At Arm’s Length

I don’t bite, but please don’t come any closer. (Taken by my best friend for her B&W Photography 101 Class)

When I first meet someone, I tend to keep my mouth shut and smile.

Talking to an old friend over coffee is nice. I just listen intently and nod as they share their stories.

When I talk to acquaintances or exchange emails with my blog readers, I hear time and time again,

You’re so honest and genuine, yet…I feel like you’re holding back.

And when I go on to ask what I should do differently,

Let us get to know the real Erin. What is a typical day like for you? What makes you come alive? What do you do when you’re not writing?

My initial response is usually a slightly defensive sigh and perhaps an eye roll. Then I pause and wonder, Do I really come across as aloof? The fact that the same critique continues to come up–both in real life and within the realm of blogging–makes me believe that maybe I am suppressing and concealing parts of who I am. A pocketful of bright confetti strips, stuffed into the dark depths of my favorite jeans, secretly longing for the freedom to carelessly flail about in the wind.

For years, I’ve been picking at the outer seams, cautiously tucking my colorful idiosyncrasies further and further from view. For years, I’ve been attempting to understand how it is that I can be seen as authentic and relatable, yet simultaneously apprehensive and unfeeling. Somehow both a mass of charged energy and a complete enigma.

I think I compartmentalize topics into safe zones while sectioning off others with caution tape. Make yourself at home in the living room, but don’t you dare peek into my son’s filthy bedroom! I’ve always been good at analytic problem-solving, so I want to talk about about how to optimize your work space because I can actually help; I absolutely love yoga, but I’ve only been practicing for a year, so I don’t feel I’m experienced enough to offer any helpful insights. It feels as if some doors have been swung wide open and others are dead-bolted shut, without my realizing it and against my will.

I recently met up with my cousin for dinner. He’s five years older than me, so he has always been like a big brother. There has always been lots of teasing and he has always been my strongest role model and mentor. Though we’re different in nearly every way imaginable, he never fails to give me a new perspective. It’s the kind of relationship money could never buy. 

A year ago, the two of us drove together on a road trip to California, and at one point he asked me, “If you could be anywhere right now, doing anything….what would it be? It was a tough question for me, and I never ended up offering an answer. I still don’t have an answer, in all honesty. Even if I did, I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel sharing it. My dreams seem fluid and fleeting, a string of unrelated and contradictory hopes and longings.

In talking to to my cousin over sushi, I shared some of the things I hope to do in the next several years. He smirked and replied, “I can’t see you doing any of that. Really think about it… Can you?” Yes…I mean…I don’t know. He made me question myself, which was slightly perturbing. But worse yet, he was convinced that 1) I won’t go back to school, 2) that I’ll jump at the first chance to move across the country or across the world, 3) and that if I meet the “right guy,” I’ll be as good as gone. I was completely taken aback. Is he projecting his own life onto me? Does he know something I don’t? Or does one of the people I’m most honest an open with see me in a completely different light than I see myself–a completely different version of “me” than I’m trying to convey? It was an eye-opening evening for me, though I still haven’t figured out exactly what it is that I’m supposed to be seeing…

I don’t have my life together, and I often beat myself up over that. I can’t decide what book to read next, let alone what I want to do with my life. I try to do everything, I give up on everything, and then suffer asphyxiating panic attacks because I’m not doing anything. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m highly allergic to peanuts and if any of you have food allergies, it’s that feeling. For everyone else, I’d describe it as an external crushing paired with an internal swarming and swelling. I sometimes feel like I’m dying, just because my ducks are out enjoying the water, rather than lining up at my feet.

No one has their life together. I am fully aware of this. Yet, I still set unrealistically high standards for myself. I still, somehow, expect myself to do it ALL and to continually function at 110%. Cue Friend #1 to walk up, slap me, and then give me a hug and tell me to lighten up.

Sometimes I get so scared of failure and not being enough that I bury those insecurities and then decorate that unstable little sand castle with my shiny and ornate superfluous parts.  The things we do, the ways in which we attempt to compensate for and hide our perceived shortcomings are pernicious. A subtle and insidious erosion that, with time, can begin to seem normal.

I recently read (and heavily marked up) Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. The subtitle —How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead–says it all. Being vulnerable requires courage. And being vulnerable can positively transform how we go about our lives and how we interact with others.

