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undressing: i am open 1
I WILL ADMIT AND EMBRACE MY VULNERABILITY
The world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.
Life is unfair. Some of us will never be rich; some of us will never be beautiful; some of us will never have parents who love us. Some of us carry more burdens than others. Some of us were abused and some of us were tortured. Tragedy is everywhere, and death is certain. We all have to learn to live with these realities.
That is why we need resilience. The ability to be resilient is what helps us bounce back from the edge, helps us find our strength in adverse circumstances, helps us thrive in this life—and it most often begins with opening the inner doorway to our own vulnerability. No matter how tiny a crack we may feel ready to open. Because becoming resilient requires a willingness to fall apart for a time—and getting to know ourselves at our rawest—so that we may open ourselves up to those deepest of inner resources that can enable us to bend and flex with whatever life brings our way.
* we are all vulnerable
All of us, out of necessity, have built up defenses to protect ourselves from others, to avoid being or feeling hurt, feeling out of control or helpless. We shy away from people who appear needy and often blame others to avoid the truth of our own vulnerabilities. We cling to the familiar, the known, even if it's not in our best interests to do so: a relationship that is not constructive, a job that bores us to death, an outmoded identity or pattern or behavior. We fear change, so we look for ways to keep the status quo. But in order to put our lives back together, we need to acknowledge that we are tender, that we don't know everything, that we cannot control everything, that we need each other. In other words, we need to be vulnerable.
We may fear our vulnerability, but the truth is we are all vulnerable. We are physically vulnerable for many months and for the first many years could not survive on our own. We are wholly dependent on human kindness and suffer greatly when others fail us.
We are mentally vulnerable in that we have the consciousness to know that we and those we love will die. We not only experience abandonment, we know ahead of time that we are susceptible to being left alone. As a psychologist, I see this existential anxiety in almost every person who walks into my office. We know we are alone; we are on a journey only we can navigate, even when we have help from others.
We are vulnerable to our environment through our dependency and conditioning. We learn early on how our parents, families, and neighbors think and feel. We learn from them the "right" way of behaving, what is considered good, what is bad, what we want to be, who we don't want to be.
We are emotionally vulnerable to loving, hating, and indifference; to a wide range of feelings: sadness, anger, joy, devastation, ecstasy. We can't be open to joy without also being open to pain.
We are vulnerable to each other. The neighbor's loud music or barking dog that keeps us awake. We know the dangers of toxic wastes, nature's furies, and the economic ups and downs around the world. We are aware of the precipice we live within and on.
As women we know additional vulnerabilities—and we know that our vulnerability is seen as a weakness. We are vulnerable because our history of second-class citizenship and our lack of access to education or the circumstances to be self-sufficient and equal made us even more dependent on others than men are.
We have also had our vulnerability reinforced by the dominant culture, which sees us as unfocused, fickle, and too emotional to get the job done well. We know that we are often (yes, still!) perceived as weak, inferior, and dependent, and in many cases we have internalized this view of ourselves. It's no wonder we view our vulnerability as a detriment; it's no wonder we feel we must never show it.
* it's our strength
I'd like to suggest that our history of being second-class, our struggles and our innate access to emotions and feelings position us to see our vulnerability as strength and to model that for the world. Instead of defending against the sore spots and tender mercies, we can model how to use them to produce rich and appropriate responses to whatever situation we may find ourselves in, to be far more flexible and versatile in all things.
I am convinced that an underlying reason behind judgments, blaming, threats, alienation, and even violence is the desire to hide our vulnerability—our failures, intimidations, weakness, helplessness. I am convinced that a means of increased psychological and spiritual growth begins with recognizing the insecurities that cause us to lash out in a reaction. As women we can model how being relatively unguarded allows us to respond rather than react, to be open and receptive students of life.
I am not advocating indiscriminate openness or a permanent wearing of your heart on your sleeve. There is a time and place for guardedness and lack of trust; there are times for skepticism and for protecting yourself from some people and circumstances. But it is powerful to know and be comfortable with your own vulnerability and exercise the choice of when to be open or not.
Knowing and admitting that we are insecure, afraid, out of our league, or lost in the woods puts us more in charge of our emotions and our situations. We are much less likely to be blind-sided by our "weaker" emotions. And since much of being resilient is about prevention—taking precautions before being run over by a truck or preparing the home before the earth quakes—it is smart and prudent to become more and more familiar with our vulnerability.
I had been working with my client Carolyn for two years when she began to plan her wedding day, which was fast approaching. As so many women do, she wanted this day to be picture perfect. The man she was marrying was funny and playful, a wonderful complement to her serious approach to life. The setting they chose, a bucolic, open grassy expanse overlooking acres and acres of grapes in the wine country, reflected her sophisticated and cultivated taste. She helped the caterer design an elegant vegetarian meal and chose wild and varied flowers, further adding her personal signature.
