When my daughter’s sleep disturbances first began, I didn’t realize she was in the early stages of colic, which has nothing to do with hunger. Like many parents, I found a way to blame myself, wrongly believing that I was not producing enough milk, hence, wrongly believing she was slowly starving. The nights of her crying non-stop were getting raw. I felt so much pressure from within and out to feed her breast milk exclusively, and had wedged myself into a corner. I stopped talking about it, because I was ashamed of the total lack of love I felt for breastfeeding. I’d believed it would be a blissful and bonding experience for us, like it is for most moms and babies. I didn’t know this had nothing to do with milk. I was losing my grip.
Enter my sister-in-law, Traci. She’s on the bad-ass list, and I was beyond ready for her visit. I’d planned to have everything sorted out by then, so she could just bond with her new niece, and we could sip decaf while wearing cute velour sweat pants and talking about how awesome it is to be a mom. The version of me she actually encountered? A total mess. I melted into her hug, and she said, “Sissie, talk to me.”
The reasons people struggle with vulnerability are endless. I’ll share my personal top three.
- “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me.” As a therapist, I am very adept at identifying what my clients are feeling, but my internal gauge is flawed. My family of origin had some great attributes, but one of our challenges was emotional repression. Feelings were not discussed or reflected. As an adult I have to work hard to identify what I’m feeling, let alone deal with it or describe it to others.
- “I don’t want to burden anyone.” Part of repression comes from an irrational fear that the messiness of your feelings could actually harm someone (from negatively impacting their mood, to the extreme of actually physically injuring them). Not to mention the risk of judgement, my most feared version being that people will think I want pity. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes, “We can’t let ourselves be seen if we’re terrified by what people might think. Often, ‘not being good at vulnerability’ means that we’re damn good at shame.”
- “Other people have it way worse.” This is true. When I listen to my clients and friends, I marvel at what they’ve had to overcome just to function, let alone open themselves to trusting me or anyone else. Rising to a global view, things can look horrific. My hypocrisy enters here, because I never comparatively quantify others’ feelings. I reserve all the judgement for myself.
I pushed through it all with Traci, because I felt I had no choice. Disclaimer: I might have dreamed this exchange, because I was sleep deprived. But, I like this version, so it will go down in the annals (Freud made me use that word) as truth. “I’m not okay I’m freaking out she won’t stop crying all night and I think it’s because I’m not producing enough milk and she’s starving and people keep saying I’ll feel it when my milk ‘lets down’ but I don’t feel shit and when I squeeze my boob nothing comes out should I show you? no? what if she starves?” I caught my breath, and Traci, in her beautiful, strong voice said, “Hey. Rita. It’s going to be okay.”
Why’d she call me Rita? That’s her pet name for when I get worked into a mash-up of excitement, anxiety and neurotic hyper-focus. She once accompanied me on a mission to buy a used silver Honda Accord. I tracked one down, and was told on the phone to meet with a salesperson named Rita. In this case, Excitement = a silver Accord…wheee! Anxiety = the last silver Accord on the planet will be sold out from under me. Neurotic Hyper-Focus = I must find Rita, immediately, and at all costs. When we entered the dealership, I walked, fast, up to the first four salespeople I encountered, one of whom was a man, thrusting my hand forward in a firm, “I’m no sucka” shake, exclaiming, “Hiiii, Rita! Are you Rita???” while Traci stood slightly behind me, shrugging her shoulders apologetically at each non-Rita, silently mouthing, “Meth.”
I cried out my fears, and she just sat with me. Then she picked up my daughter and said, “Look at her.” I did. I saw a round, vibrant face. Little rolls of fat on her legs. Sustained. Traci said, “Forest for the trees. She’s okay, and she’s going to be okay. We will figure this out, but she’s not starving. You are doing an amazing job.” Fear drained out of me, replaced by clear vision.
My friend Dennis is surviving cancer, and intimate with death. I take what he says seriously. His theory on pain and joy is that everyone gets numbered slices of each. The slices are utterly disproportionate across people and from my limited view, there’s no explanation. Certainly no justification. I only know that I feel the warmest and most purposeful when people share their pain and joy with me, I see myself in it, and I grow from the reflection. And when I share my pain and joy with them, and they are released to see and share their own more freely. The opposite of this warmth is alienation. I won’t dilute this: alienation kills.
Think you’re protecting yourself by hiding your real? You’re not. You’re likely too close to your situation to see clearly, your face pressed against a Seurat. Opening yourself to others’ light allows you out of the patterns trapping you in your corner. Think you’re protecting others? You’re not. You’re alienating them, depriving them of potential growth as they see themselves in you, feel closer to you, and naturally share their own real. If you have someone you already trust, lean into them. Take them to your crazy town, and air out your fears. If you feel you don’t have anyone, try building trust with a therapist. If you try and the therapist sucks or just isn’t the right fit, try someone else (I went to several before I found my Elaine). Just spill it. We need each other. It’s how we’re wired.
Here’s To Sanity and Rita,
Traci Dunbar says
My lovely Rita, I adore you and I cherish the memory of the time that we bonded as moms for the first time. The times that I talked to you when I was going bat-shit crazy in Switzerland with my sick boy, provided me with the comfort that, even though I was experiencing my own Rita alter ego, you love me know-matter-what . Bottom line – we.need.each.other.