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Posts Tagged ‘vulnerability’

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If I’ve heard it said once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: friendship is a process of give and take.

In the best friendships, each person has a lot to offer the other, and we do this via a healthy, balanced exchange of love and respect. Not in a pedantic, score-keeping way, but in a way that fills each person up, and doesn’t tip the scales too far in any one direction. We lean on each other when we need it; we provide laughter, a listening ear, a place for our friends to be themselves.

I am grateful to have a lot of these friendships (and this kind of marriage) in my life. (One example: the three girls I lived with during my year in Oxford, who are pictured above – we had a surprise reunion last fall.)

I’m a classic overachiever: organized, driven, capable. I am not Superwoman, but I know my strengths, and like most people, I prefer to operate out of them most of the time. I am so much more comfortable being the giver in a friendship: the one who says, “I’m fine” and means it, the one who can provide what another person needs: a listening ear, a home-cooked meal, a bit of encouragement on a tough day.

I’ve been dealing with a difficult situation lately, and here is one of the most frustrating things about it: I have had to ask for help, over and over again. I need advice and support and cheering up; I need lunch dates and distraction and a little extra attention. I am having to learn to be the one who takes, who receives, who admits her own neediness and lack. And – no surprise here – I don’t like it.

There’s nothing wrong with being capable, but there’s something a little more insidious at work here: I like seeing myself as a person who has it all together. The other side of that coin, it turns out, is a deep fear: the fear of being a person who takes and takes and has nothing to give. Of being a person who pushes her friends away because she’s just so needy. Of turning into a person who demands more than she can give in return.

I don’t have any easy answers for this, at the moment. The tough situation in my life isn’t going away, at least not yet, and I’m still struggling to figure out how to ask my friends to help me through it. I’d much rather work things out on my own and keep presenting a brave face to those I love, but that isn’t really an option (at least not a healthy one).

So I’m learning, day by day, to keep asking for help when I need it, and reminding myself that friendship is about loving each other when we’re human. And to fight down the fear that says I’m not enough – because I know, deep down, that my friends and family are kind and generous and willing for me to lean on them. Even if I have trouble with the leaning, sometimes.

Do you struggle with being the “taker” – the vulnerable one – in your relationships? (Please tell me I’m not alone here.)

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The red-haired yoga teacher with the Indian accent did catch my attention with one thing he said: “Those of you who are really bad at yoga, you’re in the right place. I hope everyone will allow themselves to be really crappy today, to walk away from being perfect. The real yoga isn’t in the perfect pose; it’s in the crappy pose that you are really feeling. You want to feel it from the inside out, rather than make it perfect from the outside in.”

[…] I had a sudden thought: What if the opposite of good wasn’t bad? What if the opposite of good was real?

-Claire Dederer, Poser

While I enjoyed the whole book, this line from Dederer’s memoir about yoga, motherhood, writing, marriage and coming to terms with your childhood hit me squarely in the chest.

I’ve spent my whole life trying to be good – e.g., to be cheerful, helpful, smart, kind, easygoing, capable, stylish, put together, nice. There are a number of reasons for this: I am an oldest child; I am a woman; I was labeled a bookworm/smart kid almost from the time I could read; I was raised (happily) in a conservative Christian home; I am a people pleaser. Perhaps most critically, these are the attributes that translated as “good” in my family and church and social milieu. Some of them, obviously, come more naturally than others. And trying to maintain them all is exhausting.

Lately, trying to be good has looked more like trying to be efficient, cheerful (that one is annoyingly persistent), productive (at work and at home), helpful (also persistent), non-needy, nice. This set of attributes, while a little shorter, is also exhausting.

For much of my life I have equated being good with being nice – perhaps because so many of the truly good folks I know are also truly nice and kind; perhaps because “Be nice” was a phrase frequently heard in our home. But lately I’ve come to believe that always being good and/or being nice can sometimes put up barriers to being seen. You can’t really get to know someone if they skim over the surface of everything, or hide behind false cheer or politeness. And aren’t we all more interesting when we’re messy than when we’re polite?

