I recently watched a TED Talk by Brene Brown on the Power of Vulnerability and this video brought to my attention a topic many people like to tuck away- being vulnerable.
Most of the time, people only let the side they want others to see out. They hide their weaknesses because of the fear of feeling shameful, which is ultimately the feeling of disconnect and feeling not good enough. Brown talks about how in order for us to connect, we have to let ourselves be seen, really seen. She says that one thing that keeps us out of connection is the fear that we are not worthy of this connection. She breaks it down to three essential keys: courage, compassion, and connection. You must have the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to be kind to yourself and to others, and the connection as a result of authenticity. The hardest and most important part of this all is to be willing to let go of who you thought you should be in order to be who you are, while fully embracing vulnerability.
Personally, vulnerability is something I hate feeling. To put yourself in a place of uncertainty, and have no control of the outcome is something I'm most afraid of doing. Either it is in relationships, my career, and or journey throughout my life. One thing that I enjoy the most, are the structures in life. I enjoy being able to plan out my week, write down my list of to-dos, and check them off at the end of the day feeling accomplished with myself. However, as I follow the traditional path towards "success"- attend school, graduate, and get a job... I wonder if I can define my success in a different way in which it can incorporate my passions, interests, and time spent studying Commerce here at Queen's University.
What I'm trying to say is, as I learn more about myself and accept who I am, I've learned that I do not want to choose a traditional path in my career. I want to take a road less traveled, and pursue a career that incorporates my love of fashion, curiosity in entrepreneurship, and knowledge learned in business school. This, however, presents vulnerability and a path that is unknown in my life. At first, I didn't know what the heck I was doing. I felt lost. I felt like I didn’t know who I was and what I wanted, and altogether I did not know what to do about this feeling. Often times, I feel as if I’m going through this path by myself as there are not a lot of people I can look up to, or personally ask for advice. For this, I kept asking myself could I really take this path on and be successful. But then I took a step back and tried to see the bigger picture, figuring out how I can achieve this goal of mine in the long run. With this, I started doing things that I knew I could do. Utilizing my network and support, doing my research, and always asking questions.
When people ask me what I want to do when I grow up, I tell them I have yet to know but I know what I do not want to do. For me, it is a process of elimination. You cancel out the thing you know that certainly do not resonate with who you are while being open to new opportunities that can help you become who you truly are. For those who still are not sure about what they want to do in the future, just know you’re not alone. Sometimes it’s hard to answer this with a “job title”, so just take it one step at a time. Take time to self-reflect, ask questions when you don’t know something, and experience things out to see if it’s for you. Altogether, this is what I feel most vulnerable about. The fear of not being "successful" in the way I perceive success.
To gain more perspective on this topic of vulnerability, I asked my friends on what they feel most vulnerable about and how it has shaped them.
For a long time, my mental health made me feel vulnerable. I was diagnosed with panic disorder in high school and I frequently had panic attacks for a couple of years. Those were the most frustrating and disheartening years of my life. I was constantly angry and ashamed because I felt like I had no control over my body. I didn't understand what was causing these attacks and when they happened, they left me on the floor feeling numb and unable to speak. For a long time, I felt disconnected from my friends and family because of my anxiety disorder. I didn't know how to articulate what was happening to me, so I avoided talking about it completely. Due to this, the people that cared about me didn't know how to help me so I misperceived their perplexity as them invalidating my pain and me being unworthy of help. Consequently, I lived in constant fear of people finding out that I had this "flaw" and realizing that I was unworthy and inferior to them. My self-esteem plummeted and I felt like I could never accomplish anything in my life as my disorder would always hinder me. While I was sinking in my own thoughts, my mom persisted in reaching out to me and honestly, I would not be in a better place today had it not been for her. My mom was always patient and put in all her effort into understanding me. She constantly reassured me that I was doing well and encouraged me to keep track of my feelings. It took me a while to become comfortable with telling her that I needed professional help. I received medication and learned coping mechanisms, and I'm now more at peace with my vulnerability.
I've grown to acknowledge that I cannot control whether my vulnerability is a part of my life or not. My anxiety can creep up when I least expect it, but rather than viewing it as a flaw that I want to ignore, I've learned to work through it. By doing this, I have become more introspective and more self-accepting. I take the time to understand what makes me uncomfortable in different situations and think of solutions to alleviate this feeling. Sometimes it still frustrates me that I will have to continuously work to manage my anxiety, but the important thing is I don't feel hopeless anymore. Brown mentions that we need to believe "we are enough" and I agree with her wholeheartedly. It's very simple in theory but I've found that it's forming this thought into a habit that's the difficult part. But by telling myself every day that "I am enough" - whether it be before striking up a conversation with a stranger or raising my hand during class - I now easily focus on what will go right instead of worrying about how my vulnerability will fail me.
