The world is not waiting with open arms for you to express an emotion or share your feelings. It does not create a warm, fuzzy environment for you to write about your struggles or talk about your fears. In fact, what it does is the opposite: The world often greets displays of vulnerability with anger, harshness, and cruelty, or at the very least, indifference.
Whenever I write about something really personal, I can count on getting an onslaught of nasty comments. I've written a lot about being single and my difficulties with relationships, and in the comments it always comes back to the cats -- how I should get lots of cats because I'm obviously going to be alone forever. I don't have cats. I don't want cats. I'm allergic to cats. But if I'm writing about the pain and loneliness of not being in a relationship, that's where people go.
Or when I've written about my depression, people will say that I'm pathetic, or a loser, which is an awesome thing to tell someone who's just described grappling with feelings of despair.
Online, people lash out against vulnerability with hatred and vitriol, but in real life people aren't always so welcoming to it, either.
Recently I was talking to a guy who lives out of state. Over the phone one night after a few weeks of being in touch every day and having declared our mutual interest in each other, I told him that I wanted to try to make it work long-distance. I said that I felt a really nice connection with him which so rarely happens, and I'd enjoyed getting to know him so much that I wanted to take that risk.
"Would you..." I began, my heart pounding, "be open to that?"
"No," he said. "I'm not."
This sucked. If I'm going to be vulnerable and open, when it's such a scary thing to do, I want a prize. I want some guarantee of success. I want the guy to like me back!
And what's the incentive to keep doing something that is often so painful -- where you have to pace the length of your apartment 10 times and take deep breaths and gulp down water and pray and whatever else you have to do to go through with posting that article you wrote or telling that person how you feel about them -- only to be met with insults about cats, rejection and failure? Why ever try to be vulnerable again?
I'm much better at being vulnerable in my writing than I am in my life. Being vulnerable in my writing comes second nature to me, while in life it takes deliberate effort and is something I have to push myself to do, often messily, awkwardly, and imperfectly. To tell someone when I feel hurt or angry or upset by something they've done, instead of raising my voice several octaves, slapping on a smile, and chirping that I'm "fine!" and everything is "fine!" To tell a guy I'm interested in him romantically instead of subsisting on a hidden crush on someone who may not be available for a relationship, and preventing the possibility of having an actual relationship with someone else who can reciprocate my feelings.
My first thought when the out-of-town guy said that he no longer wanted to pursue anything with me, was, How am I supposed to trust anyone? Overnight he'd gone from planning a trip to visit me in New York to telling me that this wasn't going to work at all. He'd encouraged me to open up to him and told me that "my feelings were safe with him," and once I started to open up, he completely closed me out.
It's definitely safer to go the shut-down route. But I've tried that way, too. After several devastating relationships in my 20s and early 30s that intensified my fear and mistrust, I've built-up an intricate array of defenses to never let anyone close to me, and spent years upon years single, and isolating myself, as a result. But when I succumb to this way of life, the deadness I feel inside of days passing by, protected and numbed out, is worse than the sharp pain of hoping and trying, and being hurt and rejected.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown talks about how to survive the pain that can result when you're vulnerable, whether it be from being attacked in online comments for sharing something personal in your writing, or asking someone out on a date who says no. When determining if it was a worthwhile risk, and if you succeeded or failed, she says to be very clear that the thing you value is courage, and measure against that.
Then success becomes not about the outcome anymore -- about only getting effusive, loving comments on your blog post, or a resounding "Yes!" from your crush. Success becomes about measuring up to your own values. If the value you are going for is courage, and you posted that essay, or asked that person out, then HELL YEAH you lived up to it, and your action was a success -- regardless of the response.
But if the world doesn't want your vulnerability, isn't particularly interested in your feelings, and not only doesn't reward you for living that way, but often, it would seem, punishes you, why even bother?
In Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, she says that when you write honestly, "you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of."
Living in a world such as ours, that does not value vulnerability, creates a terrible sense of isolation. I've had enough of it. And the only way out is by having the courage to be vulnerable -- in the face of cruel comments, heartbreak, and rejection -- over and over and over again.