On Being Vulnerable: Tables Turned

On Being Vulnerable: Tables Turned

In my role as a massage therapist, I hold space for people. Everyday. And I enjoy this–in fact I love it. It is part of why I am so drawn to bodywork. Done with intention and presence, the act of bodywork, of touching another human being with care, respect and dignity, holds space for someone like none other. I’ve witnessed dozens of people pour out their rough day and their life stories, I’ve been present while they processed some of their grief, heartache, loneliness, failed relationships, their sense of not belonging, of rudderlessness; their emotional pain stemming from years of chronic physical pain, the loss of who they once were because of this, and how they see themselves now. It also isn’t unusual for people in this space to contemplate out loud the meaning of life as they see it, the cosmos, the otherworldly.

Today I was on the receiving end of holding space. I’ve had a lot going on myself the past few months, stemming from things that have been playing out for years. As probably most people can relate to, this waxes and wanes. As I’ve gotten older, I have longer and longer periods of feeling really great, of living my truth, but there are times that are still quite the opposite. Today was one of those times. I’ll spare the details of what I felt safe to cry about on the massage table, and just leave it that they are heavy duty, long-standing, and a handful of people truly know much about them, knowing just about as much as another person can without being the person. And I thank them for holding space for me, they’ve been a key part in getting me through bad times, along with my own stubborn determination.

Even at that, I have a hard time laying these burdens down, as I feel like I’m burdening the other person with my troubles. I mean, I’m supposed to be the one who helps others feel better, not the other way around, right? Nope, not exactly. I may carry this idea in my head at times, but I know that in order to hold space for others, occasionally I need someone there for me, I need to show my vulnerability, in order to help others heal themselves. As much as the term “healer” is one I prefer not to use, the path of one is almost by definition fraught with sorrow and/or impactful trauma of some sort. Not to say that healer types bring these things upon themselves, but it is not uncommon for them to attract the sorts of situations that bring pain because of their giving and empathic nature. If a “healer” (and this means anyone–you are your own best healer) can work with or even “through” this pain, if they can face and even welcome this vulnerability, then they can connect with others in a real way, and are able to hold space for another in a compassionate, empathetic, non-judgmental and loving way.   

But back to the massage I was going to receive today. I’d been looking forward to my massage—it had been a few weeks (in my opinion, a bit too long to go for a bodyworker) and I was ready to get a few kinks smoothed out and to just lie on the table for an hour or ninety minutes. I could feel it the instant she lay her hands on me: today was going to be different than most, the potential emotional release was creeping in. I’ve been trading with this other massage therapist for several months now, every other week. We are a good fit, I enjoy her work, her company and her personality. She has a very loving and kind spirit. I felt safe.

I’m not a closed off person, but neither am I going to let it all go in front of just anyone. There has to be a sense of trust. With some people I feel this instantly, with others it builds over time, or not at all. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a scary thing and big deal for most of us. For some it is easier than others, and for others it never happens–which is very sad, because being vulnerable allows you to make connections, often deep ones. And I allowed that vulnerability to happen—I could have held it back, with determination, but I allowed it to wash over me because I knew it needed to happen. The result was a deeper bond forged between us through our discovery of several experiences we have, uncannily, in common. I believe some people are drawn together for a reason, as if we have invisible little vibes that seek each other out to resonate harmonically, to connect.

Connection is one of the defining human experiences, if not the defining one. Tragically, our culture shames vulnerability as evidence of weakness, when in actuality, exposing yourself to the unknown, the uncertain, the lack of guarantee of reciprocation, of love, of understanding, takes great courage. Its rewards are often that which we fear we will push away. According to vulnerability researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown, what many of us don’t realize is that, “Vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave…vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.”

There is also the allowance of being vulnerable with oneself, of admitting and examining the thoughts and feelings we try to push away for whatever reasons. Mine this morning (they tend to sneak back in to my “favorites playlist” minus most of the aforementioned heavy hitters), were feelings of being a crappy mother no matter what I do, of not being seen for me, of seeming ridiculous, of being unremarkable, of being measured and judged summarily without due process then dismissed, of being an outsider and of feeling that all of these feelings were feelings I should not think about or have (hello culture of positivity) instead of embracing them for what they are. I went ahead to a brunch with a group of visual artists, feeling some of these things (then the outsider thing cropped up during the brunch), and I found out it wasn’t the place for me. It just brought up some stuff/stories I’ve worked hard to be able to dismiss and some of the types of situations I’ve decided I don’t need in my life. It’s just not the place for me right now—I don’t vibe there. So, no, you don’t always gain from making yourself vulnerable, at least not immediately besides knowing what you can cut out of your life. Even so, I’m glad I went, because I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t, and who knows, maybe there was a connection or meaningfulness there that I just didn’t see.

There was that moment of vulnerability on the table for me today, and that’s good for the reasons above and also because it reminds me of the position one can be in when they come to get work from me. Yet, the bigger degree of vulnerability today is right now, as I am writing this piece and contemplating sharing it. But I will share it, for the chance that it holds space for someone else, that in some way someone feels recognized, feels heard, is prompted to let their vulnerability show just a little more, is somehow, by some degree, served by reading it, even if that someone is me. That outweighs the discomfort and fear of letting myself be vulnerable by sharing it.

My reservations about sharing this piece were numerous. I asked myself: Do I have anything new to say about vulnerability? Will people think I’m emotionally unstable or without boundaries by revealing this personal experience? Will they think I’ve no business holding space for people everyday if I need someone to hold mine? Will it look like I dashed this off in ten minutes? Do I care? (I just need to get my point across, not win the Pulitzer.) Will I look like a prima donna? Do people think I lead a charmed life? Do they even care? (Probably not.) Will people even notice? Will they dissect my writing, finding all the bad grammar and typos and missing the point? Does anyone even care about the point? Should I edit it several times and pare it down or just put it out there? Does anyone care what I have to say anyway? Will they just dismiss it and say “Oh, here’s another rambling post from that former M.D. turned massage therapist (what’s THAT about?) who really likes her new red shoes and making not THAT funny Facebook posts about crappy looking soccer shirts with her business name on them with those RED shoes in the photo. Woo-hoo, big deal, rough life!” In the end, it really doesn’t matter, because putting yourself out there usually reaps rewards, eventually. If you don’t have the courage to fail, then you don’t have the courage to really live, and I choose living fully.