The Vulnerability Paradox

Late one night, while the whole house slept soundly, I lay under my comforter, feeling anything but comforted. I watched the dancing shadows cast by the trees outside as a sliver of moonlight rode the wind through the partially open window, and for the hundredth time that week, I wished I had someone to talk to.

This particular night, however, I realized for the first time that I always had. I just couldn’t talk to them! Surrounded by friends and family I would trust to take a bullet for me, I still felt very alone. It took many more restless nights of introspection before I figured it out.

I didn’t know how to be vulnerable.

This is a problem I've seen a lot of people my age (early twenties) struggling with. There are a lot of expectations on us about how we should be, how much we should achieve. And social media does little to temper those expectations, instead showing us a highly curated window into the most successful parts of a person’s life, that makes the little voice in our heads go “Why aren’t you like that?” . No matter how much we tell ourselves that it’s not real, and that they’re regular people struggling with regular problems just like the rest of us, it’s hard to believe it when all you see is the shine and glamour.

So we sit in that little glass bubble that we put ourselves into, that makes it look like we’re the only one with problems and everyone else is just sliding through life on a buttered up silver platter. And we need someone to break us out of this glass bubble, this terribly skewed perception that we’re alone.

That someone is friends and family.

The people closest to us, who see us for who we really are and who love us enough to tell us exactly what they think.

If we let them.

The problem is, they never get the chance, because at the first hint of trouble, we clam up and give everyone the social media version of our lives, pretending everything is okay when it’s not. If anyone is so bold as to ask “Are you okay?”, the automated instant reply feature in our brain gets activated, and before we can stop ourselves, we say “I’m fine”, and that’s the end of that conversation.

It’s a defense mechanism, to prevent us from feeling all the intense emotions that we’ve been sequestering away, hoping impossibly that ignoring it will somehow make it disappear.

We don’t want to let anyone see us at our weakest, lest they lose respect for us, or worse, pity us. Then this persona that we’ve been working so hard to build up through high school and college, this illusion of a strong, independent, intelligent individual who can handle anything, will be shattered. And who are we then?

So we bottle it all up and shove it down, letting it out carefully in controlled bursts late at night when there’s no one around to see it. We over-indulge our fears and insecurities when we’re alone, and ignore them around other people, making sure that no one can see any hint of what’s bothering us. And then we wonder why we feel alone.

It took me a long time to understand all this, but even then, I still didn’t know what to do about it. I’m not the most outgoing person in the world, and guarding my thoughts even around my closest friends is second nature to me. I rarely talk about my personal life, choosing instead to talk about generic, shallow topics like the game last night, or that new TV show that’s so good. Any time the conversation turns personal, the guards are up and I’m firing out non-committal or joking answers to real questions, talking, but not really saying anything. And as a result, I felt disconnected and aloof from everyone else, because no one really knew all of me. Only what I let them see.

It was around this time that I was dealing with another big question. “Who am I?”.

I was trying to figure out what my real personality was, independent of all the guards and faces I put on for the people around me. But just like I did with everyone else, I was only looking for the good stuff, and completely ignoring my faults and eccentricities. Problem was, the good stuff.... was never that good. No matter what I thought I was good at, there was always somebody on the internet who was way better at it than I was, and it immediately went into the “I’m trash” bin and got ignored. At the end, predictably, I was left with nothing and I still didn’t know who I was.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the answer to one problem lay in the other. I was so good at hiding my weakest parts from everyone else that I ended up hiding them even from myself. Combine that with the fact that I felt I didn’t have any real strengths, I ended up in this delusion that I was a total nothing and a nobody.

Which brings me to the great paradox that forms the title for this article: The Vulnerability Paradox.

Our impulse to hide away our weaknesses and our emotions lest we be judged for them is grossly misguided, because in doing so, we’ve already judged ourselves and deemed parts of us unfit for the world to see. We are doing to ourselves what we are afraid everyone else will do to us.

The ability to accept our faults, own up to them, and let ourselves be vulnerable in front of other people is the biggest show of strength that we can possibly achieve. Because then we take away the power that we give other people over our emotions.

Vulnerability is not a form of weakness. It’s accepting that we have struggles. It’s letting ourselves experience the raw emotions we’ve been holding back. It’s letting the people around us know that no, we’re not fine, but that’s okay. Because at the end of the day, it’s not being vulnerable that makes us weak. It’s our refusal to accept ourselves for who we are that makes us weak.

And when we allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable, suddenly we find that the world isn’t such a lonely place anymore.


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