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.

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