Vulnerability has always been a struggle for me. I don’t feel comfortable speaking up, standing up for others, or revealing things that could potentially be turned against me. I’ll do any of these uncomfortable things when I feel that the gains outweigh the risks, but that’s admittedly not very often. Though I don’t understand that aloofness that seems to permeate my presence, on some level, I do. It manifests itself as a heaviness, anxiety, and sense of inadequacy. When I want to say something and then think better of it, I can physically feel the knots and the lumps growing in my. My pockets are bulging with multitudes of mylar, but there’s something unsettling about being the only one in a austere room tossing up confetti for no better reason than to just release it into the world.

Alright, Erin, so you’ve taken all of these classes and read dozens of books on the psychology of  happiness and well-being. You’ve studied interpersonal relationships, vulnerability, uncertainty, cognition, and more. Shouldn’t you understand how to stop fending off friends by now? Don’t you know how to change? Hypothetically, an exuberant YES! In practice, it’s a bit more complex, simply because vulnerability requires habituating a practice. It takes time and a continued effort to break out of our comfort zones and explore new (and potentially better) territories. When you put up walls, you’re not protecting yourself from getting hurt; you’re isolating yourself from people who actually care and shutting out countless magnificent opportunities. Just out of reach is the worst place to be, the worst place to hold someone else.

Vulnerability is something that I need to work on. I just need to figure out where to begin.


45 thoughts on “At Arm’s Length

  1. You too? People have been saying the same thing to me (for years) and it seems the more I try to change or ‘overcome’ this, the worse I feel. But whenever I say “F-it” and follow my inner promptings (usually to keep quiet & speak only when it feels right – not because I ‘should’ ) things work better and others stop their complaining… often though, I run into those who just want to change who I am because I’m not like them or they want something from me (drainers) – these I move away from.
    Vulnerability is different.
    Little as I know you, I like who you are… lighten up 🙂

    • Thank you–it’s always reassuring to know that we’re not alone in our experiences. Now that you mention it, I’ve also noticed that doing what feels right, as opposed to what’s expected is the best option. I tend to be a people-pleaser, so when I encounter a “drainer,” I tend to stick around until I have nothing left. Accruing the ability to move away from those type of less-than-healthy relationships would be a big first step for me. Thanks! 🙂

      • People pleaser? Yeah, me too… it’s a tough thing to change – especially if you are sensitive and like to see people happy… right path & balance.
        Hey check this out:
        Susan Cain: The power of introverts

        It’s only about 20 minutes and I think you might find it worth the time (hope so anyway).

      • It is important to find that balance–tricky, but well worth it. I actually have seen the TED talk (several times) and I would also recommend her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s one of my new all-time favorites!

    • You’re welcome, and I hope you gained something from it. It is difficult to write anything to personal, but I’ve found writing about something and releasing fears and insecurities into the big, wild world help dissipate them, and makes them seem more conquerable.

  2. So strange, I too am the same way. I really don’t see anything wrong. We are not all alike or the same . As much as people preach about acceptance, maybe we are normal and something is wrong with them…. Nothing wrong with you or me or anyone else like us. I have been told never to change who I am to make others happy. Well!!! There it is. Don’t change.

    • You preach it!! You’re absolutely right–we’re always told not to change who we are to make other happy, and even though society and individuals will nudge us to change, we just need to learn to stand tall on our own to feet and be true to ourselves, imperfections and all. Thank you so much, this really made me smile. 🙂

  3. I agree with SprinklinThoughts. You are who you are. If there is some area YOU really want to grow in…..then YOU can press forward. If it is simply what OTHERS are offering to you as advice, skip it. I like to live my life by noticing the moments that make me happy and then capitalizing on those. Watching my garden produce a bountiful harvest, heading out on the trail with my horse, snuggling in our new travel trailer at a campground after a day outdoors.

    • That is such a great piece of advice–the little happy moments are the best, so why get hung up on what other people think when you could be enjoying nature and things that you are truly passionate about. I’ve noticed that the happiest and most successful people are those who discover something they love and stick to it, regardless of what other people say–that something we should all strive for. Thanks!

  4. I never got that impression from you. In fact, I thought you seemed to take care about what you would say when we talked because you wanted to give an honest and heartfelt answer. LOVE the picture, by the way!

    • I see myself as someone who only speaks when I have something worthwhile to say, so I’m pleased to hear at least one person gets that impression. 🙂 Thanks–she’s so great with the camera, and it was a fun project to help her out with.

