63: Pursuing Vulnerability

“The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”

― Arthur Miller

I’m a writer, adore art, and I read a lot. The writing and art that touches me most is also the art where artists are willing to be the most vulnerable.

This doesn’t mean art that isn’t vulnerable isn’t beautiful. Paintings of birch trees are beautiful but leave me emotionally unsatisfied. The artist risked nothing in my opinion and painted the pretty.

It’s the difference between a hobbyist that cuts redundant patterns of dragonflies off a CNC and welds it to a stick and the artist that creates a painting of her grandmother whispering to the crow standing on her shoulder.

There is nothing real about the art on a stick. It’s a gimmick and might be fun or beautiful in the garden but it isn’t vulnerable. The stick art is high in technical knowledge and low in heart. It’s easily copied and so will never be authentic.

Relationships can be like a gimmick on a stick, high in kitsch and low in heart. It may be beautiful and fun but it doesn’t touch the heart. These types are relationships are simply gimmicks dropped into a garden to accent the bluegrass and hollyhocks.

Compare that the painter and writer revealing their heart’s connection.

However, I have also learned that what is a sugar daddy gimmick for one person can be a soul passion for another. As I’ve said elsewhere, when I was with my ex, she was always my passion.

Always. That is my truth. It doesn’t matter what my ex imagines about my intentions based on a story she made up about my infidelity, secrets, and lies.

I’ve come to recognize that vulnerability in life, and art, gives meaning. It’s never boring with a vulnerable person. The vulnerable person is constantly growing, changing, evolving, and maturing.

Like a tree dropping leaves, vulnerable people are curious about what is happening behind their mask and trying to drop the cover that is no longer working. The vulnerable person is learning to belong and abandoning the goal of fitting in.

People much more conscious than me are constantly reminding me that change requires me to be inconsistent. On a daily basis to examine what works and what doesn’t. Repeatedly, and unconsciously, asking myself, “This didn’t work yesterday. Am I going to try it again?”

When I was betraying my Love(s), life, and self the answer was too often, “Yes, because today I just didn’t try hard enough to fix it. I’ll try twice as hard today to make sure no one gets hurt even if I have to lie, keep secrets, and carry this shame…because that is what a man that made a mistake would do: he’d fix it.”

The truly vulnerable person is willing to abandon habits, responses, and stories that don’t serve their lives even when the people around them are committed to the status quo. In the area between inconsistency and commitment is where the conflict that needs transforming resides.

Don’t misunderstand, there are times and places where my mask is perfectly appropriate. Even necessary. Learning where, and how, to take it off is the practice.

However, there will be people don’t respect vulnerability.

My vulnerable pleas to my ex to hear my sincerity, awareness, change, and committment fell on deaf ears. My vulnerable attempts to let her know I cared about her wounds and hear about her pain was met with silence.

What I know are heartfelt expressions of remorse, loss, and grief were met by rumors, contempt, and criticism by people that were never curious enough to ask themselves why they were so invested in the end of my relationship and the stories they imagined.

What matters is my commitment to change and not what others think of my intentions or motivations. I get up every morning and ask myself, “What is my truth to own today?”

Vulnerability is the most direct path to change because it will burn away all of the pretenders, hanger-oners, and faux friends. The way people respond to my vulnerability tells me everything I need to know about them. If my relationships are not changing than I am not changing.

Vulnerability will burn up habits, knee jerk responses, and raise awareness of thoughtlessness. Vulnerability makes me conscious of my emotions, thoughts, and choices. If my truths are not changing than I am not changing.

My commitment to practice vulnerability over time is what matters. It’s why it is called a practice and why I’ve come to realize my expectations are often the issue getting in the way of intimacy. That means in practice, I have too often imagined I knew what was going to happen before it happened and so tempered my words and actions to manipulate for a response.

This imagining is the obstacle to intimacy and the approach to relationships blunting my ability to connect with my own life. For this reason, it is difficult to change. Generally, people that “love” us don’t actually want change.

They want to feel safe, in control, cared for, or important, or meet some other expectation.

And because I do not want to be abandoned, hurt, or feel negative emotions I give others what they need and want so I can get what I need and want.

And this is why it is a pattern. This is why there is drama.

So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide. Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and all in one. Give me comfort. Give me edge. Give me novelty. Give me familiarity. Give me predictability. Give me surprise. And we think it’s a given, and toys and lingerie are going to save us with that.

Esther Perel, NPR Interview

I realize I cannot be safe and vulnerable at the same time. For this reason, an unwillingness to be vulnerability is the obstacle to change. Vulnerablity is a conscious choice and requires taking a risk. I cannot be safe and take a risk.

But it isn’t that easy to practice and I continue to suss through when and where I need to make more conscious choices.

When I realize I am pursuing the safety of the status quo instead of vulnerable, conscious growth I ask myself:

  • Was I owning what was true for me?
  • Was I disguising criticism or contempt as vulnerability?
  • Was I using vulnerability to manipulate the situation (crocodile tears, crying wolf, chicken little, role playing, etc)?
  • Am I taking responsibility for how people respond?
  • If I am practicing a conscious change in behaviors in an established relationship do I expect the other person to be conscious of their emotional responses?

I just want to talk about the last one for a moment.

I find it interesting to me because as I have tried to integrate a more conscious vulnerability and emotional transparency onto my relationships the oldest or most passionate relationships struggle at responding in supportive, non-judgemental, and reactionary ways.

And why would they be supportive? After all, if I am making a conscious decision to be vulnerable I am going to change the status quo of the relationship. Which means holding people accountable to their choices as they stumble into my evolving boundaries and growing awareness. What was acceptable yesterday, won’t be today.

In my established adult relationships, vulnerability makes me responsible for me, and not them. I’m changing the patterns. As a result, not all relationships are going to survive the change.

I think this is why sometimes it is easier to be vulnerable with strangers. There is less status quo to confront, and therefore I was freer to explore a deeper vulnerability.

Meanwhile, I might be trying to protect the status quo of other relationships that mattered to me too.

Brene Brown in her TedTalk on vulnerability tells the story of a father and husband that confronted her at a book signing. He confessed to her that his wife and daughters would rather he die on his white horse than appear weak. It was his job to protect the status quo his family demanded in order to prove his worth and value.

I imagine he invested a great deal of energy into maintaining the status quo.

The pain he carried must have been enormous to push him into being vulnerable with Brown. I wonder if he ever was vulnerable enough with his wife and daughters and to climb down off the horse and live his truth.

I wonder if he was able to climb down from his horse, and remove his mask. Was he ever able to be vulnerable to the people that claimed to love him as he is or did they only love him for what they expected him to be?

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