photo by Carolyn V. on Unsplash
Late on a rainy Monday evening last autumn, a group of my friends and friends of friends were having tea just south of Central Park; we were all from different backgrounds, pursuing vastly different career trajectories, and we were all in our 20s. Our conversation began as a discussion of gratitude—appropriately topical, since Thanksgiving was around the corner—but as it evolved, we realized the crux of our discussion centered upon barriers we faced in giving and accepting thanks. In other words, all of us were struggling with vulnerability, and at least half of us were actively working on this concept in therapy.
I began to wonder whether learning vulnerability, and learning to be intentionally vulnerable, are integral to this third decade of life. What, with the existential flurry of career navigation, emergence from the college bubble, and cognitive development sufficient enough to evaluate past relationships and one’s own childhood—all alongside the unrelenting pressure for perfectionism perhaps heightened by experiencing our first really heartrending failures—it makes sense that vulnerability would be a massively salient topic, and one that is unfortunately frequently undiscussed.
To explore the experience of vulnerability within this phase of life, I reached out to friends and acquaintances from numerous backgrounds, asking simply for two paragraphs, give or take, on what vulnerability means to them. I have amassed and synthesized their unique and beautiful responses here, as well as my own, in the hopes of dispersing not only the commonality of this matter, but also offering insight, solidarity, and the normalization of its very discussion.
“Life does not process by leaps and bounds. It unfolds.”
—Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
I think that to be vulnerable is to embrace that whatever decision you make will be a part of this unfolding process.
As someone who likes control, my decision to work in politics came with some serious vulnerability: the jobs end after election day, the hours are grueling, the pay is very low, and one headline can change the whole ballgame for better or for worse. I have held four different jobs in the two years since undergrad, with gaps in between that would make many uncomfortable. There have been many tough moments for me (such as right now, when my friends are talking about bonus season and I am, once again, not working), but for a variety of reasons, this vulnerability is worth it for me. This is not to say that I want this lifestyle forever, but in building for my future, I can handle the risk.
If all goes as planned, many of the people reading this blog will live to be 100 years old. We have a lot of unfolding left, and as twentysomethings, we need a little more faith and a little less fear of the future.
MATT: Vulnerability means showing up and being seen. It means trying, really trying, while knowing that the outcome isn’t guaranteed. Vulnerability means looking shame in the eyes and saying “You’re not welcome here. Despite my flaws and insecurities that I share with others, I am always enough. Always.”
In the perfectionist culture that we live in, vulnerability can feel a lot like weakness. Growing up I was led to believe that being vulnerable meant admitting imperfection and fragility, that I was struggling through life. But what I found was that not being vulnerable with friends and family was isolating. Human connection is built on vulnerability and trust. Without vulnerability, we pass up on opportunities to feel close with people who matter to us and when we have our guard up , other people can feel it. We’ve all gotten that sense of “there’s something you’re holding back” from a friend and maybe even sensed that they wanted to share but felt like they couldn’t. Vulnerability isn’t fragility, its owning your lived experiences and emotions and having the self-worth to name them and share them.
ZACH: Growing up, it felt as though the goal in my community was to be anti-vulnerable. That is, to shroud internal truth, or even the discovery of such truth. The goal of my community was success, with success being defined both superficially and discretely, as college acceptances, goals scored, etc. Even more harmful than the shrouding of truth was the way in which the goal of success would slowly become a new truth, as lies can take hold overtime. As I began to find problems with this upbringing I had work to undo and redo.
Vulnerability, for me, first meant being honest with myself about desires and emotions. It meant asking difficult questions about what i was doing with my life and why i was doing it. More importantly, it meant accepting answers that didn’t fit or align with a path i was on or a way of seeing the world I had previously adhered to. It meant being uncomfortable with revelations about who i am and realizing not everything fits the way i once thought it would. This work, though ongoing, has evolved to being more honest about myself with those around me. On a day to day basis this manifests by taking criticism seriously and telling others what i believe to be true instead of what i believe they want to hear. Working on vulnerability has been scary in the ways it has uprooted me but it is rewarding in the ways it has led to stronger connections with others and the discovery of a more honest sense of self.