    • Thank you, Joss. Your answers are always the simplest, and always the best. To get out of my head and listen to my heart is exactly when I need to do. I hope you’re having a beautiful week and enjoying the shift in weather. 🙂

      • oh thank you. I almost didn’t comment. but then, it’s what my heart wanted to share with you. Be gentle with yourself, always.

  5. Well, I think that it’s important to embrace who you are, but this is obviously something that is causing you unhappiness. Just from briefly reading through your blog, I’ve learned a lot about your goals, and you’re obviously smart and driven. You seem good at planning and analyzing, but there’s a certain amount of heart missing, so to speak. Honestly, perfection sometimes turns people off, and even in your writing, it’s like you’re making an effort to be vulnerable, but you just can’t quite do it. I feel like I’m being overly critical. Please know that I’m telling you this out of compassion and experience. I recognize so much of myself in your writing. I suspect that you’ve been hurt by people and never want to risk feeling something so painful again, so you plan, do, and check off your list. You kind of answered your own question when you wondered if your cousin, who you’re more open and honest with than anyone, sees you in a completely different light — perhaps the true you that is totally different than what you’re trying to convey. Do you ever do anything spontaneously? Start off with something that feels safe — like walk into a bookstore and go to a section you find interesting, close your eyes, and select a book. Or, go to the movies without looking at what’s playing, reading reviews, etc., and just pick something that appeals to you, viscerally. Yoga really helped me get out of my head, but it took awhile and I had to try different classes. I wish you all the best. I think you’re an amazing young woman who deserves so much happiness. You don’t have to be perfect. Be patient with yourself. You are fabulous — not because of what you accomplish, but because of who you are.

    • I actually appreciate constructive criticism, outside opinions, and advice–sharing these types of posts can be tough, but I’ve gained so much in the past from doing so, in terms of support, understanding, and wisdom. And admitting that you’re not perfect, despite on some level hoping for that, is the most freeing thing in the world. I have been hurt by people in the past–I’m wholeheartedly trusting from the get-go, but I tend to pull away as people criticize the things which I’m struggling be completely open and honest about. So, I guess I actually flip-flop between being overly-vulnerable and not open enough.

      I’m actually extremely spontaneous. When I don’t have anything planned some evenings, I drive aimlessly–the past few weeks, I’ve ended up in a LED-lit cemetery, at the top of a mountain, and in my college town 100 miles away. I take random art classes and attend all types of events, oftentimes alone. I buy random books from the bookstore and often end up loving them, and I perform random acts of kindness like buying flowers and handing them to the first person I encounter. I’ve been doing yoga twice a week for the past year a love it, and I feel it’s helped me find balance.

      Thank you, thank you, thank you. “Be patient with yourself” may be some of the best advice I’ve ever received, because I have such high expectations for myself. I saw Lois Lowry (author of The Giver) speak last night and, though she wanted to be an author from the age of 6, her first book wasn’t published until age 40–that was eye-opening for me. I have a lifetime ahead of me and I need to do all I can, but do it my way and at my own pace.

      • I often feel the same way. I think that it is fairly common to feel the pressure to achieve, to ‘be’ something. Sometimes you just need to step back and not think so much. I know that I like to analyze situations. But I also know that when I do, I just make it worse. To me, being vulnerable is more than sharing your weaknesses with other people. Being vulnerable is being able to recognize the weaknesses in yourself, and to simply accept them.
        And it’s not just that. It’s allowing yourself and teaching yourself not to worry about what comes next. Most ducks are migratory, they come and go with the seasons. Without the challenges we would never recognize the joys. Chaos keeps life interesting.

      • I’ve also realized that my analyzing often makes things worse, so life is a continual struggle to balance understanding and change with acceptance. I find it interesting that we recognize so easily that worry is harmful and acceptance helps, yet putting that knowledge into practice is so much more challenging. Chaos definitely does keep life interesting–I need to keep that in mind the next time I find myself in an out-of-my-control situation.

    • Thank you. This really is such an amazing community of people, and a place where people support each other, rather than knocking them down. I’m so grateful for everyone else’s support, and hope that over the months and years, I have–and will continue to–offer the same type of guidance and encouragement in return.

  6. I was about to write this, “people are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges” (can’t remember author) but you summed it up at the end.

    Maybe, if instead of beating yourself for not being open enough, accept how open you already are, then, when you’ve an opportunity to push that boundary, act blindly, and don’t look back? But if you don’t, again, do the acceptance thing, and repeat.

    I don’t know what I’m saying. But this is kind of what I do. Good luck.

