I’m writing with a deceptively simple question. How can I be vulnerable? Some pertinent background: I’m an academic, working in a field that requires me to live in very remote places for extended periods of time. I find my work incredibly engaging and rewarding, and I know I’m lucky in this regard. Still, the life of an academic (particularly a traveling academic) is often isolating. I don’t have a place to call home. My family is deeply dysfunctional; although I love my parents and siblings, our relationships are fraught and I have never felt unconditionally loved by my parents. I was diagnosed as a child with OCD, and spent a great deal of my youth feeling broken and inadequate (a feeling my parents intensified by approaching my disorder punitively). From a young age, I learned that I couldn’t count on anyone to take care of me except myself. This stubborn independence has served me well in my chosen field, but it has complicated my relationships. I have wonderful friends scattered across the world, but the distance adds to the wall I have built around myself; I have a hard time truly letting people in.
My romantic relationships have also been complicated–sometimes I settle for men who aren’t a good fit, just because I know I can rely on them. Other times, I ruin relationships because of my raw neediness for love, which leads my partners to take me for granted and belittle me. My current boyfriend is in many ways a great fit—fiercely intelligent, bitingly funny, supportive of the demands of my career—but he thinks of me as "clingy," and this terrifies me. I don’t know if I’m happy in our relationship.
Recently, I underwent a medical crisis that required me to return to the States for treatment. Alone and incapacitated in a city where I knew no one, I had to confront the ways in which I have isolated myself. It’s a paradox: I never hesitate to be there for friends when they’re in crisis, but I can’t be honest about my own insecurities. I feel so grotesquely needy, but I can’t ask for help. I recognize that my desire to be selfless and untouchable is actually selfish—I would be a better friend, a better partner, a better person, if I could be more vulnerable. But how do I do that without morphing into the whiny, broken person I’m so afraid of becoming? How do I balance the demands of my career with my desire for a permanent home and a lifelong relationship? If I give up my work, I fear I’ll let go of my sense of purpose in life.
Thank you so much for any insight you have to this dilemma. I know my question is nebulous and hard to answer, but I always value your insight.
Hard Shell, Soft Chewy Center
I'm so glad you wrote to me, because I've been pondering the paradox of survival vs. vulnerability a lot lately. I look at my two young daughters, twirling in their dresses and giggling and making friends and just generally frolicking with the bubbly rainbow unicorns (when they're not threatening to kill each other with their bare hands), and part of me wants them to be tough, tough, TOUGH more than anything else. I want them to be strong enough and resilient enough to tell all naysayers and girl-haters to fuck themselves. I want them to do exactly what they love with their lives without questioning themselves and wondering what everyone thinks of them every step of the way.
I was tough, thanks to the fact that my parents were pretty focused on toughness. I was extremely sensitive underneath the toughness, of course, but no one needed to know that. I had bluster, swagger and a devil-may-care attitude. I knew I was unique and funny and full of ideas—or at least I knew how to pretend that I was confident in these things.
But the coping methods that get us through a rocky childhood among unyielding parents and critical siblings, the tools that help us survive those Lord of the Flies teen years, the strategies we use to secure graduate degrees and good jobs, the tricks we employ to attract funny, confident, successful men are not always the same things that bring us true happiness and satisfaction in life. They might help up to age 30, but after that, toughness and bluster and overconfidence can seriously hamper hopes for intimacy and stability and long-term satisfaction.
"IS THIS SOME ANTI-FEMINIST DON'T BE BOSSY BULLSHIT YOU'RE ABOUT TO FEED ME?"
Fuck no. All I want to say is this: You are a false advertisement. You appear to be a carefree, independent, globe-trotting academic—the living, breathing dream of every flinchy motherfucker on earth. You seem tough and engaged in what you do—and why shouldn't you? You ARE tough. You ARE fully engaged with your work. You DO love your life.
But you're also something else. You're also soft and squishy and you hate that part of yourself. When the softness comes out, there's anger there. You're ashamed. You serve up your softness with shame because that's what you were taught to do when you were little. "This is not how you make friends, I know that. This is how you make people hate you," you say, in tears. "I know I'm gross. I know you don't want this."
