What To Do When Vulnerability Feels Scary

“Can I tell you a story?” I asked my new roommate as I sat on my rolling office chair, the lone seat at the kitchen counter in the absence of my last roommate’s dining stools.

“Sure…” he responded while searching through the kitchen cabinet. “Do we have bowls?”

“Um, no.” I took a big sip of the skinny margarita mix.

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“No bowls… It’s okay!” He reached for a coffee mug and began to mix cumin, pepper and chili powder. I might not have dinnerware but at least there were enough Trader Joe’s spices for an amateur attempt at National Taco Day.

A few weeks ago my roommate, Megan, moved out to attend test pilot school in Maryland, along with the contents of our apartment. After giving away nearly all of my belongings before moving to LA last year, I was left with only a mattress, a small home office and an entirely unfurnished shared living space, minus my wall art and stemless wine glasses.

By no one’s fault other than my own, I possess less than I did freshman year of college in the dorms.

“So the last guy to see the apartment was a Bumble date several months ago,” I started. “I invited him up to eat donuts and wasn’t expecting him to use my bathroom. When he came out he joked, ‘Really milking that soap, huh?’ It was almost out so I diluted it with water. You know how people do that sometimes…?”

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“Yep, got it,” he said, assembling his taco.

“It gave me such bad anxiety that I couldn’t use my bathroom for, like, at least a day. Maybe two. I couldn’t handle looking at the watered down soap until I replaced it with a new bottle.”

“Would you like a taco?”

“So, basically, if a soap dispenser gave me that much anxiety then imagine how anxious I feel right now with you witnessing this totally empty living room. It feels like 100 diluted bottles of soap,” I concluded. “And yeah, can you make me a taco?”

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Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability

“So very quickly — really about six weeks into this research — I ran into this unnamed thing that absolutely unraveled connection in a way that I didn’t understand or had never seen. And so I pulled back out of the research and thought, I need to figure out what this is. And it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”

Brene Brown’s TEDTalk played on my laptop as I sat on the office chair at the kitchen counter the next morning, drinking coffee despite canker sores that had already formed from the acidic margarita mix. To be as articulate and brilliantly witty as Brene, the renowned researcher, is a life goal. She studies human connection and vulnerability and the way that the two affect each other. Her research is based on 6 years of collecting thousands of pieces of data.

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“Connection is why we’re here,” Brene said.

After a month-long roommate search, he was the candidate I wanted to be connected to most. With many shared interests and an immediate sense of familiarity, he is the type of person who I would want to be connected to whether I was looking for a roommate or not.

Because of that, I was thrilled when he agreed to join the month-to-month lease. However, as soon as that first Taco Tuesday arrived, the following two feelings set in:

  1. Shame over him seeing the apartment at its worst
  2. Fear of him seeing my appearance at its worst

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Shame

In more employed times, an empty apartment would have been an exciting shopping opportunity but not being sure when my next real paycheck was coming left me feeling unsure how and when I could realistically furnish it.

Had I been the only one living in it, I think that I could have managed with the mattress and wine glasses alone. However, with a new roommate who moved across the country and is new to LA, I want to ensure he feels at home. Without sauce pans for soup, vases for flowers and a coffee table to set down our wine and whiskey, would that be possible?

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Fear

While many readers have probably lived with someone of the opposite sex, it’s new to me. Shacking at my college boyfriend’s apartment 10 years ago in order to avoid overnight parking tickets at my sorority house is the closest I’ve come. Scared to be seen without makeup on, I went to bed in foundation and eyeliner and quietly snuck out the next morning before he could look too closely at my matted hair.

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I realize that I am not dating my roommate; however, there is an inevitable level of intimacy that accompanies cohabitating with someone. For the first time a guy is not just seeing what I look like when the Uber pulls up to go to the movies.