    • That’s great advice. Pushing ourselves to do something because someone else expects it rarely turns out well, whereas when we voluntarily step out of our comfort zones because we personally want to go, it is generally a healthy and beneficial experience. Thanks!

    • Thank you–my friend did a great job with it. That reminds me of Dr. Suess’s: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” I’ll stay true to myself and ignore the haters. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing the video, I love TED talks! I’ve actually seen this one and I think his advice is spot on, even though it seems to go against common sense. Coming up with a plan of action and working out the knotty details before getting yourself and others hyped up would surely make the it easier to take that first step.

  7. I can totally relate as I have been building walls since childhood, feeling vulnerable and many times inadequate. Heck, I still do but I have learned that to move forward takes courage and you must do so even if you are feeling vulnerable and inadequate. You are an amazing writer Erin, something you hopefully know by now. I agree with your other commenters, this took courage to write, so lead with your heart, dear one, and you should be fine. I have always been too much into my head and when I listen to my heart, beautiful things happen. 🙂

    • Isn’t it curious how many of us grow up with those feelings of inadequacy and that desire to “fit in” even though everyone is different anyways? It can be more challenging at some times than others, but having to courage to keep moving regardless is so important and something we all need to come back to. I truly appreciate your kinds–I think the reason people perceive me to be “good writer,” is at most of my posts come from the heart with the intent of connecting with, inspiring, or helping other people. I think writing is just my vehicle–the drive behind it is so much stronger than I could even explain, and I think one day the two will completely fall into alignment. I start relying on my heart more and I’ll start looking for all those beautiful little things. Thank you! 🙂

      • You have such a beautiful spirit Erin and I still say you will do some pretty special things with your life. Keep reminding yourself of how special you truly are. 🙂

  8. I say be whom you are. It’s good to push the boundaries of your comfort zone, but if everyone were outspoken and shared all the time, there would be a whole lot more noise. It may be on your reading list, or you may have already read it, but I recommend Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

    • That’s great advice–push myself beyond my comfort zone, but do so on my own terms rather than because someone else wants me to. I actually have read Quiet and absolutely loved it. I might even have to re-read it because it immediately became one of my favorites. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. 🙂

  9. I love the photo / title combo. Well I most certainly won’t be offering any advice other than live your life to the fullest each and every day. You actually sound pretty normal to me. Except for the peanut allergy, you sound exactly like my wife, Lindsay. Hey, maybe what you need is a vacation. Take your life on the road and write about the adventure. Ok, I just saw your eyes roll.
    Hope you have a great day!

    • Thanks–it seemed like an appropriate choice. A vacation/adventure sounds like a great idea, so I’ll have to squeeze that into my schedule ASAP. I hope you have a great day, as well! 🙂

  10. Start with people that you’re already close to. Share secrets about yourself or little lights of your dreams. Recently, I got to share the wonderful news that I was pregnant with loved ones. Although, I wasn’t so sure it was wonderful news to everyone else. I’m only 24, I thought, my parents might be nervous about my age. I’ve only been in my position for a month, I thought, my boss will be upset that he’ll lose me for a month or two! My friends are young and adventurous, I thought, they might be sad to lose the night-time side of me. I tiptoed around it for a bit, but I am not a secretive person and had a hard time keeping it in. I shared the news with everyone close to me all within about a week. It was hard. I was scared. I don’t handle unexpected situations well and you never know what to expect when sharing this news. I got some reponses that were withdrawn or quiet for an extended amount of time. It hurt. It surprised me. It made me nervous about their involvement in my future child’s life. But, I continued sharing. I got some responses that lit up my world and showered me in glittery fairy dust, they were so excited. It surprised me to hear from the young males that I’m close to about taking time off around the due date to visit us in the hospital. It surprised me when my 20-something-year-old girlfriends were the first to volunteer to throw a “totally hip” co-ed baby shower. At the end of the day, there are people in your life that were put there to foster your newborn dreams. You have to share them in order to find these people. As hard as the sharing process can be. As hurtful as the silent responses can be. As questionable as your barely thought out dreams may be. Someone will ignite that dream and help you run with it.

