By Alivia Hall
After having spent the weekend in Lake Placid with my boyfriend and dog, it was hard to want to go back home. I was away from the chaos and the city and the work and the deadlines for just a few days. As we drove back toward Boston, I could almost feel it re-approaching as we moved.
My boyfriend spontaneously pulled over on the side of the road, by a river. We got out of the car and stood by the water despite how cold and windy it was. I was in the middle of admiring how dark and bright the night sky was when my boyfriend suddenly howled at the top of his lungs. We laughed, but I felt this weird pang of jealousy. I also wanted to yell at the top of my lungs. I wanted to let loose and be silly. He tried to encourage me to do it, but something was stopping me. I felt incapable of being able to let loose and yell, and this familiar feeling of frustration quickly began to grow and grow.
That feeling of frustration wasn’t foreign to me. I remember it from childhood. When I was five years old, my family picked up and moved to London. Yes, London is an incredible city and I am very lucky that I had the opportunity to grow up there. However, my stubborn 5-year-old self was not happy to leave the comfort of my home, friends and extended family. I suffered from crippling anxiety, to the point where I physically couldn’t speak in school for a good amount of time. I actually recently learned in my Abnormal Psych class that I suffered from a disorder called Selective Mutism, which can be defined as a “complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school.”
Although I was six or seven when this started to happen, I can still very clearly remember the feeling of frustration I felt. I wanted to speak so badly, I wanted to participate and learn in class like everyone else and I wanted to make friends. However my anxiety was so intense that it prevented me from doing so. Teachers and various other people made me feel as if I was a ‘problem’. I was made to feel that I was too lazy to speak, too distracted or simply not trying hard enough. I felt completely misunderstood and as if something was wrong with me. When you are that young, it’s not exactly easy to articulate that the reason you are not speaking or participating isn’t because you are “bad” or “lazy”, but because your mind simply will not allow it. It is incredibly frustrating. Thankfully the selective mutism only lasted for a year or two, but finding my voice and putting myself out there continued to be a struggle for me through out middle and high school.
My boyfriend was aware of the issue I had in childhood, so I guess he felt inclined to push me and encourage me to just do it. He kept trying to count down from three and get me to howl with him, however this voice inside my head was getting louder and louder, telling me things like: you can’t do it, it’s too hard, it’s too embarrassing, you will sound stupid, you will be too quiet, you’re being so dramatic, etc. It was so frustrating because I knew those voices inside my head were lying to me, and keeping me at a standstill. I knew that if I just ignored the voices, and just took a risk and went for it that I would most likely feel immense relief afterwards. I also felt self-conscious of the fact that to anyone else, something like this may seem easy and silly to be so anxious about. 20 minutes later, he didn’t give up on me.
So I went for it.
My fears were wrong: I was completely capable, I was just as loud as he was and I didn’t embarrass myself or sound stupid. The voices in my head were lying the whole time. My boyfriend was proud of me, and I was proud of me. It felt so empowering that after we got back in the car, I started crying tears of relief. I am not that mute six-year-old who didn’t feel good enough anymore, but in that moment I remembered how painful it was to be her. I would of been so disappointed in myself if I didn’t do it, or if he gave up on me, and neither of those things happened.
The courage to be vulnerable can transform the way we live and love. The act of daring greatly is showing up, being courageous and allowing yourself to be seen. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure’ that leads to increased connection, trust and engagement. She also makes a great point in explaining that while vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage, truth and courage aren’t always comfortable. However, they are never weakness.
This event by the river with my boyfriend is a great example of a vulnerable moment. With his encouragement, I was able to take a risk, dare greatly and do something that made me incredibly anxious. And as a result, while I was crying to him afterwards, I felt seen, I felt understood and I felt heard. He responded with empathy and understanding, which is the antidote to shame and fear of being seen. That’s the power of vulnerability right there.