LISA: As a twenty something, I think that maybe vulnerability at this stage is admitting that we’re still just overgrown kids, that we’re not the fully realized adults we’d imagined we’d be at this age. Vulnerability is maybe allowing ourselves to ask stupid hopeful questions of the world instead of trying our best to blend in with a those resigned to a knowing maturity, a stolid acceptance of things as they are.
I think vulnerability is not always saying the thing that seamlessly urges the conversation along at another bar or another party or another networking event. I think that in admitting that — despite our fancy degrees, our embellished CVs, and our dress up clothes — when we really get quiet and alone, sometimes we have no idea what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. Vulnerability is giving one another room to be unsure, or slow, or quiet or all over the place, so that we can keep carrying on operating out of a more genuine state of being.
LARS: Vulnerability is love in disguise.
For me, there is no better form of vulnerability than a tear. The pinnacle of human expression. A cathartic release from fear, anger, exhaustion, insecurity, and overwhelming joy. Vulnerability is the connective tissue among man.
Imagine a world that embraced raw emotions. A place where we were given space to feel and express our emotions freely. Why is it that we hide our souls behind our stories?
Vulnerability is the gateway to love. We need a revolution.
OWEN: There’s this sensation known by those of us who grew up skiing, or snowboarding, or shoveling snow, or generally hunkering down for whatever the winter months threw our way. Going out into whatever chill, you layer up—bottom layers, knit layers, tight layers, loose layers, waterproof layer, long johns, scarves, hats, boots, the works. You prepare yourself for harsh reality with a piecemeal armor of hand-me-downs, Grandma’s knitting projects, and 80s Patagonia. You set out into the cold. And then, when it’s over, you take your first step back inside. Cheeks deep rouge, a tingle runs from your nose to your earlobes. This is how it starts. The un-layering. The shedding of skins. You can almost hear a hiss when your heel first slips from the confines of your boot sole, and your foot breathes in the warmth of a ski lodge fire or mud room rug. Flexing your toes, working away the stiffness that, outside, had kept you safe, had kept you whole. You uncover yourself, knowing full well that, just outside, a world exists too harsh for exposed skin or flexible digits.
I moved away from the United States last year. I went alone. I crossed the equator and the prime meridian both, setting myself down in a rural corner of a continent where I knew not a soul. It was by design. I wanted to learn. I wanted to grow. I wanted to push myself. And I did. For the most part, I got lucky. I found good work, good friends, and new passions. But in order to carve out a life in a new space, I bundled up. I added layers, some of which I didn’t even feel myself slipping in to. "I just need people to be goofy around,” said a fellow American, of the southern Californian variety, in the backseat of a full car on the way to her 25th birthday dinner. She explained that, for years, she’d imagined ringing in this specific day in a specific style—losing herself to a karaoke version of a 90s one-hit wonder that opens “twenty five years and my life is still...” I vaguely knew the song. It was rife for caricature. I wanted to hear her sing it. But I knew what she was saying. We were both far, far away from the comfort of our mud rooms. The 90-degree weather and pristine beaches had a different sort of chill than either of us had ever known. We were existing in a world where scarves and boots were kept-up appearances, were foreign social norms, were muted sexualities. But, before we could get lost in this thought and slink deeper into this armor that we seldom chose even to acknowledge, the driver passed the aux cord. The birthday girl plugged in, found her track, and with a twang of guitar, it began. What started as a collective mumble became, by the end of the first verse, an eruption. Haay yaaaa yaaa.... I SAID HEY... WHAT’S GOING ON. We sang our lungs out. We sprawled out on seats, crisscrossed limbs, closed our eyes and shouted into the sunroof. And we laughed tears into our eyes. We went full-blown goofy, spontaneously shedding layer after layer after layer, knowing full well that, in the chill of the outside world, we couldn’t survive like that. But, with the car stereo as our fireplace, we unzipped our jackets, unlaced our boots, and wiggled our toes.