Not surprisingly, this carries over into my writing, which is far sharper and juicier and more vivid (like a good steak) when I let myself be messy and real than when I stay polite and nice. Of course, there are boundaries, and I sincerely never intend (in writing and life) to cause anyone pain. But I love the idea of throwing off the proper, tailored, suffocating mantle of goodness, and exchanging it for a wildly patterned, beautifully imperfect life of realness.

How do you deal with the good/real divide – or is it a divide in your life?

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Nearly four years ago now, three months after I got engaged, I hopped a plane to Oxford to spend a year earning my master’s degree (and, obviously, browsing bookshops and strolling gardens and eating my weight in scones and Digestive biscuits and paninis from On the Hoof).

This dream year was not without its opportunity costs, most notably the steady full-time salary I’d been enjoying (hello, student loan debt), and time with Jeremiah, my longtime boyfriend and newly-minted fiance. He stayed in Abilene to pursue his own master’s degree, and while we emailed every day and had weekly Skype dates and visited each other at Christmas and Spring Break, man oh man did I miss him.

Most people were totally understanding about this, as long as I didn’t whine about it all the time. One of my Oxford housemates was in a similar situation (her fiance was in North Wales). But a couple of friends had one standard response to any complaints I made about missing Jeremiah, the exchange rate, the wet English weather or any other difficulties. It consisted of one phrase: “Well, you chose it.”

Translation: Stop whining. You landed yourself in this situation on purpose, so you better suck it up.

Now, I don’t discount the power of an occasional dose of tough love, particularly when someone is engaging in self-destructive behavior, or when they’re doing nothing but complain. But usually, when I was venting my feelings, that wasn’t the case. I didn’t really wish my situation were different. I knew I’d chosen this year in Oxford, and – let’s be clear – I was having the time of my life. Those struggles were part of the deal, and I knew it. But I didn’t always have to like it.

That tough-love phrase has stayed with me since I left Oxford, and I’ve wondered about it in the context of various day jobs (some of which were true choices and some of which were necessities), and especially since our move to Boston. Lately, in the face of wet, dreary summer weather and missing Texas and crowded commuter trains and a case of the general blahs, I’ve wondered: Just because I/we chose Boston, does that mean we always have to like it?

I don’t think so.

Now, I really do believe in making the best of any situation. I believe in blooming where you’re planted and practicing gratitude and all those other platitudes (which can actually do wonders for your spirit). I don’t believe in whining, constant negativity, or refusing to see the good in a person or place or situation. But I believe in being honest about how things are going; I don’t think ignoring the bad stuff will make it go away. We all need to vent sometimes, and responding with that knee-jerk phrase when someone’s asking for empathy can make them pull back in hurt and frustration. (Believe me. I know.)

So I’m trying to be gentle with myself these days, when this still-new Boston life brings with it frustrations or loneliness or other kinds of strain. And I’m trying to be gentle with others who vent about their jobs or their cities or other frustrating things in their lives. Because honesty and a listening ear go a long way toward true friendship and being seen. And that is ultimately what I want to pursue – even if it means listening to – and voicing – a few complaints along the way.

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(Editor’s Note: My husband, Jeremiah, offered to guest post for me about a recent eye-opening experience, which dovetails nicely with yesterday’s post on being seen. Enjoy!)

I have one of the best jobs in the world. Because I’m a family therapist, people invite me into their homes to dream with them, listen to them, help empower them to change their lives. I witness forgiveness, empathy and healing with couples of all ages and situations. I identify the strengths of teenage guys and participate in their passions; I have one teenage client I dance with, another who’s teaching me to draw, and another who plays basketball with me.

My job is also incredibly humbling. Why anyone would trust their secrets, pasts and traumas to a 20-something is beyond me. And I ask many things of my clients that I wouldn’t do myself.

