Humans need each other. Emotionally, spiritually, neuro-biologically, and physically we need to have meaningful relationships in order to be healthy. Learning how to meaningfully connect with others will continue to be a lifelong journey for me. I’ve spent the past decade learning a lot about authenticity. As Brené Brown writes, “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” I have found authenticity to be a vital component to living a fulfilling life, but it’s not the only vital element to social health.
The past year and a half I’ve also spent time learning about vulnerability and how distinctly different yet equally important it is when compared to authenticity.
Vulnerability is defined by Merriam-Webster as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.” I prefer Brene Brown’s definition on the subject; she writes that vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” They are similar definitions, but the first one defines vulnerability with the tone that it is an accident or a weakness with the potential for harm. The latter is a definition that resonates with me as something that a person chooses when there’s worth to that choice; her definition leaves the outcome undetermined and one could hope it would result in something good. In relationships that matter and need to nourish our souls, vulnerability is worthwhile. It’s scary and doesn’t always feel comfortable, but it’s necessary if we want to have real connection. I take a risk when that risk means living within my values.
That is not something I want to offer everyone in every relationship, though—even the ones where I care deeply about the person but have seen that we aren’t vulnerability-compatible. If the person has a tendency to judge me or make me feel wrong when I show who I am, then I won’t want to continue to be vulnerable. And if the other person in a relationship doesn’t respond well to my vulnerability, then they may be happier without that element to our relationship too! It can feel like a gross over-sharing in a relationship when the other person bears their heart, soul, or some deep part of themselves without it being mutually consensual. Some relationships are meant to be primarily about companionship. You do stuff together, and that fills an important social need too! Not every companion needs to be a soul-sharing confidant or even someone who really knows the deep, personal you. And vice versa.
So the lessons I’ve learned over the past decade have been about how to always be authentic and when and with whom to be vulnerable. It sounds simple, but it has taken me a very long time to feel connected in a deep, meaningful sense with others while also knowing my limitations in different relationships and communities.
Learning this on a community-level has been quite a journey. I felt very isolated inside myself in faith-centered groups for many years; having others assume that we shared in common a lot of the specifics—when in fact my spirituality was undergoing a lot of analysis and evolution—made me feel caught in an awkward set of options. My choices seemed to be that I could be inauthentic to preserve the other person’s feelings or I could be vulnerable and risk being misunderstood or judged. By default I chose option 3: be kind and remain unknown. I didn’t feel that I could share my true self without being judged.
Yet, I kept going to church because it was all I knew in terms of how to have community in a rural or suburban area and I genuinely liked and loved the people there. But I couldn’t help but feel that at the core level of who I was, I would be rejected, shamed, and told I was wrong unless I conformed back to the right way of being.
If anyone reading has been in this type of situation (regardless of the social context), then you understand the depth of these words and how lonely it can feel to be unknown. If you have ever had a part of who you are that felt non-negotiably true (either you don’t believe the faith you were handed and were supposed to accept, you have a different sexual orientation than your parents and friends know or would support, or you feel drawn to a different path than the one you were supposed to take) then you know what being isolated and unknown on a core level feels like. And it doesn’t matter how many people like you (i.e., the you you let them know). The outer surface of yourself that you work diligently to make as authentic as possible so that you aren’t a liar can be genuine, but if you don’t connect with at least some people on a deeper level of both authenticity and vulnerability, then you won’t feel fulfilled or connected.
And just to give some balance so people know I’m not being unfairly rough on church, I felt the same way in my super liberal, atheistic undergrad program. Having any spirituality at all in that program was often greeted with disdain and a funeral for my potential as a credible student or a person with a reasonable mind. I loved my academic program and the people in it, but I felt there too that if they knew the core of who I was they’d reject me.
I felt like I belonged nowhere for a long time.
Over time, I worked to learn how to be myself and let others know me, the deeper version of me, when I felt safe enough to share. I developed some mechanisms over time to do this with pre-existing relationships that remained important to me though I felt that on some levels I had changed from the person they had first known. Stepping out in vulnerability to say, “hey, this is me and I’m different than you may want me to be, but I hope you still love me” is a terrifying and brave act. It doesn’t always go well, to be sure; when it does, though, you end up with some very meaningful relationships that truly fill your heart.
Learning this on an individual level, has also been a big process. Fortunately, I had some very close and accepting relationships all throughout this time where I felt like I didn’t have a larger community to which I belonged. My primary core friend was Collin, although we had to both learn a lot about being vulnerable in our own relationship. It’s always been easier for me to get angry instead of feeling hurt. So, for me, that’s been the biggest journey of my vulnerability with Collin. Not shutting him out when I felt hurt or disappointed was the most torturous exercise of self-improvement I’ve ever done. Talking about it sincerely without exaggeration or guardedness was even worse. In the end, though, it has been so worth it to re-learn the way I handle hurt in our relationship.
I’ve also been brave about showing my true self in this way with my mom this year, specifically about my spirituality, and that took courage! My mom is kind and loving, but she dedicated her life to raising us to have some very specific beliefs. Letting her know some of my own differences on certain points was scary, but she was very kind and accepting. It made me feel truly, deeply known and loved. And that kind of love from a mother is a treasure.
Richard Rohr suggests that we won’t truly learn love unless we develop a spiritual practice that teaches us how to keep our hearts open in hell. Learning to meditate isn’t something I’ve mastered (though, if anyone claimed to have mastered mediation I may question their character for bragging about their meditation skills). But I do like to run and write and pray and think and work on making my heart and my actions consistent with love. Oh, and most of all, I love being in nature. These are my spiritual practices that help me develop the strength to keep my heart open in hell.
If you’ve been married, in a serious romantic relationship, if you are a parent, if you have a sibling, or a friend, or a dog—if you’ve ever truly loved another being—at some point you will have to decide to shut down your heart to feeling or to let it remain open through hell. Because true love hurts. Vulnerability hurts. People disappoint us. They leave. They die. Dogs too. They aren’t who we wanted them to be (not so much dogs, but people do this a lot). We aren’t held in the esteem in which we want people to hold us. Relationships are hard. And not every one is worth the intense amount of deep, emotional work that it takes to make the relationship successful and fulfilling. Some relationships are healthier when they end. I truly believe this. But the ones that you want to keep, hold them dearly. And the ones that you end, work hard to not get caught up in bitterness, resentment or self-preservation. Do what it takes to confront your own fears and weaknesses so that you can be love in the relationships that do matter to you. And that necessitates being authentic AND being vulnerable.