Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.
― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
Last year, when I turned 29, I decided to try a yearlong experiment. (I know it’s cliche – survive a trauma, enter the last year of your 20s, or reach some other milestone, and decide to do a yearlong project but sometimes I am cliche.) I wanted to spend a year practicing radical transparency and bold vulnerability. I did not have many rules for my experiment. I just decided that when presented with opportunities where I could choose to be transparent or reserved, I would choose transparency. And when presented with opportunities to choose to be vulnerable or guarded, I would choose vulnerability. Of course, I would still be safe in my interactions with others and try to remain as socially acceptable as possible but I decided worry less if I was sometimes surprising or made other people a little bit uncomfortable. I honestly just wanted to see what would happen. I had lived through my worst fears and felt like I had very little left to lose so I was feeling almost recklessly bold.
I discovered and learned a lot through this yearlong experiment but this is just my personal reflection on what I experienced. There are much smarter, wiser, and better researched individuals who have dedicated their careers and their lives to studying and intentionally practicing this and I recommend you read them if you are looking for advice – Brené Brown and Parker Palmer are a great place to start.
One of the first things I discovered was how counter-cultural it is to be truly transparent. I know I have surprised more than a few people by sharing honestly and openly about where I am in life and how few answers I feel like I have. I began recognizing how much we speak about ourselves in vague almost scripted ways. “I’m fine. Work is great. Busy. How are you?” When I began choosing to give more vulnerable and open answers to questions, I noticed people usually responded one of a few ways: a) assumed I am incredibly naive and began speaking to me/treating me like a child, b) did not believe that I was being candid and assumed I am actually hiding even deeper secrets and tried to dig them up, or c) appreciated my transparency and responded with their own honesty and transparency.
I am still not sure how to graciously respond to a) and b). I usually respond the way I do when I am not sure what to say – smile, nod, and change the subject to something I can speak about politely. On my good days, I do not let it bother me. On my bad days, it hurts a lot and I question whether this experiment is a good idea at all, if I am strong enough to handle it, and if the only possible outcome is for everyone around me to come to believe I am crazy, attention-seeking, and/or delusional. On really bad days, I have moments of panic like those dreams where you find yourself in your school classroom totally naked and wondering how you ended up there without clothes.
But I do not think that transparency is the same as nakedness. Nakedness is usually associated with shame and an unintentional unveiling of yourself. Transparency is an intentional opening of your soul to others where you must first see and know yourself in order to reveal those parts of yourself to others. Transparency is a choice and I found that I grew in my ability to see and know myself as I allowed others to see and know me. There is often a fear or anxiety in nakedness but I have found transparency to bring me great peace. Choosing to hide little means you are not concerned about others “finding out” about you. The energy that usually goes into keeping something secret can now be used to in other more productive ways.
And it was truly response c) that kept me going with this experiment. I have always had good friends and relationships have always been important to me but the amount that my relationships have grown in this last year has been truly amazing to me. As a classic introvert, I tend to value depth of relationships to many relationships. With increased transparency, I found that not only did my existing relationships deepen even more but I also developed more new friendships this year than I have anytime since college. This has been like receiving an incredible gift that I did not even know I wanted; much less know to ask for.
Friends shared deeply painful and incredibly joyous life experiences with me in response to my vulnerability. I was humbled by their reciprocal response of vulnerability and transparency and so enriched by the opportunity to get to know them better. People who were previously little more than strangers suddenly became friends that I can discuss meaningful subjects with – one of my greatest joys in life. And because I did not feel the same pressure to be well-liked or understood or even accepted, I allowed myself to more fully embrace the people and conversations and relationships I found myself in. I have felt so known and loved this last year and I have so enjoyed being able to love and know others more deeply.
I discovered greater freedom of being and movement and living as I let down barriers and walls and facades that I had been taught to erect to protect myself. This was especially refreshing after coming out of a season of life and relationships that had been incredibly stifling and restrictive. I had been living with strict guidelines about what I could and could not talk about; how I could and could not behave. Now I was choosing to let go of those rules and instead embrace the freedom inherent in vulnerability and openness. As I started practicing radical transparency, I learned a lot about the humility inherent in living in this posture also. All I can be is what I am and all I am is what I can be. I am pretty ineffective at posing or appearing to be more than I am so giving up that pretense all together was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and such a relief.
