Part 26. Strength Through Vulnerability. Let Me Hear You Roar.
The main copy below was written in early 2016 as a guest post for a psychotherapist friend of mine. What I describe is something I feel so deeply now. It’s come to my attention again following a lead up to a birthday I was uncharacteristically disinterested about, then a deep sadness when it arrived. I was distracted from my feelings on the morning of August 16th by my beautiful girls as they literally showered me with love and gifts in bed. Two hours later I was crying. I cried about the life I envisaged for me and my girls by the time I was 44. I cried about the hair and physique I’ve temporarily lost. I cried about the possible genetic implications for my girls future. I cried about the pain I’ve experienced and the pain I must still experience. I cried because I’ve had cancer, and maybe I’ll have it again.
My girls gently created a mummy sandwich and I explained my tears in a words they’d understand. Honest but not as honest as I’ve been above. They calmed my emotions with their love, as did my people throughout the day, with lunch and kitchen dancing, fizz and dinner, messages of love and messages of support. One message was from the lovely Karen in Leeds, a woman I’ve never met but who I’ve bonded with over Insta-sharing. Karen picked up on my comment about the days rain adding to my malaise. She said a woman she supported during her deportation back to Uganda told her that rain is a blessing as it brings life – new beginnings. To say such a thing as they embraced in a downpour at what must have been such a hideous time is strength indeed, and I took a piece of that.
I’ve no doubt I’ll cry more. Much more. The key will be to do so without judging myself, telling myself it’s self-pity or self-indulgent, and to lean on my people when I need them. It’s the fallout from a traumatic experience that doesn’t just stop and no amount of ‘but I don’t have cancer’ takes it away. The words ‘you’re cancer free’ meant they got what they can see. There will always be a ‘what if’.
So here I am, blogging, sharing pics and wearing my heart on my sleeve. Allowing myself to be vulnerable and here’s what I wrote over two years ago.
My Oldest friend bought me a card a couple of years ago. She wrote inside ‘I saw this card and it immediately reminded me of you….’ She had, just days before, seen me crushed and been the first person at my door as I sat sobbing uncontrollably. I had experienced, just weeks before turning 40, my first heartbreak. I felt winded, broken, stupid and angry. I had never experienced the physical effect of it – I felt like someone had punched me as hard as possible in the stomach. The day it happened, snot-covered and head spinning, I asserted to the woman who knows me like a sister that I’d been an idiot, that in the future I wouldn’t lay myself so open, I wouldn’t let another man get that close to me. I have no doubt that the words were spat out like venom and that I swore with every breath.
Those initial emotions continued over the next 2 weeks while I could think of nothing else. I was questioning myself and my choices with a complete lack of self-love. You know, that scathing, disparaging, downright nasty stuff – the stuff you wouldn’t dream of saying to someone you care about. And then I stopped. I realised that what had happened was, in fact, the right thing. I went back to the words my childhood friend had written for me and I quote as the card (pictured above) still stands proudly in my lounge:
These traits make you who you are….You’re a woman, let me hear you ROAR! I love you!
The significance of this card and her words are threefold for me. Her words express her love and support for me in a time of crisis; they speak clearly of the importance of holding on to the traits she sees in me; and she refers to my (one’s) inherent power if we allow those traits to reign. For her to tell me I need to hold on to my open-hearted, trusting ways – things that have, in the past, made me feel weak in her resilient presence – was incredibly powerful. Time, healing, more confusion, a little more heartache, and an ongoing interest in what makes us tick, has made it clearer to me that strength and resilience actually come from allowing yourself to be open, to be that thing we are often afraid of, to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not a weakness, it’s THE strength. We are so adept at protecting ourselves. We have evolved from a species of hunter gatherers with a fight or flight instinct to protect ourselves physically, to a species increasingly feeling the need to protect ourselves emotionally.
