I often joke that in my family, we don’t “do” vulnerable.
Blame it partly on nature and partly on nurture but my father’s side is Hong Kong-Chinese (“more British than the British” is the motto) whereas my mother hails from a long line of hardy Presbyterians whose motto could be “in the event of an emergency, carry on.”
Add to that a dysfunctional up-bringing and I am not very good at showing my vulnerable side. In many way, it was a survival mechanism. However, as I got older, learning to keep my feelings inside and not show a lot of outward emotion became a source of pride. After having lived in Britain for nearly two years for graduate school, I returned to America slightly amazed at how compared to the Europeans and Asians I had met, Americans seemed so excessive in the information that they shared.
Indeed, as one British friend joked, you can always spot the American because in the course of a minute—they will have told you about their childhood, marriage and divorce and the details of their most recent therapy session.
For several years, I (wrongly) thought that this was a good blueprint to live by. However, it hit me one day that this might be a problem when “my closest friend,” someone I considered to be almost like a brother confided that despite knowing me for years, he never felt like he really knew me.
I was stunned—and more than a tad insulted. After all, hadn’t I been there for him time and again? Hadn’t I been the sympathetic ear when his “soul mate” turned out to be anything but, and broke his heart? Dammit, hadn’t I fed this man meals that I prepared with my own two hands?
As he explained, yes, I had done l that and more. I had certainly seen him at his most vulnerable, but he had never seen me as mine.
I wish I could say I took this all in with grace, but the reality is, I was livid. Well, someone had to the strong one in this relationship! Sorry, I am not a blabbering mess! You can go to hell you ingrate! I said all that and more. However, once the anger subsided, I thought about what he said.
He was right. I was never vulnerable with him or anyone else that I could think of.
The first step was taking an honest look at myself and those around me. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but with the exception of my friend and a few others, most of the people I was “close” to were emotionally distant themselves. In fact, the man I considered to the great love of my life never once told me he loved me or made his feelings known about anything that I could recall.
I wish I could conclude this piece by saying that I discovered the magic formula that made me an incredibly open person, but it’s still a struggle for me—even though I feel I have gotten better.
While I am probably never going to be one of these people who upon meeting them, radiates warmth and openness, at least I feel that I can continue to make progress.
Also, I have learned that being vulnerable doesn’t automatically mean telling everyone every little detail and quirk about me as soon as I meet them.
Like everything else, there is a balance.
In any case, I realize that I am not alone on this journey. The support of others—especially those who are willing to be vulnerable themselves isn’t just important but essential.
The truth is, underneath my calm, cool exterior lies someone who is incredibly sensitive and fears being hurt above all things.
Therefore, I’ll make a deal: I’ll show my vulnerable side if you show me yours.
Some things really are less scary if there is someone else in tow.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: elephant archives
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