He’s seeing me sweaty from my afternoon run and dashing to the shower. He’s seeing me in my robe, wet hair and no makeup before determining what to wear. He’s seeing me swap it out later for old leopard pajama bottoms and a pink Christmas sweater. He’s seeing me passed out in front of the TV borrowed from a friend, still clutching a wine-stained coffee mug before retreating to the mattress lying on my bedroom floor.

He’s seeing it all.

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Vulnerability

According to Brene, this type of shame and fear live at the core of vulnerability – which is something that I typically either run from or avoid.

Despite publicly posting the most intimate details of my life online, from bikini waxing to unemployment, being vulnerable in-person scares the shit out of me. Someone sitting in their living room reading about my problems feels tolerable, but someone sitting in the same living room witnessing the mess first-hand feels like they’re digging through the bottom of my handbag full of unpaid parking tickets and McDonald’s ice cream cone wrappers.

Unlike the soap dispenser though there is no way to avoid it.

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So How Does One Deal With Vulnerability?

“We numb vulnerability. ‘I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple beers and a banana nut muffin,’” Brene said in the TEDTalk. It was as if hidden camera footage of my kitchen had been sent to her the day before the talk.

The Ways We Numb Vulnerability

The ways in which we numb vulnerability according to Brene:

1. We make the uncertain certain.

How many free See’s candy samples and $0.99 Trader Joe’s pumpkin cookies does it take to ensure someone still wants to live with you? That’s the game I’ve been playing lately in lieu of a pretty living room.

2. We perfect.

A shared Google Doc contains the furniture and home decor I’m obsessively coveting until I’m able to comfortably purchase them, as if each piece will make me a more worthy person.

3. We pretend.

We pretend that we don’t care. We pretend that we’re cool. We pretend that we’ve got it together.

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What We Can Do Instead

“When we numb shame, fear and vulnerability, we also numb joy, gratitude and happiness,” Brene concluded. According to her there are a few things that we can do to prevent that from happening.

1. Let ourselves be seen.

Last night I aimed to make up for bland frozen fish tacos with homemade spaghetti squash and meatballs. However, peering into the cutlery drawer I realized there was no cutting knife. My roommate stood witnessing my futile attempt to cut the squash without one, and I started to slightly hyperventilate as I put my hair back in a messy bun. I wanted to chug the bottle of Cabernet, cry a little and proclaim, “I swear I can cook, I swear I’ve done this before, I’m sorry that I suck!” Remembering this unfinished blog post though, I took a deep breath and calmly said, “I’m not sure how I’m going to cut this without a proper knife.”

2. Realize “I am enough.”

As I rode back up the elevator with my Property Manager’s steak knife in-hand I pushed aside feelings of inferiority. This is the story of my life which has always been – and always will be – a messy one. But fortunately, I’m friendly enough for people to trust me with their sharp objects so I can cook dinner for my friends, whether it’s delicious or not.

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3. Practice gratitude and lean into joy.

Once the dishes were washed and leftovers stored away, we retreated to the new couch that I purchased as a starting point where we both fell asleep after saying, “just one more episode.” Unlike the bathroom that I strategically avoided due to the diluted soap bottle, the barren living room has become one of my favorite places to be. While I might have marginally less furniture, I have exponentially more joy than I have in a long time thanks to candid moments and a newfound companionship. And while that’s scary to admit – he could move out next month – I am very thankful.

2 Replies to "What To Do When Vulnerability Feels Scary"

  • comment-avatar
    Leah October 18, 2016 (2:54 pm)

    Thank you Annie! This was a reminder that I needed. Being vulnerable is scary but allowing ourselves to be vulnerable leaves space for others to do the same. It’s one of the ways we teach others and ourselves how to love. You are an intelligent, empathetic, loving, kind and thoughtful woman. These things are priceless just like you!

    • comment-avatar
      Annie October 19, 2016 (3:21 am)

      Leah, thanks for the comment! I always love receiving your feedback. Despite this post being about how to deal with vulnerability, it was still kind of hard to post and not have second thoughts over. You are so right about creating space for others to be open too. Looking forward to seeing you soon! xoxo

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