Vulnerability is a topic that is hard to talk about and hard to acknowledge. There are numerous reasons for this and I completely understand what it feels like to hate vulnerability – both as a topic to talk about and as an emotional connection to relate to. I’ve started to notice that it’s becoming second nature to hide flaws, emotions and anything that makes us susceptible to other people. We, as a society, like to appear strong and independent even though that may not always be the case and I am guilty of that too. There have been many instances where I have attempted to ignore and hide my vulnerabilities from the people that I’m closest to in hopes of avoiding feeling ‘exposed.’ My everyday surroundings influenced me to believe that vulnerability is another word for insecure. I started thinking that the more open you are with the things that have a natural impact on you, the more insecure you are. When in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Writing makes me vulnerable - opening up to strangers about my experiences, my flaws, and my life. It’s as though I’m showing my naked self to thousands of people from behind a screen. Writing requires me to be fearless despite feeling exposed and that scares me sometimes. That being said, it isn’t just writing that makes me vulnerable. Saying “I love you” first, putting in effort where I am not guaranteed reciprocation, admitting my mistakes, trusting a stranger, etc. These are all vulnerabilities that I’ve come to face over the last few years. Heck, accepting being vulnerable makes me vulnerable. For awhile, I really believed that having vulnerabilities is a terrible thing. I tried to reverse the things that emotionally scared me by pretending that they didn’t exist or by pushing them far under the rug. Guess what? It’s impossible. You know what I realized? When you allow yourself to open up about your vulnerabilities, amazing things can happen. When you share your writing, people may respond with an overwhelming amount of support. When you say “I love you” first, you may be mending an individual’s broken heart. When you put effort into situations where you are not guaranteed reciprocation, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you receive. When you admit your mistakes, you may create a new space for self-growth.
Vulnerability = possibility.
Here’s the thing: Whether you like it or not, vulnerability is necessary. It’s necessary because without it, we would not be able to learn and grow. I think it’s important for people to understand that not only is vulnerability necessary, but it’s also healthy. It took me a long time to realize that my vulnerabilities are what make me wonderful and I’m so glad I finally did.
Let me preface my story with something about myself. Opening up to anyone about my vulnerabilities is something that scares the shit out of me. I always feel like I’m bothering others with problems they do not need to hear about, and hence, I learned to cope with the idea that I can handle my problems alone.
This personal independence stems from the fact that I was not born in Canada. When my family first moved into the country, there was always a burden on me to be the child that pulls the family up in an unfamiliar societal hierarchy, and the constant shadow of my family’s successes in my home country was a reminder of the reputational stake in my parents’ gamble. This didn’t stop me from having a wholesome childhood. I still remember happy memories of flying a kite with my old man beside our first home, or going out to watch the fall leaves with my mother.
On the other hand, my most vulnerable moments were littered throughout these times. I remember a household fight that almost led to a permanent move back to my home country along with a divorce because of how bitter it became. I remember watching my father work all sorts of odd jobs way below his educational standard for ridiculous hours at a time to provide for us. Most notably, I noticed that my sibling would consistently refrain from asking for any superficial purchases due to our situation, a showing of self-control that shouldn’t have been required from a young child. The powerlessness of my actions in these circumstances, and the need to numb myself to external stressors were the vulnerabilities that have shaped the outlook on my future.
My parents were never the type to push me in a certain direction. They encouraged me to explore new ideas, and pave my own future, with the caveat being that I excel in my choices. The combination of this freedom of choice that allowed me to decide on what I wanted to be, along with the constant fear of being unable to support those who have supported me has always been a major source of my drive. However, these responsibilities forced a lot of unhealthy independence, leading to my frequent belief that opening up to others wouldn’t solve my internal problems. Although the motivational factor is useful in many cases, this background is the direct cause of my reclusion on personal matters, a quality which to this day, has prevented me from opening up to people about my insecurities. It’s the reason why I chose to stay anonymous on this post, because I’m often in fear of people using my vulnerabilities against me, but at the very least, I’d like to think that sharing this story is a step in the right direction.
Recovering from a major leg surgery has been one of the most uncomfortable and trying experiences I’ve ever gone through. Back in 2013, I had metal frames attached to both my legs; for nine months, these frames would help correct my bone deformity. I spent 6 months in a wheelchair and another 3 in crutches.