For example, I’m working with a recovering alcoholic who decided last week to write down his guilt and fears each night, put them in a balloon, and send them heavenward. One of my new clients this week blamed her boyfriend for refusing to come to therapy; by the end of the hour, she was encountering questions like “What happens when you’re not in a relationship?” and staring down loneliness. If anyone, professional or otherwise, intruded that deeply into my life after knowing me for an hour, I’d be furious.

I joined a gym this week, and as a new client, I consulted with a fitness specialist about my health goals. We began by discussing my previous experience with gyms, then building a workout plan to motivate me to hit the gym consistently.

The specialist then asked about my diet. I admitted to eating one too many McDonalds/Wendy’s cheeseburgers recently, and made excuses for eating only two meals a day. Sometimes I see eight clients back to back with breaks only for driving, which means I skip lunch regularly, but I’ve always been insecure about eating too much because I’m afraid of becoming overweight. Not that I told the specialist that —after all, he’d only known me for 20 minutes.

The specialist then measured my body fat percentage (embarrassing) and had me do several exercises. I completed the first one, which involved staying in an upright pushup position for 90 seconds, but my core started burning about halfway through. I didn’t give up, but he wasn’t fooled, saying, “I saw you struggle with that.” Few people ever see me struggle, and even fewer get to call me out on it.

Finally, he asked about my posture: a back injury from a car wreck and sitting in a chair for eight hours a day have done no favors to my spinal column.

After learning about my physical faults, the secrets I’m unwilling to share and the emotional scars I cover up with excuses and fake smiles, he still wanted to work with me. He was honest, explaining that change wouldn’t happen overnight—in fact, I think his estimate of cutting my body fat percentage in half, losing 10 pounds and adding muscle tone in just five months of consistent healthy eating and gym usage, was a bit generous.

As I listened to him talk, I realized: This is my therapy. This is me putting myself in the other chair, letting someone listen to and take care of me for an hour each week. And it’s something I need. When my trainer asks, “What kept you from meeting your diet goals this week?” I’ll either have to avoid the question, deflect it with a simple, universal answer like “laziness,” or confront my deep insecurities. I hope to be encouraged, challenged and empowered to make my life better.

What are some traditional and non-traditional therapy experiences you’ve had? How did you overcome the initial fear of releasing your secrets and insecurities to your therapist/trainer/guide?

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The other night, I met the lovely Roxanne for dinner. We sat under the umbrellas at Cafe Pamplona, just off Harvard Square, and sipped iced tea and watched the world go by. And talked, as fast as we could for as long as we could, till she had to head off to her next conference session, and I caught the Red Line home.

Because we’ve been reading each other’s blogs for months, we skipped quite a bit of the surface stuff and delved right into the deep questions. We talked about day jobs and creative work, about love and long-distance relationships, about the amazing creative community we’ve both found on the Internet. And we asked questions – of ourselves and each other. Such as:

Are you happy in your work? Are you fulfilled by it? Do you feel at home where you’re living? If not, what’s missing? What’s next, in your day job and in your creative work? What’s your ideal work situation? And finally, would you like to meet up again next month (when she’s back in town)? The answer to the last one, of course, was absolutely.

We’d never met in person before, but every time she looked at me with those luminous blue eyes, I felt seen in the best kind of way. I felt known, yet not belittled or judged. I felt vulnerable – but I also felt safe. And it struck me: that’s really why I blog, and tweet, and post status updates and occasional photos on Facebook. And why I meet Abi for coffee and exchange long emails with various friends and always try to answer honestly when anyone asks me, “How are you?”

I do all this because I want to be seen. I want people to know me, really know me, to know not just what’s going on in my life but to know the essence of me. And the only way I can do that is to let them see me.

There are limits, of course – some things should be kept private, some things shared only with a small audience, and I certainly don’t advocate living your entire life on the Internet. But I believe in the power of truly seeing and being seen. And so I’ll keep sharing pieces of my life, online and offline, because that’s really what it’s all about, for me.

Who are the people in your life who really see you?

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