Giving myself the freedom to be and love and feel and think and share without imposing restrictions has also freed me up creatively in unexpected ways. Choosing to censor less and share more has helped me to know more of myself but also to connect more deeply with others. I have found again and again that the thoughts or emotions or experiences I used to think were strange or unique or separated me from others are actually much more universal than I once believed. Being able to hear, “Yes, me too!” over and over to things I write and share has been deeply validating and encouraging to my experiment.
Even with the great benefits I have experienced, being this vulnerable and transparent is still scary at times. I am very aware that bold vulnerability opens you up to being loved and cared for but also to being judged and shamed. By sharing so much of myself, I am giving people the opportunity to hurt me or reject me. This has happened in a few relationships. (Though not as much as I had previously feared.) And as my dear friend Ayodele wisely points out every time I worry about this, “Well, are they actually your friends anyway if they treat you like that?” There are also people who just respond insensitively – often unintentionally – by trivializing or even mocking the thoughts or feelings I am sharing. I probably would not have noticed the insensitivity as much if I were not being so vulnerable and open. Being open and vulnerable definitely has its risks and it tests other people’s character and kindness in a way I had not expected. It also brings a unique clarity to relationships and I have decided I would rather put up with a little more possible hurt if it means I also have the possibility loving and being loved in a more significant way.
It is also complicated and confusing to navigate this open space in a socially acceptable way precisely because it can be so counter-cultural. I am still trying to figure out what different degrees of transparency are appropriate in different relationships and different settings. I am also trying to determine how much I care about social and cultural norms and the much beloved American “relationship boundaries” and how much I think it is really alright to just live the way I want to live and feels healthy to me even if others may find it strange. I am also very aware that the level of transparency and vulnerability I feel comfortable living with may not be comfortable or even healthy for another individual or another season of life and vice versa.
Of course there are the days I fail at this experiment entirely. The days where I feel too worn out and stretched thin to try for depth. There are days I walk into the supermarket after work and instead of intentionally and meaningfully engaging with the person at the register, I barely mumble “thank you” as I slide my debit card. There are times I am feeling too hurt or angry or even just peeved to risk revealing any more of myself and I build up those internal walls at record speeds. There are conversations when I know someone is trying to engage with me vulnerably and transparently and I can only come back with the most surface level response and I leave those conversations disappointed that I could not reciprocate the gift being offered me. But I think part of living transparently and vulnerably is living honestly and recognizing where and when and maybe even why you are not showing up as your whole self.
After a year of experimenting with vulnerability and transparency, the main thing I have learned is that I am really just beginning this experiment. I have so much more to discover about this way of living and so much further to grow. This will probably be a lifelong experiment and I am excited by the possibilities. The picture that has developed over the last year is one of standing in an open space with my arms outstretched and my face lifted to the sun. It is an exposed and expectant posture. I am aware that at any moment the clouds could collect, the thunder could roll, the rain could pour down, and lightening could strike. But I would rather joyfully spend as much time relishing the sun as I can, than live in fear of the rain that might come. I would rather spend my time soaking up the benefits of vulnerability than spending time trying to build up protections against possible hurt.
I have also spent much of the last year looking for pictures of my future – looking for re-defined purpose and new direction. One of the pictures that is slowly coming into focus is that as I continue to learn how to share myself and my stories, I would like to help others do the same. In a world full of so much misunderstanding and division, I firmly believe the only way forward is by revealing ourselves more. Stripping away pretense and posturing and sharing more of what is at the root of who we each are – human. Much of my current job is helping to empower young filmmakers to tell their stories. I believe in them and their stories and I believe the world needs to hear more of their stories. But telling your own story can be very scary – it takes courageous vulnerability. So if I am going to encourage others to do this, I feel like I need develop and enhance those skills myself. I am starting out the new year by taking a Creative Nonfiction writing class and I am equal parts nervous and excited as I think about what parts of my story I will share. And what stories I might be able to help others tell.
Living this way takes a lot of courage and intentionality and is not without risk and uncertainty but that is also what makes it so attractive to me. Vulnerability and transparency may leave me open to more pain, hurt, failure, and disappointment but more significantly it also gives me more room for love and compassion and curiosity and boldness and hope and deeper community and so many wonderful life-giving things that I cannot live without. So I will keep attempting this way of living however stretching and sometimes difficult – one year at a time.