When she had first come to see me, Carolyn was just twenty-four years old. Her mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and Carolyn was struggling to balance her caretaking role with a busy career as a trial attorney. She felt tremendous pressure to perform well on every front.
A strong, direct, and very capable young lady, Carolyn had always been cast in the adult role in her household, which left her with the double-edged sword of being extremely competent and having many unmet needs. Her mother had been a harsh critic—pushing her to try harder when she felt tired, criticizing her when an A was not an A+, expecting her to hold herself together when the family went through difficult times—and Carolyn had internalized this well. She was more apt to beat herself up for what she did not do for her mother or for when she was not there for her than to cut herself slack because she did so much. She did not truck with weakness or softness. Not surprisingly, then, during her mother's illness Carolyn's stamina was impressive. But her soul was burning out.
She would come into my office absolutely exhausted and having no idea how to relax or let go of some of the responsibilities without feeling guilty or worrying that she was not doing enough to keep her mother alive longer.
One summer evening, she came into my office looking put together, as usual, plunked herself down in the oversized chair, and said, "It's over. Mom died last night."
Neither of us was expecting it this soon; her mother had rallied so many times before, inspiring hope and optimism in all who cared for her. With my own sadness and surprise showing, I leaned toward her and took her hands in mine as she cried in relief, shock, sorrow, and pain. She could easily cry because she had lost her mother and missed her terribly, but she could not possibly have admitted needing something herself or allowed herself to be taken care of.
As her wedding day approached, Carolyn missed her mother more and more. She would talk about how much her mother would have loved this time, about how she wished she could ask her mother to help her choose a dress and to help her decide which earrings were the perfect match. When she had fights with her fiancé or felt prewedding jitters about her choice of a mate, she longed to have her mother there for a heart-to-heart.
The week before the wedding, Carolyn came to see me, inconsolable. She spoke through tears. "I just know if my mother were alive she would do something very special for me the day of the wedding. It would be something I had not thought of, something that would tell me she was thinking of me on this big day."
We both knew that there was no one who would or could fill this role for her. Her mother had many friends who loved Carolyn, but she had no desire to turn to them. Only her mother would do, and her mother was not here.
Near the end of the session I said to Carolyn, "I don't mean to be presumptuous, but I am wondering if there is anything I can do?"
Without missing a beat, Carolyn cried harder and asked, "Would you come and see me right before I walk down the aisle?"
I was deeply touched, and my eyes filled as we cried together. It takes profound strength to admit that you need someone when you have been taught that you do not have needs or that the needs you have are wrong or irrelevant in the face of others' needs. By letting down her guard, she could begin to trust that I would be there to "see" her at that archetypal moment before she wed.
I once read about a nun who worked in a rough area of New York. Each evening, before leaving the church for the day, she checked herself for her level of vulnerability. On the days she felt particularly soft, she took a taxi home. Even on the days she was in a stronger frame of mind, she took precautions as she walked the dangerous streets to her bus stop. She did not turn a fool's eye to her circumstances or condition.
On the other hand, I have watched people pull out their stiff upper lip and muscle strength without admitting their vulnerability. This gritting the teeth does not bring resiliency; instead the stiff and muscled "heroine" is brittle and vulnerable to the next thing or person who is stronger and louder.
If we do not allow the vulnerability, the softness, or the tenderness, we are more apt to end up with sharp edges and holes in our heart. For example, a woman I worked with insisted that the barbs and slights from her husband didn't bother her. She could easily grin and bear it, especially understanding his warped "sense of humor." Her avoidance of the pain his remarks instilled in her left her open to being treated the same way by her children.
During my own childhood I perfected the defense of denial. It took me years and years of concentrated effort and analysis to free the pain and thaw the icicles that kept me frozen within myself and unable to love or be loved. It took devotion to rediscover my vulnerability, and it takes faith and trust to remain in touch with it on an everyday basis.
A woman I worked with had, in childhood, developed a habit of using garbled talk so her father would not hit her for back-talking. This was a creative response to a threatening environment, possibly the only way she could find to maintain herself in the face of worrying she would lose her father's love and incite his anger. As an adult, however, this garbled talk kept her from being understood and seen, kept her at a distance from others when she desired to be close. What ultimately helped this woman was not just changing the behavior, but understanding it as a creative response to an outdated situation. She now has a better chance of becoming free to relate intimately because she allowed herself to be vulnerable to the old feeling of needing her father's love, of wanting to be seen and not hurt. She allowed herself to fall apart a little in order to emerge stronger.
* taking the inner journey
Like so many of you I grew up with the myth of the hero and was told that conquering ourselves and the world was our most important challenge. That holds for some times in life, but once you experience loss, sorrow, or significant change, you recognize that there is another journey to make: a descent into the soul to understand the flow of feeling, emotion, and lost parts of ourselves. A journey to discover the threads that bind us to each other and to all aspects of the living world.
