Vulnerability can act like an edge that cuts two ways: At times it can be an elixir that unlocks doors to extraordinary levels of connection, and in other situations it can slam doors shut so hard it leaves us reeling, in a state of shock or worse - bruised and battered in the most tender place. When we don’t know how to take care of our vulnerability, the latter is often our experience - bringing it out into the open is synonymous with rejection and wounding. That’s why we so often simply don’t - we’ve learned at the deepest level to simply not be that honest, to not get that real, to the point that it might take a massive excavation to break up the frozen feelings and go there even if we wanted to.
After all, even with all the flowery stuff self help gurus speak about the virtues of vulnerability, actually going there carries the very real potential of leaving us exposed to injury. When it’s done right, opening up our vulnerability is a pathway to heaven on earth, but damn it can hurt when things don’t flow.
Today that’s exactly what I want to talk about.
An Old Friend
Recently I met with a very old friend for the first time in a number of years. Sometimes old friendships are the best, but sometimes they’re the absolute wierdest. Often it’s a mix of both.
This particular friend and I have known each other since I was a pre-teen. We grew up together, and have somehow maintained a bond across decades. There is a real beauty in that, but there is also something bizarre: Often when we interact, we both automatically undergo some kind of regression and relate in a way that we established years ago. It’s something that went unnoticed by us for a long time, but regardless of how much he or I had both grown and changed as individuals, and how much more authentic and mature we’d become in the new relationships we’d formed over time, when we spoke we were a couple of young dickheads again, re-enacting patterns we thought we’d left behind long ago.
This is really common - because we’d established certain patterns, we habitually fell back into them unless we consciously chose something different. Over the years we’ve acknowledged this and how it’s a huge barrier to having an authentic connection, so when my friend came to visit a couple of months ago, we knew it was an opportunity to dig in.
We met one afternoon at my place in Vancouver and went for a long walk along the ocean. After catching up and sharing the latest news in each others lives for some time, we sat on a bench to pause and feel out what we wanted to do next. That’s when things got really weird.
I noticed that making eye contact with my friend was literally painful. There was such an intense awkwardness, such a palpable aversion to connection or intimacy, that it felt like looking at my friend’s eyes literally made my stomach churn. As we sat in silence on the bench, that awkwardness felt as though it was extending to our entire interaction - without the distraction of chatter or movement, being together was extremely uncomfortable.
We talked about this, and decided to find a nice spot to sit and go into it, to see if we might be able to shift the painfully awkward energy we both felt - moving forward with any activity while it was active would be absolutely insane.
We found a spot on the grass and sat in silence. We looked at each others eyes and felt the heeby jeebies so bad it was sickening. And then we began to acknowledge the wall between us. And then we started to explore it.
“It feels like you have an angst in you” my friend observed.
I went into that feeling, and slowly teased out what was behind it: A part of me wasn’t sure if my friend actually liked me as a person. This was something I’d felt for years, and had given a voice to here and there, but at this moment I could feel how anxious and vulnerable this part of me was, so I decided to own it: “A part of me doesn’t know if you like me.”
Now, you might not be able to sense the emotional intensity I felt by making this statement in that moment, but because this part of me was really innocently feeling deep insecurity with a close friend, and because I squirmed through my discomfort to say it out loud, my level of vulnerability at this moment was extreme. Like gaping wide open heart flopped down on the grass in front of me quivering with hesitation extreme.
And then there was silence.
My friend looked down and began to puzzle over the question: Do I like Miles?
He genuinely wanted to know the answer to this question, and it wasn’t apparent. He sat and ruminated, looking at the question from different angles, asking different parts of himself, as I sat in agony across from him.
As this progressed, I noticed something fierce popping up in my body. I could feel a hatred with the intensity of a vicious storm brewing on the periphery of my awareness. It felt like a powerful force at the edge of my being that wanted to completely destroy my friend. Because I was vulnerable, and he was essentially rejecting me in my openness, it was about to mobilize in order to protect me. I know my capacity for anger and hatred well enough to know that once it really kicks into full swing, it’s like a drug that knocks me out of sobriety and takes a certain amount of time to wear off - there can be a waiting period until I feel and think clearly again.
