Vulnerability Connects Us.
“Why did you do it?” I asked.
Many years had passed since he made fun of my fear of the dark as a child, but I still wanted to know why my father could not just let me be afraid? Why did he have to make fun of me, tease me that the boogey man was going to get me? All those years I just wanted him to comfort me, to tell me it was going to be okay.
“Remember, how I woke in the middle of the night, scared from a bad dream? I would come into your room crying, so scared. You told me the boogeyman was coming to get me, you laughed and the tickled me. Each time it was dark, whether we were in the movie theatre or watching TV late at night, you reminded me of the boogeyman. I never felt so scared and stupid at the same time—stupid for being afraid.”
I looked at him, I saw a sadness in his eyes.
He answered, “I was just kidding around, joking. I thought you knew?”
He paused. Bowed his head. “I guess you didn’t. The truth is. I didn’t know what to do? I didn’t want to you to be scared. I didn’t want you to be the girl who wet the bed, the one who crawled into mommy and daddy’s bed, the sissy. I thought it would be harder on you. Kids would make fun of you. So I thought if I toughened you up, you would be strong. Not easily picked on.” He paused again. “I didn’t mean any harm.”
I asked him, “What is so bad about being scared?”
Now he was growing impatient so he quickly snapped, “I didn’t want you to be vulnerable. You know, get hurt.”
I could tell that my father’s patience with this heart to heart was growing thin, and that was as far as he wanted to go in discussing emotions. So I let it go, but I didn’t stop thinking about how hard I had tried for all those years to cover up being scared, feeling sad, feeling alone. Any emotion that made me feel I needed to ask for help was one that I hid.
It had started with what my father thought was innocent teasing about the boogeyman, but I really took it to heart. The more he teased about my fear, the more I became determined to not cry when I felt scared.
For years I avoided the stigma of being vulnerable, I did not want to show emotion. It showed a lack of composure, a weakness, that at best could be viewed as unprofessional and at worst could leave me subject to harm. For years I maintained a suit of teflon skin, never letting anyone’s compliment, judgment or advice in and never letting the “real” me out. I remained in this straight jacket of emotional control for fear of being vulnerable.
I cut myself off from my emotions. At times, I guess you could say I was afraid to feel, I didn’t know where it would lead me. What if I needed help, what if someone thought it was funny I was scared? I was determined to be that girl who was always okay, never needed help and was self sufficient.
My father did achieve his goal of toughening me up, but I lost out on the human connection. I alienated my friends when I showed no emotion over sad events, I did not know how to sympathize with their losses and I seemed to always have a solution for every problem.
My even keel, my unbendable teflon shield protected me—but it also shut everyone out.
And then came that day when I couldn’t hold back the tears. I sat in a pile of tissues and wallowed. I had left my job, gotten into a fight with a coworker, and didn’t know what I would do next, so I just sat there and cried. And she called that friend. I picked up the phone all teary eyed and cried.
Years later she told me how she always felt silly in comparison to me, she felt like a mess, a wreck. When she was scared, lost she always thought to herself, “What would Jane do? Jane would know how to handle the situation with grace.” So my friend imagined how I would handle it, but never asked for my advice because my lack of empathy made her feel stupid, weak and vulnerable. She felt like I was judging her for not being able to pull it together.
She said, “It’s so nice now that you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable. I no longer feel like this stupid, messed up girl in comparison to you. It’s so nice to be able to just relax, be real and chill with you.”
“Yeah, I agree,” I replied with a smile.
Author: Jane CoCo Cowles
Image: Sylvain Reygaerts/Unsplash
Editor: Emily Bartran