“Walls don't fall without effort.”
Would you want to be Superman if Kryptonite didn’t exist? You'd be invulnerable to any physical pain. But it'd be even better to not feel any emotional pain. I think it’s funny that the easiest things for people to do are the most destructive. We think that by emotionally distancing ourselves, we’ll protect ourselves from pain and make ourselves stronger. We would never have to worry about getting hurt ever again. Pain sucks. It’s difficult and hard to bear. The most natural thing to do is find ways to push it away and get rid of it. The hardest thing to do is to confront it and overcome it. If it was a healthy choice, I would rather not deal with anything difficult rather than go through the incredible discomfort of confronting it.
Our deepest craving is the need for connection. In Erich Fromm’s book, “The Art of Loving,” he explains that awareness of human separation is our deepest suffering and that we all search for “oneness” or “reunion by love.” He says, “The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.” But because this desire is so great, then the fear of not obtaining this is just as powerful. This fear manifests itself in countless ways that almost always come down to building up walls and defenses and pushing others away. I have a friend who goes through periods of time where he emotionally shuts down and stops caring about anyone, because he fears being uncared for. I have another friend who greatly struggles with verbalizing her true feelings about people she likes, because she’s afraid of it becoming real. If it’s not real, then there’s nothing to lose. And for me, I built walls designed to selectively let people into my life and heart, but the problem is how much love I keep out.
It all bottles down to fear of separation, of being left disconnected and alone. And we believe that if we choose to be alone, choose to be the one who rejects and pushes away others, then it'll hurt less. Leon Seltzer, Ph.D, explains that we fear being unworthy, disapproved of, rejected, misunderstood, being unwanted, uncared for, and unloved. We fear being devalued, discounted, and betrayed. We fear being inadequate, incompetent, unacceptable, cowardly, humiliated, weak, powerless, underserving, etc. The list is very long. Seltzer says that if we were to simply be vulnerable and open, “we don't trust that others (or our "significant" other) will… safeguard or validate our vulnerability.” That distrust comes from experience and is the reason for all the walls, distance, and emotional shut downs. You’ve been hurt in the past, thus you can be hurt again in the same way, but you want to protect yourself from letting that happen again.
Galit Breen further explains that our walls are built to control what happens next. They are a defense mechanism in which you believe, “If I cut you out of my life or deem our relationship not "real," you can't hurt me.” She wants people to understand that these walls come from a legitimate place, but when you put them up, you're acting like a person that you once were. You are not the same person who got hurt by that person that time ago. You’re a new person able to react differently to new people and a new situation.
The problem with walls is that you are cutting off your connection with other people. Brene Brown, a vulnerability researcher, says that “connection is why we’re here,” which is very in line with what Fromm believes. Brown adds, “For connection to happen, we have to let ourselves be seen, be really seen.” We have to be vulnerable. How scary. Why would anyone who has been hurt before put themselves in a situation to be hurt again? It’s illogical, right?
Well, as it turns out, Brown found that those who already practice vulnerability have a few things in common. They have a sense of worthiness, love, and belonging. They believe they are worthy of love, so they freely love and allow themselves to be loved. They also have a sense of courage to be who they are, imperfect and flawed. They have compassion for themselves and others, and are authentic by being themselves rather than what they think others want them to be. These people fully embrace vulnerability and believe that being vulnerable is completely necessary to life. It’s not comfortable, but it’s not excruciating either.
As empowering and healthy as vulnerability is, most people see it as a weakness instead of a strength. Brown has found that there are symptoms for those who lack the tolerance for vulnerability. They have foreboding joy, which means whenever you reach peak happiness or bliss, you soon after become scared of something bad happening that will ruin it. These people choose disappointment as a lifestyle, because it’s easier to live disappointed than to feel disappointed after every unmet hope and expectation. They go through low grade disconnection, in which they go through the motions of life without allowing themselves to appreciate it and be happy. They strive for perfection, believing that if life is perfect, how can anything go wrong? They lack faith by trying to make everything that’s uncertain certain.
Mostly importantly, people who are scared of vulnerability numb it out. The problem with numbing is that you can’t do it selectively, because you’ll end up numbing everything. Brown says that vulnerability is at the core of shame, fear, and our struggle for worthiness, but it’s also the birth place for joy, creativity, belonging, and love. When you try to block off fear, shame, and other negative emotions, you are also blocking out joy and love. “If vulnerability is a sharp edge, there may be nothing sharper than joy, to let yourself soften into loving someone, to care about something passionately,” says Brown.
So I guess the scariest thing about being vulnerable is allowing yourself to be happy, loved, and loving. It makes sense in a stupid logical way. If you are never truly happy, then it can never be taken away from you. If you never love someone, then you don’t have to fear their rejection or the pain they can cause you. It’s safe. It’s not safe to allow yourself to be brought so high with joy and love and belonging, to just accept and appreciate it, because what if something bad happens? The worst pain is to have experienced it and then losing it, fearing that it will never return.
That’s the risk of having something good, because you’ll constantly fear losing it. I know I get terrified of letting myself have happiness and love, because of how many times I’ve lost it and how much it hurt each time. It’s not easy to face that much pain, and to take the risk of knowing it will happen again. But then I think of a story my mom sometimes tells me. She said that when I was little, she told me, “Everything you love is going to hurt you.” She detailed that losing my favorite blanket would hurt me, losing my doll would hurt me, and then went on to say that one day she and my dad will hurt me. Further, one day I will hurt them. At such a young age, I couldn’t believe her and I told her I would never hurt her, to which she responded, “But you will. Because that’s just what happens when you love something. But that doesn’t mean you stop loving.”
It means nothing to just say, “Take a risk. Don’t be afraid of love or letting anyone close to you.” I get told that kind of thing a lot, and I always respond with, “Easier said than done.” People trust experience. If you’ve been hurt before, you’ll be hurt again. But then I guess you have two options: close off and protect yourself, or be vulnerable, open to pain and love again. One is undoubtedly easier than the other, but one will undoubtedly bring you a much more fulfilled life.
If you choose to be vulnerable, there are ways to practice that, just as long as you understand that it’s a constant choice. Brown advises to let ourselves be deeply seen, and love with your whole heart even though there’s no guarantee of it being reciprocated. Do this by practicing gratitude and joy. Seltzer adds that the strength to be vulnerable comes with the ability to self-validate and self-soothe. When we self-validate, we are “at peace with our flaws and limitations, we don't judge ourselves according to rigid, perfectionist ideals.” This doesn’t mean we justify our mistakes; it means that we admit there are still things to work on. Self-soothing is, “Feeling that we possess the emotional strength to quiet our temporarily jangled nerves, we don't need to flee from the situation . . . or ourselves.”
Choosing to live with vulnerability is not the easy choice. It’s actually the more painful one. But it is a necessary one. The alternative is to choose a life without love and connectedness, which I think is far worse than any pain love can bring. Life will hurt you. The people you love will hurt you. You will hurt the people you love. But be open and love anyway.
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
-credited to Mother Theresa
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