Myths of descent usually begin with an unexpected twist of fate or a deliberate dive into the underworld—the unknown path that lies ahead when we experience loss, tragedy, or serious disappointment—and the road not taken that calls to us when we enter a new passage. These myths give us a framework for overcoming adversity and enlightening the process of redemption, showing the heroes and heroines figuring out their own way and righting their course as a result of a great fall.
One such legend comes to us from ancient Sumeria: the tale of Inanna. In his book From the Poetry of Sumer, Samuel Noah Kramer tells of the power and influence Inanna's journey held for the people of that time: "The goddess who outweighed, overshadowed, and outlasted them all was a deity known to the Sumerians by the name of Inanna, 'Queen of Heaven.'" Inanna is the tale of a woman's journey from her early days of being courted, admired, and enriched to her descent to the underworld in her middle years. It is about sacrifices she must make to achieve wisdom and affirm her purpose of life.
Inanna was much loved and revered, yet she voluntarily abandoned her office of holy princess of heaven and earth to descend into the underworld. This was a descent of uncertainty and danger, a descent to journey within the depths of the psyche. Before her departure she spoke to her faithful friend, Ninshubur, leaving elaborate instructions. If Inanna did not return, her friend must go to the gods and ask them all to save her, not leaving to chance that she might not be able to recover.
Inanna departs to the underworld to see her older sister, Ereshkigal, raw, bitter, and entangled, the Queen of the Underworld. But this place of grief and sorrow is not one we enter lightly. Inanna passes through seven gates, and at each one she is required to surrender a talisman or article of clothing, leaving her bowed and naked upon her entrance to the throne room. Her journey is stark and perhaps surprising, given that she has volunteered to go deep within herself. She is willing to unburden herself from all she has held dear, and yet when at each surrender she asks for the meaning of this stripping she is told that the ways of the underworld are perfect and may not be questioned.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death. She spoke against her the word of wrath. She uttered against her the cry of guilt.
She struck her. Inanna was turned into a corpse, A piece of rotting meat, And was hung from a hook on the wall.
This is what a transformation—or the conscious reflection on a lifetime loss or change—can feel like. We descend to the underworld, leave behind all earthly attachments and accomplishments, and don't know what will happen next. It is a time of facing ourselves, looking squarely at the demons and feeling like we are a piece of flesh hanging from a hook on the wall, being seasoned and matured! This is a chilling image of vulnerability, a raw look at surrender. Why would Inanna leave her secure world and walk into the void voluntarily?
Because we cannot live a conscious life without facing the terrors of uncertainty and the unknown. Always staying within the safe zone simply doesn't work. No, our task is to open ourselves to the darkness—the realm of emotion, feeling, the unknown—and experience the anguish of sorrow, uncertainty, confusion, and powerlessness. We must be willing, mentally and emotionally, to be confused, to be wrong, to take a risk, fall down, skin our knees, be wrong again, be confused again, feel the pain and sorrow. Because until we are ready to let go—of what is no longer working, of people who stand in our way, of our familiar defenses—we will never grow.
In a society that believes we must be strong and positive, where we shun our negative and vulnerable feelings, carrying our burden of self-doubt with dignity is a socially significant statement. In our world, where we find it hard to experience pain or to realize that we feel small in certain ways, we can set a rare example by continuing to walk erect and by carrying our woundedness with consciousness and dignity.
Collectively it is time to validate, honor, respect, and make room for falling apart, admitting vulnerability. It is time to bring reasonable and appropriate falling apart into fashion. It is a long process, and we can find and learn our own rhythms, our own ebbs and flows as we have patience and compassion with ourselves. To be a student of life is to be vulnerable—open to life, to learning, to experiences, to you, to emotions—and willing to accept things as they are.
Excerpted from THE WOMAN'S BOOK OF resilience by BETH MILLER. Copyright © 2005 Beth Miller. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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1 Undressing: I Am Open I Will Admit and Embrace My Vulnerability
2 Who Do You Call at 3 A.M.? I Will Practice and Increase My Ability to
3 Hands On, Hands Off I Will Find Parts of the Problem That I Can Manage
4 Not That One, This One I Will Discover and Get My Needs Met
5 Look Ma, I Am Dancing on My Toes I Will Recognize and Develop My Own
Special Gifts and Talents
6 That's Close Enough I Will Develop My Ability to Say No
7 Poison or Pearls I Will Increase My Ability to Transform Resentment and
8 Now That's Funny! I Will Develop and Use My Sense of Humor to Help Me
Through Stressful Situations
9 Staying Power, Leaving Power I Will Explore the Range of Responses and
Possibilities and Find Ways to Improve Things
10 Can't Take Any More, or Can I? I Will Endure Suffering
11 Diving for the Pearl I Will Find Meaning in the Crisis
12 Pearls of Great Price I Will Stand Alone, Independent in Thought and
Action, But I Will Not Be Afraid or Reluctant to Rely on Others