I wonder whether grunty cave man was ever put-off from doing a bit of wall art because of the potential ‘agony’ he’d face if Mrs Grunty-Face told him it was crap. We can be so racked with feelings of how we’re meant to be, who we’re meant to be, what we’re meant to achieve and by when, and what we ‘ought’ to be doing with our lives. God forbid people see what lies beneath, what scares us, our passions, insecurities, the hurt, the ridiculous bits. It’s because if we lay ourselves open we might get hurt, or judged, or laughed at. So we mask it with drinking, shopping,eating, bitching, working too hard. We numb all the ‘stuff’ with stuff so that we don’t have to deal with it, we don’t have to feel. We end up cutting off the very things that truly allow us to experience life, to feel it: people, joy, gratitude and love. So we get more stuff, down more booze, get a little more cutting and the cycle goes on.
I’ve noticed the beauty of vulnerability in a couple of women who, between them, have faced plenty of emotional and physical challenges – relationships, death, abuse, disappointment and uncertainty. Both will speak of their experiences in the past and the present with absolute honesty. They are open to the core. I’ve sat and consoled one as she allowed the pain she’d tried to make sense of spill from every pore. She talked, she sobbed, she choked on words and she threw her hands and her body back expressing her feeling of just not knowing what to do any more. She was so real in that moment and it was horrible yet incredibly powerful because she was brave enough to look right at herself, and me, because she knew she needed someone. Both of the women I speak of are the kind whose warmth pours out of their eyes, who are full of love, are funny and vital and, crucially, stupidly creative!
This wondrous creativity is no coincidence. Brené Brown describes vulnerability as ‘the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’. Brown, for me, has nailed the importance of vulnerability. You can watch her Ted Talks here and here if you haven’t already. The way Brown goes about discussing this area is so beautifully accessible as she’s so honest about her own levels of discomfort when it comes to being open, despite her years of research. She puts it as simply as this: “Owning our story can be hard but it’s not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that makes us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
To be vulnerable is to put oneself at risk emotionally, yet when we approach life and people with complete openness, honesty and trust, our experience is taken to another level. The idea that we let others – lovers, friends, strangers – see us for all that we are, adults who feel like they’re still kids; people with hearts that have been broken; people who hate public speaking but have to do it – is deeply uncomfortable. Yet the pay off if we let it happen can be life changing.
Say you had to speak at an event for 500 people, or 10 because that may be even scarier! One of those people knows you’re so scared you want to puke, and talks to you beforehand, connects and gives you non-verbal encouragement throughout, then tells you how bloody good you were despite your fear. That’s got to feel better than going it alone, especially as for some that could result in sweaty, stuttery embarrassment. The relief and deep sense of gratitude to that person for metaphorically holding your hand would be great and would be down to you letting a person understand you. Maybe as a result your next speech will be a little easier. It’s a simplistic example, but when we let other people in, let them see us for who we really are and share our story, we open up our world.
What happens when people open their hearts? They get better. Haruki Murakami
Often when people write or speak about this stuff they can get a reaction akin to the reactions some people have to motivational quotes, crystal healing, astrology (insert your own fave thing to deride)! But when it comes to the notion, no REALITY, that focusing on compassion and kindness to ourselves and others; connection through openness and authenticity; and bravery, because that’s what it takes, leads to joy, gratitude and happiness, surely we can’t dismiss it? To be dismissive is to admit that it’s all a bit to bloody scary to connect with other humans. Maybe it is for some, but we all need it.
Sometimes I think the more life has dumped a load of crap on us, the harder it can be to trust, believe you’re worthy and stay open-hearted. Then I think of the two women I mentioned above and think that’s bull. If they can live so openly and with such warmth, the rest of us can too. We just have to unlearn some habits and change things up and we’ll feel the results. When we’re scared or hurting we can show contempt, sarcasm, a lack of warmth and many other things that push people away. Instead Brené Brown encourages us to “lean in” and to “dare greatly”. She’s spot on. There’s a whole world out there and connecting with others is THE essential part (unless you’re a hermit, obvs). It’s the thing that allows us to feel true joy, love and fulfilment. Exposure comes with uncertainty so to open yourself up takes courage. Vulnerability is strength. I’m daring to lean in, are you?
Thank you KP.