But it's not JUST that you're serving up softness with a grimace and saying, "YOU WILL HATE THE TASTE OF THIS, LET ME APOLOGIZE IN ADVANCE." No. It's also that you're always in the company of some dude who doesn't like vulnerability. You date guys who see vulnerability—which is the very heart and soul of who you are—as weakness. You are with a guy who takes the very best of you, the rawest and most sincere essence of you, and he says, "I don't like this clingy thing you do. I know your history with your parents. I can understand why my indifference feels like rejection. But I don't care. This clingy thing is inconvenient to me, so you should stomp it into submission."
And isn't that exactly what your parents told you to do?
Forget him. I'm not saying he's a bad guy. He wanted a tough academic lady who'd never whimper to him. But that's not who you are. If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: You can't resolve not to be clingy. You have to feel understood and supported, and then you’ll—quite naturally—be less emotionally needy, because you'll trust that the guy you're with is there for you, and can accept every part of you, come hell or high water.
Sure, you could take a stand. You could say, "No, I'm not clingy. I'm a human being with emotions and needs. You can either show up and be a good boyfriend, or you can hit the road." Sometimes a guy will wake up and take notice when you make it clear that showing up isn't optional. But if he doesn’t do that, you really should think about moving on. Working on your vulnerability with someone who secretly (or not-so-secretly) hates vulnerability really, really doesn't work.
This isn't about him, anyway. This is about your relationship with yourself. It's also about how you relate to your female friends. You may have to work on those two parts of your life before you can successfully pursue romantic love or a long-term emotional commitment. Basically, you need to practice sounding like a whiny, broken person without getting angry at yourself for it. You have to be this way and accept it and allow it and stop hating it. That's the first step. You have to let the ugly, needy shit in and let it exist without spreading your fear and loathing all over it. You have to make room for cryface and learn to see it as beautiful.
That can be tough to do on your own. I'd get a therapist, and cry to her. Her, not him. Because I'm pretty sure from what you wrote that your intimacy issues start with women and will be healed more quickly/effectively in the presence of a woman. If you're thinking "Oh no, I'd really rather have a male therapist!"? That might actually be your love of toughness and denial and pushing down all softness talking.
Ok, so whiny, broken cryface in the presence of a therapist is not insanely groundbreaking, but it's a start. What you have to do after that is whip out the broken cryface in the company of a good female friend. This means you have to select one friend, explain to her that you need to try to be more vulnerable even though it feels totally weird, and warn her that you may call her JUST TO CRY sometimes. Yes. Embarrassing. But important. It helps. It's good for you and good for your friend, too.
Do you have a friend who could handle this? If you don't, then stick with the therapist for now.
Personally, this was a big deal for me. I never would've found and accepted a guy who's smart and funny and ok with softness and vulnerability if I hadn't learned to cry to a friend of mine first. Crying to a close female friend is a way of saying, "See, this is me. I know it's not incredibly fun and entertaining but it's not repugnant and hideous and shitty either. I'm just a person, leaning on another person. This is what people do, and they shouldn't have to feel ashamed or terrible when they do it."
When I was younger, I thought my purpose was to entertain people. I thought I was boring other people if I couldn't entertain them. If I talked about emotions, it had to be a joke. Just being NEUTRAL, having nothing to say, being a person in the room, was unacceptable. I was the charming gabby one who kept everything afloat. And being sad? No one wanted that.
I used to have nightmares about being a hideous monster surrounded by regular people who felt sure I would eat them. No matter what I said, everyone would run away from me, screaming. Being myself meant scaring the shit out of other people. Expressing my emotions was as bad as chasing people and eating them whole. I believed, as you do, that I WAS SO GROTESQUELY NEEDY.