So at the moment I felt it surging in the distance, I decided to try and do something different: I started silently repeating “I love you I love you I love you I love you” to the vulnerable part of me as though I was taking every ounce of support, love and nurturance I possessed and showering this part of myself with them. I continued to do this until, at some point, it worked. The hatred and anger had subsided, and I’d accomplished the goal they were mobilized for in a more uplifting way (to protect my vulnerability). I actually felt really good.
Rather than getting emotionally hard, defensive, and chopping my friend’s head off (emotionally, of course) as a means of taking care of myself, I simply went to the core and offered it support from within when it felt like it wasn’t getting it from without. And to say that it felt much, much better than getting triggered into anger and indignation would be a massive understatement.
But then, there we were, still sitting on the grass, my friend still purely imploring his heart to see if he could honestly tell me “I like you,” me feeling more comfortable within that dynamic.
At some point I decided to speak, and said “It’s crazy that this is so unclear for you, because for me the answer is so obvious, I so obviously want to be your friend…”
I started crying and only half finished my statement, tears and deep sobbing interrupting me.
I cried for a minute or so, and as I regained my composure, my friend seemed to have felt a shift.
He explained that as soon as I said what I said and cried, it was obvious to him that he liked me and wanted to be my friend. It was as though something in me softened, a guard in me was let down, and it allowed him to open to me.
We sat there in silence, but it was no longer painful. We looked into each others eyes, and we didn’t want to jump out of our bodies because of the awkwardness. Suddenly being together felt natural. We could talk naturally, we could laugh about our awkwardness.
It was a really amazing example of how honesty and vulnerability can be an elixir.
Of course, moments before this turning point the act of opening my honesty and vulnerability had felt like jumping onto a dagger, and I was on the precipice of bringing out my inner monster to defend myself (something that I’ve done throughout my entire life and continue to work on).
And yet in that moment, we felt more comfortable together than maybe we ever had, all because I let my guard down just enough.
I feel like I learned a few lessons in that small interaction, which might already be obvious to you: First, I experienced the grace of choosing to do something different in the face of rejection.
When my friend left me hanging, instead of throwing my ten foot thick emotional armour on and making him the bad guy, eschewing any and all empathy for him in the process, I paused and chose something healthier. I chose to simply take care of the hurt part of myself rather than act from that hurt place (which does nothing to repair the hurt, of course).
It might seem like a little thing, but I honestly believe that it is in these acts of noticing toxic feelings and pausing long enough to choose a healthy, conscious way of holding them, that enormous change occurs.
Second, I learned yet again how taking down my armour or my guardedness has the ability to give the part of me that I am guarding exactly what it yearns for. It’s quite the irony that the very way we protect our hearts is what insulates them from the antidote to their pain.
Running The Marathon
To bring out the old cliche, this business of opening our hearts and vulnerability really is a marathon, not a sprint, a fact which I got to reflect on the next time my friend and I met, and once again the awkwardness between us was uncomfortable enough that we both wanted to jump out of our bodies.
The difference was, this time we knew there was a way through, and when you are with the right people (something I’ve written about in more detail here), there often is.
Sometimes when our vulnerability is rejected all we can do is take care of ourselves and move along, aware that who we’ve opened up to, for whatever reason, will not receive us. Sometimes, though, we unfairly rush to that conclusion, and when we do that out of habit with truly good people, we hold ourselves prisoner to the past and to our wounds. And perhaps more importantly, when we learn how to hold our vulnerability and care for it ourselves, even in the face of rejection, there is a solidity and safety within that we can lean on, and it makes this process of opening all the more possible.
That’s all for now - I hope you enjoyed today’s post and if you have thoughts, questions, or it brought up anything for you, I would love to hear about it! Post a comment down below or send me a message directly.