The first time I watched one of Brene Brown’s shame-resilience TED Talks was the first time I felt I truly understood where so many of my struggles with anxiety came from. I remember going home to Boyfriend and talking about what I’d learned, to which he flat-out replied, “I don’t do shame.” I’m sure he would probably say the same thing if I brought up vulnerability — he’s a dude, and a veterinarian.
Being vulnerable, as we’ve established, is absolutely terrifying. It involves embracing uncertainty and emotional risk which, I know, are some of the scariest things there are. Unfortunately, when we think we can choose to not “do” vulnerability, it “does” us instead — we feel things regardless of whether or not we want to feel them, and if we aren’t willing to embrace the vulnerability that comes with them, we will probably react in ways that don’t necessarily match with who we want to be.
The vulnerability that surrounds my depression and anorexia is really, really hard for me to embrace. For whatever reason, it is so much easier for me to be brave writing about it in a blog post than it is trying to communicate with the people I’m closest with. It’s hard because these things requires accepting my humanity and imperfection, and those are things I struggle to accept without experiencing a total shame breakdown. It was only a few months ago that I struggled to even say “anorexia” out loud, or qualify “depression” with “my” before it. My fear of shame (and tendency to feel it easily) has talked me into believing I can somehow “beat” vulnerability so I don’t have to worry about feeling shame ever again.
Most of the time, I can accept the humanity and imperfection in others with complete ease — but not in myself. Shame tricks me into thinking I’m not worthy of the same compassion and acceptance when my own humanity emerges…so I try to bottle it up and pretend it’s not happening. Which is (spoiler alert), not a particularly effective strategy. Like Boyfriend’s haste to write off shame by saying he doesn’t “do” it, I subconsciously say I don’t “do” vulnerability every time I’m confronted by anorexic thought patterns in a restaurant, or body image issues in a dressing room, or a depressive low with no discernible trigger, and try to ignore those feelings rather than honoring their existence.
When I’m not brave enough to name my vulnerability in those moments, they often pile up and push me into a shame space so I get defensive and, more often than not, end up snapping about something innocuous (like Boyfriend teasing me about getting a trivia question wrong). And then, I generally go into an even deeper shame spiral to punish myself for expressing my emotions “wrong” and shattering the illusion of perfection I cling to for safety. And then, it becomes a much larger emotional suck and shame trigger than if I had just embraced my vulnerability in the first place.
I worry that people won’t understand or will judge me when I have moments like that — that saying “I’m on a major low today” or “I’m having trouble quieting my anorexia voices” or “this meal is just causing me a lot of stress” will somehow make me less worthy of respect. I worry about seeming “dramatic” or “annoying” as I deal with the complexity of my emotions, so I often pretend they don’t exist to protect myself. But I’m not really protecting myself at all, because the more I fight my natural, human desire to be vulnerable and “dare greatly,” the more it explodes out of me in ways that don’t line up with who I want to be. It’s really so much easier to just let myself feel and own that feeling than it is to push everything down until I can’t hold anything else in — but it also requires a lot more bravery.
Things like anorexia, depression, anxiety, stress, and sadness are painful enough without denying myself the capacity to feel them in their entirety. As much as I try to be the best human I can be and take the best care of my mental health as possible, I know this is something I still struggle with. I feel it in moments of frustration I don’t understand, in rapid emotional changes that don’t seem to make sense based on the situation at hand. I feel my vulnerability push back against me, saying “let me out because I’m going to get out eventually, whether you like it or not.” I’m still learning to listen.
Experiencing vulnerability is not a choice (much as I want it to be sometimes). The choice is in how we respond to it and how we experience it. Instead of pushing it aside until I can’t take it anymore, I’m trying to choose to experience my vulnerable moments as they come, and allow myself the same humanity and imperfection I allow in others. It’s not easy. Many times, I still fall into the logic error that I can somehow defeat my vulnerability and steel myself against it. But I am slowly learning to let go of the impulse to control the uncontrollable, and let myself become the person I know I am.