On the Importance of Being Vulnerable

87º feels like 96º ~ removed from the excessive heat advisory b/c index won’t go over 100º, perhaps I’ll need my sweater

I’m thinking today about vulnerability and how I’ve been conditioned not to show it. When confronted with a problem, or a task at work, I’ve always put my shoulder to the boulder and persevered without question, without too much complaint, and definitely without asking for help. This behavior has been reinforced because I’m often praised for my results, which are largely based on sweat, stress, and unwavering persistence. I’ve been heard to say, “Failure is not an option,” a commonly heralded, proto-American trait. And, yes, it is good to succeed, but over and over, I’m learning that I need not bear all the weight in completing every project for work or home.

In fact, in my attempt to appear “practically perfect in every way,” à la Mary Poppins, I’m actually failing myself. Because I have feared being seen as weak and vulnerable, when a project has stymied me or has required more time than I actually have, I have refused to ask for help. I have, instead, sweated it out and found a way to solve the problem at hand, often doing work that would more easily be done by others. For example, I have been known to try to learn a whole new design program overnight rather than admit my flyer-making skills are, well, fledgling at best. Dare I claim that my gender contributes to this fear? I dare. Coming of age in the 80s, I was acutely aware that women who wanted to have it all must never admit vulnerability. (And who would not want to have it all?) I understood early that my job was to prove I could do everything a man could do, but, à la Ginger Rogers, “backwards and in high heels.”

What does this have to do with poetry? Time. Energy. A quiet mind. Writing takes all three; attempting to conquer every other task set before me by my job and my household consumes all three. Because I was determined to be seen as a success at work, this past academic year I gave nearly all of my being to completing work goals. I wrote only a few new drafts, sent out very few poems, and read very little poetry outside of course texts. By May, I knew this behavior was unsustainable, and I’ve spent much of the summer working on positive steps forward.

Recently, I woke up to the fact that I don’t have to do it all alone. I began asking for help. I began exposing what I saw as my own vulnerabilities, and no one blinked an eye. Instead, they answered, and they helped. I recovered some time, some energy, and glimpses of a quieter mind.

I learn, but slowly, that I will always be a student, even as I stand in the classroom as the professor. In the classroom, I ask my students to be vulnerable over and over; I remind them that there are no silly questions, that all rough drafts are messy, that I am there to help. I offer them handouts on campus resources for the problems they experience beyond creative writing. I encourage them to form support networks among themselves. I ask them to fail on the page over and over. Yet, I have refused to admit my own vulnerability so often in all the realms outside of my writing practice (there, I fail spectacularly and accept it). Let’s face it, I have been scared of being exposed as a fraud because the models of success held up by our society rarely admit to their own vulnerabilities.

All of this is to say that I feel a bit of a breakthrough, and I hope to continue to practice asking for help, to continue sharing the workload when appropriate, and to continue experiencing these benefits.


Posted by Sandy Longhorn