When you struggle with a disorder of any sort, be it physical or mental, the process of acceptance can be stubbornly blocked by implacable fear. Fear of what others will think of you, fear of how the knowledge will change their perception of you; fear of how it will change your perception ofyourself. This block, I think, can sometimes be caused by our fear of the clinical aspect of our struggle. We have been diagnosed. Someone has – as we might disproportionately think – put their signature to the fact that there is something wrong with us. And somewhere between the relief of getting answers and the space where we absorb this new understanding of ourselves is the fearful voice saying we have to keep this secret. Because to keep that part of yourself secret is to keep yourself safe; to make that newly discovered vulnerability as less vulnerable as possible. But as it happens, sometimes the process of harboring that vulnerability makes things worse. Good intentions become fear-based intentions. And as we scramble to keep our vulnerable secret we end up manifesting a whole bunch of unhealthy habits, behaviors, and attitudes along the way. With every protective step we validate what we mistakenly feared from the start: that there’s something wrong with us. We’re so busy protecting ourselves from the rest of the world that we don’t stop to think about protecting ourselves from our own reactions, our own behavior.
That, in a nutshell, is my story. A bit backwards, but I wound up in that place of being stifled by fear, which seems increasingly common. By the time I was six years old I developed the nervous habit of biting my tongue; before I was seven I bit so hard and so often that I punctured it. It was that early on in my life that I was saddled with the vulnerability: the diagnosis – only, I was too young to know or care what it meant. So I went along in my childhood with my nervous habits, bolstered by one of the most supportive families you could imagine and anchored by my natural introversion, my aptitude for creativity and play. But as I grew into a grown-up mind I grew into a grown-up awareness. I shouldered the grown-up misconception that vulnerabilities are safest when they’re kept locked away, when they’re kept reminded of their status as “weakness”. Now, though, I’ve come to understand the fatal flaw in that practice. It encourages fear – avoidance, shame, all the weighty struggles – and it manifests the perception of not being good enough.
This year, I’ve been on a journey to relearn my grown-up mindset and to correct the mistakes that my fear made in its attempts to do its job (keeping me safe). I stopped smothering the vulnerability; I faced, for the first time as an adult, the clinical aspect of how my anxiety had grown and what it had bred, and I’ve begun reshaping a clinical vulnerability into a vital truth. My vital truth is that I have severe social anxiety. It crippled me, but I’m learning to thrive.
The perceived nature of vulnerabilities is that they’re weaknesses, but I think that’s wrong. I think sometimes what makes us vulnerable is our greatest source of strength, because it teaches us strong things: like courage and how to love and what it takes to be kind. I’m grateful for my vulnerability because it’s put me on a path of learning self-compassion, gentleness, and living from a place of simple grace. It’s been the motivation to develop practices that let me connect to life in ways I never would have imagined. Even though it can sometimes be hard to leave the house and it’s always hard to make eye contact with strangers; even though at twenty-six big achievements can sometimes be seemingly small things like driving a car or making a phone call; even though it’s easy to feel stunted and fearful and embarrassed, the practices of learning to live in love rather than fear have made me feel just as in-touch with – and part of – the beauty of life as someone who travels the world.
These practices are, collectively, the process of nurturing the courage that was born within and encouraging it to grow large enough to someday become a place to dwell, a place to make decisions from. For me, as for so many people, that’s the journey. And the first step is to embrace our vital, vulnerable truths.