At some point during the course of my life, I taught myself that I am being vulnerable when I give something to others. And I assumed that giving and giving alone was a form of vulnerability, because I was putting myself in a place to be taken advantage of, should someone want or need to. It was like I was opening my hand to let things flow out, and secretly praying that those near my hand wouldn’t bite it. But I made a mistake; I assumed that giving was the only form of vulnerability there was to offer. Now, I am learning that true, genuine vulnerability requires a person to receive as well.
I am the stereotype: Strong Black Woman. Please, feel free to imagine me as literally any Tyler Perry stereotype– even in recovery, I can see a little of myself in those Black-woman tropes. I once assumed that being the bearer of burdens for those around me was my only form of vulnerability. Giving, giving, giving– giving space to vent without shame or judgement, giving a little cash when things get hard, giving forgiveness when I’ve been wronged. The part of vulnerability that I neglected, that I think a lot of us neglect, is that when you open your hand to give, it should remain open to receive too.
I think the “reception” part of vulnerability is hard for me and people like me because often, when we ask to get our needs met (and receiving is a need too, let’s be clear), we are met with a harsh and unforgiving world that throws our needs back at us, as if they were negotiable. And we convince ourselves that they are negotiable to avoid getting hurt– or rather, to avoid being vulnerable AND getting hurt. It’s a sort of black and white thinking– like, “asking to receive is too hard, so I won’t ever ask again”. And refusing to ask for the things we need is refusing the side of us that needs to receive in order to feel seen. That refusal of the parts of us that need things– our vulnerable bits– can feel like a weight on the chest. Even worse: we cross our own boundaries and the boundaries of others (who likely aren’t asking us to pour from empty cups) when we assume that our vulnerability only comes from giving.
I now know that the weight on my chest was my inability to trust. I didn’t trust my environment, or the people around me, to give me what I needed. In response, I overcompensated by pouring from an empty cup and assuming that because it was hard work, it was me being vulnerable. I thought that if I made sure other people’s cups were overflowing, that the leftovers would flow back into my own cup. My assumption that giving was the only form of vulnerability was really just a reflection of my lack of trust in anything but myself. My half-vulnerability was the poison preventing me from the pure, unfiltered bliss that comes from being truly vulnerable– from being seen.
It’s scary to trust, and it’s scary to ask to receive, but it’s so worth it! I am reminded of the first time I trusted a friend by telling them something they did bothered me– I was so scared, and I just knew that the friendship would be over. Instead, the friend apologized and agreed to treat me the way that I’d asked– and then they did. And I was so shocked! Mostly, I was shocked at how good it felt to receive something from a friend, from someone I trusted. It was like a light bulb went off in my head– “Wow, I’m not actually alone here.”
Even now in my romantic partnerships, I am learning to recieve. Dating with the intention to be truly vulnerable has really shown me where I didn’t show up enough for myself by asking for the things I need or want. From a recent relationship, I’ve learned how frustrating it can be for another person when their partner lives a half-vulnerable life. And reflecting back, I now see that whenever my previous partners asked me to be vulnerable, they weren’t asking me to give more– they were asking me to stop giving the things I didn’t have to give, because it made them feel guilty to receive the clothes off of my back. They were asking me to give them space to be there for me– no one really wants to be with a person who they feel they can’t relate to, and no one is harder to relate to than a superwoman who never has any needs (or rather, who just lies about having them).
Even further, they were asking me to trust them– what I think I failed to realize in the past is that people can sense when they aren’t trusted. And what do we do to people who we don’t trust? We leave them. I didn’t realize that in all of my previous relationships, I kept one foot out of the door by not trusting that there were things I could receive from them, and they knew it.
Vulnerability isn’t just our ability to give– it’s our ability to trust enough, and to receive what is good for us as well. When we are truly vulnerable with ourselves and others, we are met with the things that the world has to offer that fill us up. While it’s hard sometimes, on the days I practice receiving, I feel open to possibilities. And the cage I had around my heart that prevented me from trusting is open, and I feel less weighed down by my self-inflicted restraints. That’s not to devalue what happens when we learn that the world is a harsh place. Really, I think I want to say that being vulnerable is trusting that the world is also a giving place as well, and being open to receiving the good. And that kind of good is always worth it!
Vanessa is a third-year graduate student studying Psychology at Rutgers University, with a passion for all thing’s wellness, research, creativity and empathy. In her spare time, Vanessa enjoys learning guitar, reading and writing fiction stories as forms of expression and vulnerability. Vanessa can be reached via email at email@example.com.