What I believed to be two weaknesses that would set me up for disappointment, ended up being what made me stronger and capable of truly connecting.
I often find myself thinking about the past and trying to remember as much as possible. Melancholy seems to fit me pretty well. But it isn’t always easy, especially when I look back at hard times.
It took me long enough to actually reflect at many events from the past year, but I got to the point in which I knew I was on the other side: a more joyful and positive one. So that was when I could think deeply about what changed and what made me come out to a somehow new place.
Both vulnerability and empathy seem to enclose everything I went through and at the same time what made me stronger. It’s funny though because both terms had always meant weakness to me and whenever I thought about opening up or putting myself on someone else’s shoes, I thought I would be set up for disappointment, loss and ultimately regret.
Turns out I was wrong.
I am going to cite one of my favorite speakers, researchers, and overall public figures, Brené Brown, for the matter of explaining vulnerability and empathy:
> I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty.
> Four qualities of empathy: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, […] recognizing emotion in other people and then communicating that. Empathy is feeling with people.
I am not a social expert at all. Here I am talking only from my own experience, a point of view and finally an understanding of my own path thanks to what I get from vulnerability and empathy.
Consciously and unconsciously I went through both in a process of self-discovery and self-improvement that allowed me to feel better about myself and those close to me.
Why I had to disclose that this made me a stronger man
Being a man shouldn’t be a differential factor in this discussion, but sadly it still is. As a man who grew up in a patriarchal society, I can safely say that I used to have other male referents that taught me that I had to be tough and hide everything in order to be a strong man. In my journey, I knew that I was never like that. To be a man I didn’t have to be a certain way, but fighting that was not easy. Being strong to me means being able to deal with my emotional baggage, open up and connecting in a way in which my genre doesn’t put me in a position of privilege or disadvantage.
Being honest made me vulnerable
When we have so many referents to look at, like we do in the social media era, it is difficult to stay true to ourselves, even more so if we don’t fit in those perfect lifestyles. We change every single day due to personal experiences and new information, but I believe our core selves are pretty regular. Yet, in the hurry of fitting in and being accepted, we can end up pretending or hiding certain things out of fear.
More than that, we tend to avoid honesty because it exposes us. I was afraid of that, I was even afraid to expose my own self to myself and it wasn’t until I was ready for that to change that I couldn’t be vulnerable with someone else and accept the risk of it.
Vulnerability comes with discomfort, we’re letting ourselves be exposed and we don’t know if people around us will value and cherish what we are putting out. This is not about showing off or being extremely vocal about ourselves no matter what, but about being brave enough to speak our truth and put a light on ourselves when needed, hoping that it leads to a safe connection.
Vulnerability led me to empathy
I found out that vulnerability is not a one-way practice. There’s a second step which is being able to take someone else’s vulnerability and be empathic about it.
Communication is done in a two-way trip, and connecting with someone in whatever level is as well. Being able to be empathic with someone else’s vulnerability is essential for me to understand myself, the other person, and end up truly connecting like I managed to do with the relationships I already had and the new ones I formed.
It took me a while (and still does) to realize that we can’t expect someone to trust us if we don’t trust them either, which sometimes means taking the first step. We tend to shield ourselves in order to protect us from hurt and disappointment, but the truth is that we won’t be able to truly defeat those negative outcomes if we don’t open up and let others be vulnerable with us. It wasn’t until I threw away my shield that I felt the difference and realized that the risk is worth it and that it only gets better if the other person opens up as well.
Whoever gives the first step isn’t the bravest, there’s equal braveness in listening. But once we put ourselves in the other person’s place instead of just listening (which has nothing wrong and sometimes is the best practice), we begin to understand our own vulnerability, it becomes a two way connection that doesn’t result in a simple “it’s gonna be okay” or “I hear you”.
The issue with empathy
What if I said I have always been somehow empathic? I could even say I am a people pleaser by nature and that would also be affirmative. The deal here is that I have always had the tendency of putting other people first no matter what.
And as with everything, any extreme is bad. If we’re too selfish we’re not gonna be able to truly connect with someone because of our lack of empathy even if we’re vulnerable enough. But if we’re too empathetic like I tend to be, we may truly forget about ourselves and people can take advantage of it.
Empathy is a vulnerable choice
I have found myself in that position multiple times with many people, and it is still difficult to control. The trick, I believe, is on setting limits and being able to see when we’re not taking care of ourselves at all because of other people, especially if they are not giving at least a tiny bit back of that empathy.
I’ve been lucky enough to count with people who have not really taken advantage of it and even some that have told me that they don’t want to see other people hurting me for it. This is not something that is easy to limit, especially because I believe it is the right way to be, being empathic; but it is something that can be worked on.
Ultimately, vulnerability and empathy win
No matter how risky and difficult it is to be vulnerable and empathetic, I can safely say now that both provide the right path towards human connection and personal wellness. When I allowed myself to be honest, then vulnerable and finally empathetic, I knew that all those elements I had seen as weaknesses were strengths that I was afraid to use because society had told me to be tough and selfish.
By being vulnerable I have discovered sides of me that otherwise I would have never seen, I feel way more comfortable opening up because it means that I am being genuine and not the product of a social trend. And by being vulnerable I was also able to get new perspectives from those who cared enough to listen and be empathic with me on any level.
It comes with great satisfaction to know that I have been honest with myself and others, that I allowed myself to be vulnerable and therefore to be free and genuine, and that I was able to listen to someone and truly be there for them by being empathetic.