Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Challenges with vulnerability: or, Questioning the "Suck It Up" philosophy.

Here's a familiar feeling: sitting on a train bound to a new city, reflecting upon the beautiful moments and great trials of the past couple weeks.

It's nice, this taking of time to order my thoughts, to catalogue my experiences, and to share with all of you. While I (ideally) do three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing to dump mental overhead, I find that blogging / journaling exercises a different part of my brain and serves a separate purpose. These periods of quiet, where I can sit in my world of words, listen to music, and just acknowledge the many things of my life are such a luxury. Fortunately, I have deliberately reduced the intensity of my travel schedule for this time period compared to last fall. That should leave me more space to keep up more regular entries.

I arrived in Switzerland last Tuesday and headed straight to Lucerne for Forwards, the pre-Sideways camp taught by Brenda, -topher, and Catherine. I noted that Zurich airport and the Swiss transit system has become second-nature to me. Entering the country or traveling from one city to the next is no longer a big ordeal; I may or may not look up train times and I can breeze through the computer ticket tellers.

I was surprised by the number of familiar faces at Forwards. A good sign that Europe is increasingly becoming a community that I'm a part of, much like the United States. People whom I am genuinely excited to see and enjoy spending time together.

I was also surprised by my introversion over the first couple days. Tuesday was particularly intense. For some reason, I could hardly meet anyone's eyes, I had no inspiration to speak up in groups, I felt very small and withdrawn, and that I wanted to get smaller because I was taking up too much space. Was it because I felt like I was being treated as a special teacher, even though I was a student like everyone else? Was it because I was so severely sleep deprived and exhausted, with all my barriers lowered, that were anyone to actually reach into my eyes they would find a swirling messy pool of mixed emotions, and the thought of being known in that moment was terrifying? Was I not ready for the eyes, the attention of a large group of people without first putting on the teacher hat?

I'm reading this book on vulnerability by BrenĂ© Brown, Daring Greatly. It's been making the rounds in my circles, thanks to her presentation on the topic at a TEDx conference going viral. The book first appeared in my life back in October, where it sat on my shelf for many months. It resurfaced in February on a couple, independent occasions, which I took as evidence that it was time to read it. Having already packed it away in storage, I bought a new copy to carry in Europe. 

Since then, I have spent a lot of time thinking about vulnerability, how I handle it, and how could I do better. I have always thought of myself as being an open person. I communicate well, I connect easily with others, and a speak from the heart. But I'm finding that there is much I hold hidden from the world, family, and lovers. There's a poetic dramatic irony to the situation, in that I used to fancy myself the more vulnerable person in my relationship with Lauren, and yet here I find that I am almost as equally guarded about my feelings and fear the thought of discovery, of being known.

The reasons for avoiding vulnerability are complex and intertwined, but here are a few I have identified recently:

1. I do not share my inner thoughts because I fear judgment from others or their negative repurcussions. It makes me naturally diplomatic, and also indirect. I do not want people to know my struggles, my frustrations, my judgment of others, my disappointment in myself, my critical mind. There are people whom are not on my favorites list, yet I still appreciate having them be some part of my life, so I play politic and enjoy a life of shared limited vulnerability. Does that hurt me in the long run? 

2. I fear that I am unworthy of love. If people knew the real me, they would distance themselves. They would think less of me, trust me less, spend less time with me. So I try to keep the negative, the sad, the downsides of my character contained and hidden. I work actively against this fear (as do most people whom live "wholehearted" lives), but I must acknowledge that it plays some role however infrequent or small.

3. I do not want to burden others with my Self. I am programmed to take care of my own demons. Man up, suck it up, don't be a wuss, don't be a bother, don't be co-dependent. Males have this one particularly hard, since self-sufficiency and strength are reinforced societal norms. If I unload my worries upon someone else, does that make me weaker? Do I become annoying by sharing my fears too frequently, I become a downer? Once I had been advised that you are ready to share the burden with another if you don't need to share it; that is the marker of a healthy independent strength. But how can you really know if you don't need it? And even if you don't need it, is it not unlike training that part of your emotional toolset less intensely? Further, what exactly do I get out of sharing with another person that I can't just process on my own with the many tools at my disposal? What's the point of it all, really? Do I get anything out of verbally processing a situation with another person? How deep does it need to go?

These are questions that float to the surface of my consciousness with some regularity. Just recently I had such a situation with Nicole. I had to wake up early yesterday to do several hours of work, despite staying up late and being destroyed from the weekend. The details of why are beside the point… and also, I don't feel comfortable sharing them in this space (guards against vulnerability rearing their ugly heads again). The point is that I had a lot of work to do and a host of emotions, stresses, and anxieties about the situation. I considered intimating this, since it was on my mind and affecting me, but there was a voice that said, "She doesn't want to hear that. We all have stress, don't put this on her, she doesn't need it and you don't need to unload it. Sharing is just seeking an excuse for not handling the situation well, it is stripping your agency and allowing you to play victim to your situation. Be tough, contain it, compartmentalize it and deal with it in the appropriate time and place. Git 'er done." Eventually I settled on providing an abbreviated version, but it was abundantly clear that I was only letting her see a glimpse, like an FYI statement rather than an invitation to dig in. It was… unsatisfying. I keenly felt the wall I had erected between us in that interaction. Yet it did allow me to keep the emotions contained, to not have them pollute our shared space. In an alternate universe where I did end up sharing a deeper side, would that have been any better? Would I walk away feeling better, more secure, more capable to handle the situation? Would there be a net positive effect? I'm not clear as to the answer. 

I did not go into the blog post expecting to write about vulnerability. It came out on its own accord. I suppose that's the beauty of writing, isn't it? One minute you're very aware of what you're writing, and then you look up and it's suddenly thirty minutes later, you have been scribing constantly and are only vaguely conscious of what came out.

Well, the train ride is almost done. For those whom made it this far, thanks for reading.


Anna Grace said...

Firstly, thank you for being vulnerable enough to click the "publish" button once you wrote this post. Secondly, each of the reasons for limiting vulnerability that you listed resonate with me and, I imagine, are much more common than we realize.

I don't share these often, but I feel like it's appropriate here:

John Andrew said...

mmmm, a rich subject indeed. Karla McLaren has a practice she describes in her book Language of Emotions called "conscious complaining," and it is specifically a container for allowing these "poisonous" emotions to be expressed and heard without requiring they be fixed right away. Conscious complaining can be done with a partner or solo, and I find it can be very helpful to give words and space to difficult feelings I've been holding on to; then, at least you know what's there. Emoting can be like writing -- you get into it and 30 minutes later, you've articulated something very clearly that's also very significant to you that requires attention. Leaving it bottled up doesn't make these feelings go away; they will resurface later, some way, somehow; perhaps in a different form or a different incident that evokes the same feelings, only stronger.

It helps if your partner knows you're about to do some conscious complaining and that their job is only to listen and witness, not fix or even sympathize.

Andrew said...

I like the idea of "conscious complaining," thanks for sharing it! It goes explicitly against the "stiff upper lip" philosophy, but I suppose that's precisely what we're trying to train ourselves out of. Recognize that it's sometimes okay to complain, as long as you're conscious about it and having it serve a greater purpose.