“Protect What’s Yours” (But No Shame in Vulnerability)

July is the cruelest month — partly because it is the time of year when heat waves are at their highest (in the northeast coast of the US). But it is also the time of year when I must learn the harshest lessons in my relationships.

In a recent conversation with a friend, I expressed my woes and concerns regarding an issue that I was unable to talk about with anyone before. I shared as much as my aching Inner Self could–the constricting feeling in my chest and the shaking in my body (despite the 90-degree weather) tested my ability to speak out loud the truths I kept hidden. I had hoped that by exposing my truths, they will be accepted with open arms, by someone I felt I could trust to listen… only to be met with doubt. What my friend said hurt me, as they tried to reason that “I was overthinking” or I was mistaking kindness for something else. I felt that my feelings were being dismissed because they probably could not empathize with me, that our experiences were too different to reach an understanding.

The final blow came when I was asked to reveal correspondences as “evidence” of my predicament. I claimed that some had been saved (but most were deleted/erased because that is the closest to deleting uncomfortable memories). They said that if they could have access to these records, maybe they could have a better opinion. I said fine, just to end the conversation and give myself time to recover from shaking.

I pulled out the journals I kept throughout college. Each one was a different color and came to represent different points of my (young adult) life: “the Blue period”, “the Purple period”, and so on. It was these journals that carried the things I could not say out loud.

I would dread the approach of July because it reminds me of previous years when folks I knew from high school came together to share memories of past and stories of present. But I was not included in these circles because… well, I do not even know. Should I care? Does it matter?

An invitation would have been nice; such a small gesture can show that you are still in the minds of others, that you were not forgotten or disregarded. Maybe one or two came my way each year, and I would try to attend (unless circumstances change, which happened and still happens often).

It is in the month of July where I would deeply examine my position in other people’s lives and if I had left a good impression with them. But my examinations tend to go further down the rabbit hole: how am I a “friend”? did I (intentionally) say anything that offended them? how many times have I checked in on them during the year? do I really know this person enough to consider them “a friend”? are any of my relationships “real”? 

These recurring thoughts appeared in my journals. In the days I spent my time thinking too much, were the days I could have spent with others, to get to know them better, to make memories, to form bonds.

There was one particular relationship that I was most concerned about. But I could not talk about it with anyone because of fear — it wasn’t real. it was never going to become anything outside of my expectations. it was only going to be one-sided. Needless to say, a “relationship” did not happen nor could it ever happen. Perhaps it was because of circumstance, but that can only go both ways…

When you decide to open up to others, you risk showing what makes you vulnerable. When you leave yourself vulnerable, there is the possibility that others can take shots at you — or it might feel that way. Granted, others could be trying to help by giving what they believe to be “sound advice”. But it is also tricky to be wary of those that might actually take a stab at hurting you. They could judge you, completely see you in a different light, and stick with that negative image for as long as they know you. With the thought of having almost everyone turn against you, there is no helping to feel that you must retreat from the outside world and take refuge in your own thoughts — which are the leading cause of your worries.

Only someone who has been emotionally hurt, by people that should have been trustworthy, for a certain length of time, would think that way. But I digress.

Vulnerability is difficult to perform. Finding the “right people” to be vulnerable to is even more difficult. You live for a certain numbers of years to have built several thick walls around yourself. The people that are part of your life are placed in certain rings, but none can ever reach the center, where you hide your true self.

For years, I was disgusted by vulnerability. I had always assumed that it was a “performance” to garner attention and sympathy (even if it was fake). why should I talk about my feelings? who gives a crap? what do I get out of this? 

To me, vulnerable was a beggar’s hand. And I could choose to either give a dollar or pretend that it was not there, holding itself out to me.

I recently attended a party where the majority of the people in attendance were from high school. (Nowadays, I am reluctant to attend social events, because of my anxiety, but this party was for my best friend, to whom I am grateful for being tremendously patient, kind, and considerate during my most difficult period.) The party was easy-going, at first; I was able to chat with new people and a few former classmates.

