“He smokes, which I find gross, but he’s planning to quit soon,” I complained to my roommate about Jason, the guy I’d been dating for about a month. “And did I tell you he doesn’t eat dinner? As in, he has no desire to eat past lunchtime. Weird, right? And he owns seersucker shorts – baby blue seersucker.”
“So do you actually like him?” she responded, sounding doubtful.
“Yeah, I mean, he’s cool and I like hanging out with him, so it’s whatever,” I replied.
She looked at me for a moment, forehead scrunched, then shrugged. “Well you’ve only told me stuff about him that you don’t like, so I really can’t tell.”
I wanted to be annoyed with her for questioning whether or not I liked Jason. Obviously I liked him, or else I wouldn’t still be going on dates with him! But when I thought back on the past few weeks, I couldn’t deny that she was right. I would come home after each date and tell her something weird or outlandish that I’d learned about Jason. Never once did I admit all the things that made me want to see him with increasing regularity. I hadn’t mentioned his witty intelligence, or his entrepreneurial drive, or his moments of spontaneity when we’d take a random turn and end up spending the afternoon at a winery. No wonder she was confused. It didn’t make sense for me to be verbally bashing the guy I hoped would become my boyfriend in the near future.
Later that night, I pulled out an old spiral notebook and wrote, “Why am I doing this?” My hand automatically scribbled an answer: “You’re scared.” The truth of those two words made me embarrassed. I’d always felt confident around guys and fully independent, whether in or out of a relationship. “Fearful” was never a word I would have used to describe myself in my dating life. But here was the truth, raw on the page. It was easy for me to be confident and carefree with guys I’d just met or gone on a couple dates with because there was no pressure, nothing to lose.
But Jason was the first guy in over a year who I’d felt a real connection with, and yet I was terrified to admit that I cared about him and wanted our relationship to progress. It felt much safer to make fun of his quirks and feign nonchalance about whether or not I’d see him again. That way, if the relationship were to end, I’d have already taken the necessary measures to protect myself from disappointment.
A few days later, I met with my life coach (I swear, everyone should have one) and proudly told her about my recent self-awareness. I asked for her advice on how to feel less vulnerable so I could regain a sense of control and security. Her response was not what I wanted.
“Why do you attach so much negativity to being vulnerable?” she asked.
Well that’s a dumb question, I thought. “Um, because being vulnerable means being weak and open to getting hurt.”
“I see why you believe that, but what if it didn’t have to be true?” She then shared a quote she’d heard from one of her graduate professors: “Perfect vulnerability is perfect protection.”
I fought back an eye roll. Sure, that sounded awfully Zen, but it was clearly an oxymoron.
“I know it sounds contradictory,” continued my coach, always a step ahead of me. “But take a minute to really think about it. What if perfect vulnerability – expressing your real self and being most authentically you, even when it’s scary – is the safest place you can be? Any time you connect with people by hiding parts of yourself or not being authentic, you create relationships that aren’t in alignment with who you really are. Then you have to maintain that false version of yourself to keep up the relationship. And what’s safe about that?”
Whoa. She had me there. I’d always believed vulnerability was inherently negative. But what if that wasn’t necessarily the case? What if vulnerability was something to be valued instead of avoided? Maybe I should have been celebrating the fact that I was feeling vulnerable because it meant I was beginning to care about someone and connect on a deep level.
A few nights later, before I’d even latched the door behind me, my roommate called out from the living room, “How was your date?”
I opened my mouth to tell her about the latest oddity I’d learned about Jason’s family, but then stopped myself. Instead I said, simply, “I really like him.”
I joined her on the couch. “Yeah,” I said. “He’s really thoughtful. I told him about how I enjoy watching low-flying planes. So he says, ‘We have to stop somewhere before dinner.’ And he took me to this really cool bar that’s right on the other side of the river from the airport. So we sat outside by the water and watched the planes take off and land for over an hour. Then we went to this amazing tapas restaurant, because he remembered that I love Spanish food, and …”
I rambled on for half an hour, finally giving voice to the excitement that I’d been suppressing since I met Jason. For the first time in years, I let myself bask in the glow of early romance without judging myself for it. And instead of feeling uncomfortable, I felt unexpectedly liberated.