Vulnerability At Age 40 - SWF Travelling Alone For The Holidays
Self-transparency or self-disgrace? When is exposing our vulnerability just too much?
I watched a woman lean from her chair and pick up her bag from the floor of the restaurant we were in. She stretched forwards, exposing the pink hearts on the band of her underwear. Cute. But did she know it? I sometimes go braless. It’s about comfort, namely my own comfort of course, I don’t really care if it makes anyone else uncomfortable. But should I? Should we confine such parts of ourselves to close personal relationships and nude beaches? Should we purposely put ourselves out there or make sure to keep our panties tucked well into our pants?
What about emotional exposure–vulnerability? Vulnerability is a bit of a catch word these days. An emotional trend writ large, akin to the cosmetic trend of eyebrow shapes, that has some people self-identify as tender, delicate, empathic beings. I hear everywhere that the ability to open oneself up is a sign of courage and strength, of self-realisation. Is it rebellion against the Victorian-like up-bringing that some of us had, that stressed modesty and shunned self-proclamations out of fear of controversy? A hanging of our dirty laundry for all to see? Or is it merely our way of attempting to connect with each other in a world that, despite social media’s best intentions, actually incites oceans of inauthentic, impersonal relationships?
I’m an advocate for self-exposure, which anyone who has read my past blogs already knows. I did my time in the lockdown of self-consciousness that monopolises much of young adulthood. I spent years overcoming the effects of high school bullying and sadly, a more unforgiving bullying in my bank job where women my mother’s age nit-picked me for silly things like pimples and small hips. I hung on to a rope of external approval for a long time in spite of raw, burned palms. And then I ceded shame and let go of that stupid rope. I don’t care anymore if people judge my appearance or question my lifestyle. I don’t want to be something that others will accept if it means trapping in parts of myself. I'm as susceptible to the human experience as anyone else.
One of the first blogs I wrote in Indonesia recounted a terrible day I had at the start of my two years there. I described my sadness and irritation with the city I was living in and the breakdown I had over my sundae at a child’s birthday party at McDonald’s. When I read it now two years later I see the pathetic picture I painted: sweeping strokes of insecurity, bordered with shadows of “poor-little-white-girl”. It was basically self-indulgent, emotional graffiti. I don’t regret writing that blog. It was how I felt at the time and writing about it was how I clarified my feelings. Sharing it was my way of trying to start the conversation that no one wants to have. The one that recognises that we are all insecure on some level, that inwardly we are all afraid to share the mistakes we’ve made and the regrets we have.
A friend at the time was shocked by my self-exposure, claiming that I am too open with emotions to an audience that may not receive me with compassion or even mere understanding. (He also couldn’t believe I went to McDonald’s). I was crushed by his response to my blog, an indication that perhaps I was not quite ready to share such personal expositions on Facebook or an international teaching job search website (!). But that’s the thing about writing. Even if you’re not writing personal narratives, you’re still exposing your vulnerabilities, subliminally. So I kept the practice up and later wrote about the grief I experienced separating from my husband. That was a huge step forward for me. It exposed not just my insecurity about my past decisions but also my doubt about whether I was a good person.
But as I write one of the most personal narratives I’ve ever written I wonder what I am doing. Words spill from my fingertips, and I read incredulously, trying to grasp my need to be so transparent, to write so provocatively about what is buried deep within me. I try to stop something I don’t really want to stop because what if other people actually read what I wrote, and worse, judge my feelings and subsequent actions? Would I disappoint people? Disgust people? Would I still have friends? Would I have supporters? Would people who have openly admitted their own mistakes have compassion for others who do the same? Or worst, would people be indifferent to my tender heart laying bare for all to see? And does any of that really matter anyways?
Many claim that openness is beautiful and admirable. But when does it stop being beautiful? When does vulnerability turn from the wine-induced glow of rosy cheeks to the too-many tequila shots vomit in someone’s lap? When is openness just too x-rated? Am I wise to share such details of my dark heart with strangers? Is vulnerability about forging human connection or unloading insecurities onto anyone who will listen?
Stories of jungle treks and dating games and mature backpacking are lighthearted and colloquial and well received by most people I know. But what of serious musings that shock and contradict what we want to believe about each other and what we deem acceptable for public consumption? If travelling has taught me anything, it has been that we are all human. From the shit in our toilets to the gobs of toothpaste we leave in the sink, to the sweat stains under the arms of our t-shirts, to the boners in (our) pants, to the heart printed panties we hang out on the line or all to see. If we can all be so exposed on that level, why not emotionally about the things that distract our thoughts during dinners with friends and prevent us from doing our work and managing our relationships with presence and real effort?
I write to expose my vulnerability in an effort to relieve it. I write because I am furious for the situa-tions I have voluntarily placed myself in and writing is my way of escaping that anger or trying to understand it.
I write because I am trying to know myself better or I’m making up a new person I’ll like better.
I write because I like putting ordinary words together into something beautiful and sometimes it is not about beauty but about shock, nostalgia, passion, ego, self-righteousness, and insecurity.
I write because I don’t know what else to do with my life and so writing is a great way to fill time and feel productive.
I write because there is so much to write about. Writing makes me slow down and grasp meaning, lose meaning, see details, note details, create details where none exist. It makes me engage better with the world.
I write to express the love and pain that burn within me most days. I write to have people know me and understand me and love me or hate me. And if they hate me there is still emotion and energy and where there is energy there is life.
I write to prevent death even though death happens every day in some form. I write to create new life, to leave a stamp or a footprint somewhere in the half-moon light of an evening in August be-cause I won’t have children and that is a way of leaving something of myself behind. I write be-cause I need to create something where there is nothing.
Sometimes I don’t want to write but I need to the same way that sometimes I need to eat when I don’t want to or I need to go through the painstaking motions of putting on my runners and tying the laces and putting one foot in front of the other in order to stay alive. It’s something I am willing to suffer for.
I write to keep a healthy mind and a clean heart, to rid myself of the filth that longing and attach-ment and misplaced love create, because otherwise I am selfish and concerned about things that don’t matter and worse, unconcerned about the things that do.
I write to accept myself so that I can be free. I write in order to love and understand people. I write to discover myself more everyday, to find out what I am capable of, to tap on all the secret doors within me that hold both surprises and emptiness. I write because I feel hollow sometimes and words fill me with something better than cigarettes and alcohol, even if they are empty, pointless words. They tide me over until I am ready to feed myself with healthy, wholesome words.
I write to alleviate the proverbial constipation of a mind full of shit and to break the rules of social convention that warn against public vulnerability.
Photo Credit: Todd Brown
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