But as more guests arrived, I suddenly found myself isolating from the group because things shifted in a different direction that was outside of my comfort zone. It was as if nothing had changed: others could play and socialize with ease, and I was still that “lonely Filipino kid” unwilling to participate.

Out of habit, I tried calling a friend, who was busy with visiting relatives and unable to talk. Feeling like I had no other options, I decided to walk around the house. It was already dark outside, even though it was around eight o’clock. With only socks on my feet, I felt the cold earth as I walked. It was a liberating feeling because I felt (literally) grounded when I most needed to be. But I still felt unsettled about having no one to talk to.

Somehow I gravitated toward a small group sitting away from the beer pong table, where my former classmates gathered to play a game. On the blanket spread out on the grass were my senior schoolmate (by two years), her friend, and my best friend’s brother. Outside of school, we never talked. But at that moment, we made small chat about our current lives. I wanted to be polite about socializing, to avoid being seen as “lonely” to others.

When the conversation ended, my senior schoolmate asked to find her brother (who is also my senior by one year). He eventually came along, and I had to apologize for not noticing him earlier because I was too preoccupied with talking to former classmates and acquaintances. (Also, I did not wear my glasses for the first half of the party, so faces were a blur…) We started talking about our respective crafts–visual art and writing–which led to a discussion on “formula”. I was taken aback for a bit because I rarely have these types of discussion outside of school. So I felt unprepared to talk at length about my process and the themes I am currently focusing on. I became aware that this conversation was entering “vulnerable” territory, where I would have to admit the forces that drove me to write today.

(Out of respect for my senior, I will not disclose details of the conversation.) We eventually talked about private matters. Which made it difficult for me to maintain composure. Which brought out the anxiety I tried to keep in check since isolating myself from the group. Which led to my senior reaching out to me, asking if I needed a hug. Which I said yes. And we stayed that way for what seemed like a while.

I started to cry because it was difficult to bring up personal matters to someone I barely see anymore. But I also cried because I felt self-conscious about how this scene must have looked to others–we were in the middle of the backyard, with a 360-degree view spectators. My mind came close to falling down that rabbit hole of negative thought–but I had to remind myself that I can “feel” this other person giving me space.

I remembered a few months ago, at a mental health workshop facilitated by a dear friend of mine, she told us that we all crave “touch”. Not necessarily in a sexual way, but in an empathic way–holding hands, leaning on someone’s shoulder, or hugging–to show that we “feel” for the other person. That we are capable of feeling one’s pain, sorrow, or even joy. It is through intimate touch that we form a connection with others because we understand where they are coming from–because we have been there ourselves.

And so I shifted my thoughts to that moment: here was another person, who has been through what I am still going through, holding space for me. Amidst all the stares and whispers in that backyard, I felt nothing but protection and safety through the act of hugging–as if to say, “I am crying with you”. With that thought in mind, I stopped crying.

There are consequences to being vulnerable. But vulnerability is a necessity. We all need to be open to being in that state of mind because that is how we learn about ourselves and how to take better care. And when we know who we are, as individuals, we can learn to open up to others, but slowly and carefully.

Vulnerable is brave. It is also protection–you want to protect your heart from others, but you can open it to those that are deserving of seeing your true self. They will not demand to see any “proof” that you have been hurt. They will not make you feel ashamed for holding on to old feelings because you are still trying to figure out if they are still useful to you. They will not force you to put on a brave face before you are ready to go outside.

August is a time for reflection and recovery. Since that night, I have been thinking about what it means to “be soft” and how to apply that to my work. Writing is performing vulnerability, in which we (writers) must show ourselves to a wider audience; but at the same time, we must keep our inner lives at arm’s length, or risk having our thick walls collapse to the pressure of outside forces. There is a reason why journals have thick covers and locks.

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