While I was in a wheelchair, some of the most daily routines became hellish nightmares. I could no longer climb stairs at school to reach my classes, or at home to reach my bed. There weren’t many accessible washrooms around and I had a really hard time using public washrooms. I didn’t take a single shower because any displaced water could have caused a serious infection; sponge baths became a weekly luxury. But above all else, I absolutely dreaded sleeping. It was almost impossible to sleep with these frames around my legs. I couldn’t roll around; I had to remain in a rigid position, with legs slightly suspended by a stack of pillows. This trying sensation was further compounded by how itchy my legs were. I had six holes in each leg. I never dared scratch them in fear of infections, but the buildup of itchiness would drive me insane.
During this time, I was completely physically vulnerable. There was nothing I could do without the help of someone else. My mom sacrificed so much to keep me healthy, driving me to school and the hospital, and cleaning my open wounds every week. My grandparents built some contraptions to help me “roll up” the staircase at home. At school, I had friends helping me open doors and conduct chemistry labs. I really had to depend on my family and classmates; they were an extension of my crutches, without which I would not be able to stand.
As frustrating as my recovery experience was, I had a critical epiphany: my suffering was only temporary. Six months in a wheelchair is absolutely nothing compared to those who have to live an entire life with a disability. Despite not being able to climb stairs or sleep properly, I have a house and a bed. I couldn’t shower, but I have running water. I have (relatively) clean public washrooms to use. I have access to a world-renowned hospital to take care of an emergency infection case. I would have my two functioning legs back at the end of my recovery. In short, I had so many blessings that I never appreciated. Experiencing such a vulnerable position really accentuated everything we take for granted in a first world country.
I thought I was pretty determined and humble before my surgery. But through the uncomfortable and trying experience, I really learned what kind of resolve you need to be able to wake up every day with a smile and positive attitude. I don’t think I would have developed the same tenacity and determination had I not been challenged during my physical vulnerability. Whenever I face a new challenge, I always say to myself “this is nothing compared to what I’ve been through, and that was nothing compared to what other people have gone through.” When I find myself complaining about “unfairness” or other trivial first world problems, I remind myself of how hypocritical and silly my complaints are. All in all, my recovery experience really forced me to count my blessings and motivate myself to work hard to achieve difficult goals.
To me, vulnerability goes hand in hand with being transparent enough for others to see you for who you truly are. To me, being vulnerable means being open enough to give another person the power to know you and consequently, hurt you. I know I’m not alone when I say that, to me, vulnerability means letting others in, letting them poke around your inner demons and allowing them to form a raw perception of who you are. The thought of someone knowing that I am vulnerable and without defence, sends shivers down my spine - let me give you some backstory as to why.
I grew up with an older sister. Although I am the youngest, I grew up as the ‘strong’ one in the family. Even as a 10-year-old, I was known for my thick skin and nonchalant attitude about problems that would arise. This behaviour of mine subconsciously planted the idea into my family members’ heads that I was somehow immune to feeling emotions such as sadness or compassion. As my sister was known for her sensitive heart, bad news in the family always got to me first because they “knew I could handle it”. What they didn’t know was that I felt everything, and I felt it big time - I just didn’t show it. Growing up in that position, you can imagine that I became accustomed to dealing with emotions on my own, which ultimately led to extreme discomfort when speaking about those emotions.
For someone who is pretty stuck in her ways, I was surprised when my perception of vulnerability was transformed unexpectedly one night. I was spending some time with two of my friends when her housemates joined us at the table (those of whom I wasn’t too close with at the time). To my pleasant surprise, it quickly turned into one of those nights that carried a beautiful conversation - one that jumped between topics and felt as natural as breathing. Before I knew it, I was sitting there with these people that I didn’t even know all that well, spilling out those inner demons that I was so afraid of letting out. Four hours later, I had gone through my entire life story and was almost moved to tears.
Why was I trusting them? Why was I letting these people in? Why was I telling them about what I kept so dear to my heart? Why was I giving them the power to hurt me with the information I provided?
Till this day, the answers to those four questions remain the same: I don’t know why. On that night, I was more vulnerable than I can ever remember being. I was raw, honest and unashamed. That night was transformational for me as those girls taught me that without being vulnerable, I would not have been able to show any form of sincerity or authenticity, both of which are characteristics I value. For once, vulnerability affected me in a positive way. Since then, I have improved my ability to speak openly about my emotions and I realized that if being vulnerable means being who I truly am, then I’ll take it.
I hope you've enjoyed this read and you can relate to some of these stories. Everyone has their own vulnerabilities. It's what you do with it that defines who you are and who you can become.
Photo Credit: Anna Maria Li