LAUREN: I don't really like being vulnerable, as many people don't. When I think about it, I conceptualize vulnerability as allowing others entrance into my perspective. To me, true vulnerability does not mean opening the door for people, when and how I choose. I means giving them a key. Giving someone access to what I'm thinking or feeling, outside of a well-orchestrated moment. I don't enjoy that. I'd much rather plan out my "vulnerability" and deliver it in a way that makes me feel safe and secure. But even though I don't like it, and perhaps because I avoid it so much, vulnerability carries a lot of weight. When it comes to other people being vulnerable with me, that is a protected space, and the onus is on me as the recipient to protect it. I am trying, as I get older, to trust other people with that responsibility, and to be less worried about putting that trust in the wrong place.
ALEC: Vulnerability arises from the absence of power. Vulnerability has momentum and this can feel like a downward spiral plagued with fear, hopelessness, and self-doubt.
After graduation, I was able to secure my dream job in finance and move to NYC. I was laid off at the end of 2015 due to poor performance, and my life never felt more uncertain. I was 22 and alone in NYC with no source of income. Sleepless nights ensued where I would question every decision I made and any shortcomings I possessed. Vulnerability can be toxic, but on the other hand, it can act as a catalyst. This was that catalyst I needed to make smarter life choices.
Looking back on this “failure”, I’ve now realized how much this vulnerable experience shaped me into maturity. I became more diligent, strategic, and non-complacent. No one person or experience is the same, and thus I will not speak of mine as truth. There are situations where vulnerability is imposed by socio-economic, political, or unjust motives, and this is something to which I cannot speak on. However, my personal encounter with vulnerability led me to embrace and accept every failing as something to be subjugated.
ARIANA: I used to think vulnerability, true vulnerability, was a sign of weakness. I was able to manufacture a brand of “vulnerability” that looked like I was baring my soul, but really I artfully selected details of my life that contributed to the broader image of “survivor”, etc. that I wanted to display to the world. But I dared not be 100% open because that could invite criticism and incite critique and could cause isolation. I learned over the past couple of years, years that stripped me of my beautiful, fabricated bubble, that it was only when I was vulnerable that I presented the opportunity for others to reciprocate. Shared vulnerability builds lasting trust that serves as the foundation of relationships that last. Now I’ve also learned that it’s not perfect and not everyone is ready to reciprocate or ready to honor the leap you took in opening up, but rarely have I regretted showing the sides of me that I once judged as too messy or strange to possibly be loved or appreciated. In fact, the opposite happened. I’ve found that being the first mover in vulnerability leads to others feeling comfortable and voila - a shared, weird, wacky existence that proves to be quite fun and freeing.
Now when it comes to what things I deemed acceptable to share or not share re: vulnerability, I could point to a variety of things. Religion, socialization, the South. Thanks to New York, however, I’ve been exposed to people who do/say/live out those parts of me that I hid and - gasp - these people are happy and alive. Yes, there were times when I thought letting a piece of me show would actually kill me. Vulnerability can be learned and unlearned and taught and witnessed and modeled. I don’t advocate for throwing your full self onto everyone you meet, as I still am a bit cautious, but I do think you can go a bit further than you think you can and you’ll find that others meet you.
VIBHU: Recently, vulnerability has manifested itself squarely in my life in numerous ways. From the simple act of asking a clarifying question among peers in class to recognizing emotional currency of past experiences, it has also proven to be a useful, challenging tool. Vulnerability to me means going for a run with someone I know is faster than me (and trusting we will both gain from the experience). Maybe it means sending a double text. It means allowing myself to experience love, affection, and warmth even when I do not feel deserving. It means deeply processing traumas. It means being receptive to feedback, and even seeking it out. It sometimes also means giving tough, honest feedback, especially to those I love. It means apologizing when I am wrong.
Vulnerability entails mining through a trove of poems stashed away over the years, and slowly becoming comfortable sharing them. It means going on a first date. Admitting existential uncertainty. Scheduling a therapy appointment. Sharing moments of joy. Grief. Taking time to reflect. Vulnerability is not just understanding, but wholeheartedly embracing, fallibility.