    • Starting with people you’re already close to is great advice–I already have a handful of people whom I could absolutely anything with, but it’s beyond that small circle where it becomes a bit more challenging. I’m so t proud of you sharing that–obviously you had to at some point, but I’m nearly 24 and I can complete relate to how hard that would to tell people something so huge and life changing. ” At the end of the day, there are people in your life that were put there to foster your newborn dreams.” That is such a brilliant statement–not everyone will always be there, but if have just a few people who will support you unconditionally, you’re in a good place. Thank you so much for your insightful words, they are deeply appreciated. I wish you and your child the brightest and most beautiful future imaginable. 🙂

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  12. I really want to have someone that I can share my feelings with but poor me, most of the time I meet people who just want to talk and never stop to listen, or the kind of people who make me feel oppressed or bored when talking to them. I know I’m so different from others. That’s a curse or a blessing!?

    • It is difficult thinking differently from others, and I can completely relate. Sometimes it seems like a curse, but it can also be seen as a blessing–I bet you notice and appreciate little things that others completely miss out on. It is very hard when you long to talk to someone, but they want to do all the talking. If you make an effort to meet people, I’m sure you’ll meet someone who would love to be able to support you. If you ever need someone to talk to, you’re welcome to talk to me. I hope you have a great day. 🙂

  13. Wow, I thought that you were describing my character and personality. I am a quiet and introvert type person. I have often thought, that on meeting new people, I might be coming across as aloof. And I do also hold back in real life and in terms of blogging. My friends who know me well, which is only a very small handful, know that I am not and actually, I am a very warm and loving person. I too have struggled with how do I show this up to more people. Life is complicated and how we develop these idiosyncrasies is complex.

    Earlier this year, with a counsellor, I had a look at myself and realised that I set huge expectations of myself, like you say 110% and then beat myself up for not achieving. And also, I find it hard to ask for help. So, going to see and talk to someone about how life had been treating me was a massive step forward.

    You are you, and I am me, and long as you are happy, content and fulfilled, what is wrong with that? I really believe I have many great strengths (tenacity and determination) and you do to. You analyse, you are a thinker, you consider every angle and are very articulate, would this be you without a little vulnerability? Would you lose these traits if you were loud and out going?

    Thank you for you and writing this thought provoking post, and don’t change too much 🙂

    • I can totally relate to that crushing feeling when you feel like your life isn’t together. Other people tell me I am “wasting” the precious time that I have. Do they know something I don’t, like am I getting hit by a bus tomorrow? Really I think those people are the ones that do have their lives all planned out and at this point aren’t happy with they way their lives are going. They have spent so much time planning their lives that they have forgotten how to just live their lives. Lighten up, don’t be so hard on yourself because someday you will wake up and you will know that what you have been doing for so long has been leading up to something much more important than whether or not you are keeping up with everyone else’s expectations.

      I love your blog by the way 🙂 Keep on doing it!! 🙂

      • It is hard having people walk in and criticize what you’re doing and what you want, especially so when they act like they know exactly what they’re doing. I agree–these people are working so hard to control their lives that they don’t allow room for serendipity and alternate plans. I had a friend growing up who insisted that she would marry by 22 and have kids by 24, which was jaw-dropping for me because my plan was to wait for the “right person” and when I felt “ready.” You are so right! In the moment we can’t recognize the strides we’re making, but when we look back it will all make sense, if we just stick to doing what we care about. Thanks! 🙂

    • Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, Tina! Isn’t it comforting to be able to relate to what someone else shares–I know the feeling so well. My closest friends also know me very well, whereas I keep everyone else at a bit of a distance. When I stop over-thinking things, I realize that being authentic and close with a few trustworthy people is better than have dozens of friends you can’t entirely be yourself with. Maybe we’re not like the “average” person (what is average anyways?) or the “ideal” person (does such an ideal even exist?) but perhaps being warm and loving towards the right people is our answer. Life is indeed complicated and our idiosyncrasies are unique to us as individuals.

      That was brave of you to go talk with a counselor. I understand how it is to ask for help, and sometimes I wish I had the courage to do so when I need it the most. Having expectations for ourselves is important to achieving goals, but unrealistic goals can shatter any hope of reaching those goals, so it’s good to find a balance.

      YES!! I heard once that our greatest strengths become our biggest weaknesses when taken to the extreme. For example, your determination will help you accomplish things, but if you become too focused than you may isolate yourself from other people. I love the positive things about myself, so it’s important to recognize them as the flip-side of the negatives. When I criticize myself for being too quiet or indecisive, I need to then recognize the positive: I’m a good listener and open-minded. We’re all filled with so much knowledge that it seems to get buried sometimes, so thank you for helping me uncover that little gem. 🙂

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