‘To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal…It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.’
– C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
How do you feel about vulnerability? How does vulnerability make you feel? What makes you feel vulnerable? Do you allow yourself to feel vulnerable and why do you do it? Is it empowering or destructive?
This was the topic of discussion at a recent Sex Geekdom meeting a few weeks ago and I’ve been mulling it over since then because it quickly became clear that I didn’t understand vulnerability at all.
I had always presumed that to be vulnerable, and particularly to admit to vulnerability, was to be weak. As a self-confessed control freak whose decisions are largely based on logic, my previous understanding of vulnerability was incompatible with the structured life that I had built for myself. Being vulnerable was a mistake – it meant taking risks without planning for all the outcomes, it meant admitting to failings or weaknesses; it meant losing control. So of course I actively avoided it.
But I know now that I was viewing vulnerability incorrectly. I was assuming that to be vulnerable was always a bad thing. Subconsciously, I was inextricably linking vulnerability with shame. The shame of failure, the shame of rejection, the shame of heartbreak or error or misunderstanding and other negative emotions and actions.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. An article from Femsplain mentions that ‘as a society, we’ve made it so hard to have feelings and to be vulnerable because we’re supposed to fight and be strong and not pause to cry or fall into ourselves.’ We’re supposed to be strong. We’re supposed to have everything together. We’re just supposed to be perfect.
But the discussion moved on to talk about a TED talk by Brené Brown from 2010 that I would strongly recommend you watch because it really is fascinating, and it completely changed how I saw vulnerability.
Brené, like me, had linked shame with vulnerability; she started her research with the aim of explaining and therefore eradicating it:
‘I’m going to totally deconstruct shame, I’m going to understand how vulnerability works, and I’m going to outsmart it.’
Except that wasn’t what happened. Instead, she discovered that people who had a stronger sense of love or belonging and the people who had a greater sense of worthiness, who she describes as ‘whole-hearted’ people, were the people who accepted and understood how powerful and beneficial vulnerability can be:
‘They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary.’
And this is when this post risks becoming a sort of love letter because talking about vulnerability from this positive perspective made me realise that I have done exactly what she describes – allowed myself to be vulnerable, taken a chance on someone without any guarantees of success, accepted that the frisson of fear that comes with saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I need you’ is wonderful because it shows that the words mean so much more than their face value – and it has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.
Meeting my current boyfriend for the first time was pretty terrifying. The nervous exciting thrill of a first date was magnified by the fact that he was the first sex blogger I’d met and he was really fucking hot. Oh God, what if I’m not what he expected? We started having sex pretty quickly after that, which unleashed a whole new set of insecurities. Oh no, what if I’m not good enough? As our relationship became more serious, there were more hurdles that I needed to leap over, taking a deep breath and having faith that the ground would be steady on the other side. What if polyamory isn’t for me after all? I’ve definitely fallen in love with him, what if he doesn’t feel the same? Should I tell him? What about this sex party or that threesome, can I do that with him? And as we’re about to move in together, what will happen now?
And although I would never have phrased it this way before I started approaching the idea from this angle, each of these forward steps required more vulnerability than I have ever allowed myself to feel before. I just didn’t see it because it felt so easy. Terrifying, yes, but undoubtably right.
It just never felt like a risk. I could be vulnerable and open and weak, and still not feel shame or judgement or any of the other negative attributes that I had previously connected with vulnerability. Whatever we were doing and whatever stage our relationship had reached, I always knew that I was enough. He made me feel like I was enough.
I don’t know if I can adequately express what a powerful thing this is. As someone who has always aimed high and wanted to be perfect all of the time, I hadn’t noticed how comforting just being enough can be. I’m not on a pedestal that I could fall off or scrambling up from deep in a pit to be level with him; I am enough. To be vulnerable and to be found wanting is excruciating; to know that I am enough, that I am worthy, that I can make mistakes and admit to fault and be scared and tired and sick and imperfect and still be enough allows me to take those risks. To allow myself to be happy. To open my heart to him completely and to put myself in a position where I could be destroyed by heartbreak but instead gaining all the benefits of that risk – because I am enough. I thought that I needed confidence when all I needed was faith in him and in us and the courage to leap. And that he gives me that courage makes me love him more than I ever thought I could.
I’ll finish this with another extended quote from the TED talk, which Brené also used to close her discussion, because it concisely describes my point better than I could. We are enough, we just need to believe it. It’s really hard, particularly when it backfires and the vulnerability can cause so much pain, and particularly when all we can see is evidence to the contrary, but I have to believe that it is worth it in the end. We are enough. Not perfect, but enough.
‘This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, “I’m enough” … then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.’