a plastic knife.

When I think about the moments in which I have been the most vulnerable, they are the moments in which I have been most courageous: Writing a series about my experience with anorexia. Leaving an incredibly toxic situation. Starting a new job. Moving in with Boyfriend. Saying “no.” Wearing blue lipstick. Vulnerability isn’t weakness in the slightest — we are bravest when we are vulnerable. We are daring greatly.

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