Vulnerability Is a Superpower
[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
"You seem emotionally unavailable," I said.
"You're not the first person to tell me that," he replied, "I know I am."
Therein lies the crux of the problem, I thought to myself. No wonder we were both dissatisfied. I craved a depth of emotional connection he was (admittedly) incapable of, which resulted in him feeling overwhelmed and me feeling disconnected and confused.
"I don't like talking about emotions," is a mantra I've heard repeated dozens of times, usually from men. The kind of anti-emotional alpha-male posturing that is so ubiquitous is not only insincere, but hurtful to those who embody it and everyone around them. Avoiding emotional pain deepens it. Avoiding extreme emotions does not make them go away, it usually just makes them stronger. Sometimes, men substitute one extreme emotion, like sadness, for one that is more socially acceptable to display, such as anger. The more we distract ourselves from whatever trauma litter our subconscious, the deeper they embed themselves and the harder it is to resolve them.
Emotional vulnerability has a time and place, just as physical strength, mental fortitude, and even emotional suppression have a place. Let me explain.
1. Some Decisions Require a High Degree of Rationality
Some circumstances require the suppression or intentional harnessing of emotion. Lawyers arguing in court, let's say, or a fighter pilot flying a plane, or a doctor performing surgery, or anyone in any profession, really. Our personal lives may require it too, from time to time. Barbara Jordan, an American lawyer, educator and politician who was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, said, "It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision."
Most decisions are best made with reason rather than emotion, even decisions about hyper-emotional things, like racial equality. While it might be a mistake to think we can be totally rational (or totally objective, for that matter), we can try our best to separate the two and utilize them to suit our needs. Donald Calne, a Canadian neurologist said, "The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions." If we use emotions to make decisions, we will not come to satisfying conclusions. Or, we may not come to a conclusion at all.
2. Some Circumstances Require a High Degree of Emotional Vulnerability
"I don't like crying," he said. I asked him why, and he said it didn't feel good. Sadness usually doesn't feel good, I reasoned. But avoiding it doesn't make it disappear. And perhaps, I thought to myself, the root emotion of avoiding emotion is fear. We fear the negativity associated with crying, so we don't. Is there anything less alpha? Is there anything less manly than letting fear dictate life to such a degree that crying brings shame? That the avoidance of deep emotions-good or bad-becomes paramount?
H.P. Lovecraft said "Fear is the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind." He was right. It is easy to let fear dictate our lives, to let excuses prop up that fear, and even to project a facade of strength to cloak the fear. Except, and this is important, we all know, deep down, when our actions are guided by fear. Sometimes, if the people around us are especially acute, they can sense it too. And the primary response incited by allowing fear to dictate life is pity.
So, I did not think this man stronger for disliking or avoiding tears. I simply found him sad, and perhaps in denial. We must look closely at the things we despise, because they likely strike a personal chord. I dislike when people are lazy, because I see laziness in myself sometimes and am thoroughly disgusted by it. I dislike when people use humor to skirt a difficult subject, because I do that often and recognize the enormous disservice I'm doing to myself, and to others. This man may dislike when others cry because he finds the behavior uncomfortable in himself, perhaps because he is afraid.
His fear, I cannot fault him for. I am afraid of many things, one of which is, not insignificantly, being hurt by an emotionally unavailable man. But the revelation of his emotional unavailability required a degree of openness in both of us. In any relationship, some emotionally availability is a necessity. "Vulnerability means emotional exposure, but it doesn't mean we verbally vomit on people. Being vulnerable involves responsibility,"-Buddy Wakefield. No relationship flourishes, like Wakefield said, in the face of irresponsible vulnerability. Toe the line carefully.
3. The Best Decisions We Make Often Require a Mixture of Reason and Emotion
Aristotle said, "Anyone can be angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy." Aristotle illustrates how we might blend emotions and reason. We do not want to be too cold, or too weepy. We do not want to punish someone for needing us, or need someone too much. But, we cannot know the difference unless we are very honest with ourselves. Introspection requires a depth of vulnerability that is deeply fearful to many of us. If we look too closely at ourselves, we might not like what we see. We may feel shame. We may feel guilt. But, if we can learn to accept the parts of us that are not so appealing-the traumas, the fear, the wreckage-then we won't be so afraid to reveal ourselves to others.
When I told this intentionally nameless, faceless man that I loved him, I did so not expecting anything in return. Love is scary, because sometimes, love hurts. But I have become so sure of myself that the reciprocation of my love didn't matter. I have dug deeply into my psyche, uncovered difficult truths, come to the edge of myself and nearly tipped off. This is unending work. As we grow and change and come to know ourselves, the actions, thoughts, and opinions of others mean less. This is the seat of all reason, but it can only be reached through extreme vulnerability, first with the self, and then with others. There is no shortcut to this work, and there is no end. But it will feel like a super power when you get there, I promise.