For a while when I was in my late 20s, I wrote songs about this, about monsters who clean up well and pretend to be normal, but who can never truly be loved. One song had the line "I want you more than I want myself." I think that's where you always land when you're not showing your true self. You work really fucking hard and you focus on the other person and you entertain and charm and keep the conversation flowing, and you don't even care if you lose yourself along the way. Maybe that's the point. You either date guys who are indifferent, and that makes you clingy, or you date guys who aren't all that impressive—because maybe then they won't leave you?—and you get clingy anyway. You work hard to put the not-that-great guys on a pedestal. The focus is on them, so you don't have to feel your own feelings or think your own thoughts. But the more you focus on them, the more you imagine that they're about to reject you, just like everyone else has. Or as I described it in my monster song, I'd sit around "[f]eeling small, watching your shadows of doubt play on the wall."
Breaking this habit is an enormous and daunting task. Even if you reject the flinchy dudes, that doesn't mean you're suddenly going to accept a sincere dude who pays close attention to you. Who wants someone to meet the monster? Anyone who accepts the monster must be kind of a dork and a loser, right?
The bottom line is that it's very sad, to feel so angry at YOUR VERY SOUL. To rip your soft, chewy center out and hide it under the floorboards? That goes against everything pure and real and good in the world. So we have to take that monster and turn it into a gentle lamb—not by changing the monster, but changing our perception of her. First YOU have to love the monster. Invite the monster in, let it cry. Embrace the cryface.
I know, it's embarrassing and blech, so uncool. This world fucking hates honest, soft, open, emoting women. HATES HATES HATES us. We are the giant oozing sores of the universe. Why? Why do we prefer people with blank Frankenstein expressions, or worse, painted-on professional smiles, and loathe the cryface? Why do we hate weakness so much?
All I can tell you is that embracing cryface has made my life so much better. The tears flow over the craziest stuff—singing competitions, sad songs, the endings of good essays and great books.
Also, fuck the word "clingy." Does he want a girlfriend or not? If you're not calling him around the clock and freaking out, he shouldn't give you a hard time about looking for a tiny shred of emotional sustenance from THE PERSON YOU ARE IN AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP WITH. Jesus Christ. There are so many NEW ways for Mr. Flinchy to be evasive and freakish these days. There are new advanced levels of Fuck and Run being played out there, there are new insanely high scores being racked up in the game of Sexual Assassin, enabled by dating sites and social media. Sexual predators who don't mind playing faintly human-like versions of themselves online have it pretty goddamn good these days.
And it's sad. Because somehow, a lot of people think that their emptiness is going to be filled by tricking a lot of people into sleeping with them. Or they assume that real, shared intimacy is just an elaborate trap set by needy, empty women. It's hard not to wonder if we aren't hollowing ourselves out, taking the lowest common denominator among us and telling ourselves stories about how they represent everyone else. But luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. Luminous fucking beings with soft, gorgeous feelings that, if they're invited in, will blossom into something rich and layered and inspiring. So let's not paint ourselves as monsters who cling.
Once you invite the soft, emotional part of you to live with the rest of you instead of being banished to the closet around the clock, once you accept and allow space for that part of you, you will naturally reshuffle your priorities. You can't THINK your way to a solution here, either with your boyfriend or with your dilemmas about balancing your career with your need for a long-term home.
It's a long process. See a therapist. Lean on a close friend, and if that's not possible, work on making your friendships closer. You CAN count on other people. You need to learn to see that, to know it. But mostly, you need to believe that your whiny, broken self is also your best self. It's hard to believe that. It feels almost absurd. But that's where it all begins, somehow. It begins with loving that whiny, broken self, until it's not whiny or broken at all, it's just REAL. You have to love what's real. YOU have to do it first, before anyone else can do it, to show yourself that it's possible.
Your toughness will not dissolve into thin air and leave you powerless. You will still be an adaptive animal. But you will no longer be an invention, imaginary, pretend. You will no longer need disguises. You will no longer accept excuses. And later down the road, you will be supported and loved for what's real for the first time, and it will feel incredible.
Are you a brittle, hard candy shell but want to be smooth and infinitely flexible and resilient like Laffy Taffy? Write to Polly and discuss!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.
Photo by Michelle Bender