Vulnerability Management

Of course, with beginningless time, we can experience something in the here and now that triggers the faraway and forgotten, to relive in emotion and imagination.

Sometimes it is nostalgia – reading a professor’s new memoir and with each word, remembering her voice – that prompts a sentimental yearning for warmth and comfort. It is my second-to-last semester as a full-time graduate student and I am working three jobs: cybersecurity research during the day, adjunct professor at night, and barista on the weekends. I am tired – tired considerably, but no amount of work is going to write my thesis on self-worth in team settings. She stands in the center of the class, inside where tables have formed a U, and I, sit at the corner where two rows have formed an L, listening.

“What we don’t know about ourselves, what we are unwilling to know about ourselves, will inevitably get in the way of our art-making,” she says. “Your sentences will change when you change.”

She is referring to perspective and point of view (POV) and how intimacy makes the world smaller while metaphor makes the details more strange. But she is talking, however unknowingly, directly to me. “We move on because it’s too hard to hold,” she says.

Sometimes it is trauma – social rejection – that activates the fight, flight, or freeze response. For me, it is a specific wound: words like “selfish” and phrases like “not a team player” and carrots like “if you want to be a leader…” sting and stun, and as I freeze in the milliseconds of the moment, I can suddenly feel my face go numb as if some external power hit CTRL+ALT+DELETE because I am not responding and now I’m being prompted with a new window asking if I’d like to force quit the conversation. My engagement – facial expressions and body language, anything that would hint at enthusiasm – is now paused while I process what I didn’t see coming: manipulation from someone I trusted, cared for, and believed in. And the immediate heartbreak that this person is not who I thought they were. Do they really see me this way?

Suddenly, I feel my heart beating more violently. It is choosing to fight both these things: the untrue things said about myself and the fact that this person said them. The pounding grows louder in my ears and now there is a boulder in my throat, a heaviness that is trying to tamper what is rising. My breathing is short and shallow, so I sigh, trying to accumulate more oxygen. I am stressed at this jarring shift in reality, disoriented and confused as to time and space, out of touch in this moment while every single instance where this has happened in my past – grade school, middle school, high school, college, corporate job – rushes to my mind, where it then delivers several punches to the gut. My nervous system is simply responding to what it perceives as imminent danger and sudden lack of safety.

No doubt, this is a lifelong, if not karmic, lesson in healing and one that I have been doggedly committed to overcoming. Until most recently, I thought I had accomplished that. But instead I took this as a clear sign that spiritually, I was still on the same path. I made the decision that day to leave. My heart, which was hurting so much, was no longer going to be in it. Flight is a clever protection mechanism when there is a suddenly a risk to staying and being “too passionate.”

Disengagement, however, is a process that can take three to six months, or even a year. My goodbye process is a rather lengthy one; aware of the ending, I savor all the joy, laughter, collaboration, and celebration that I can so by the time I do leave, I am ready.

I no longer want to experience the slow-drip suffering that occurs as a consequence for giving your all to a team, and I don’t believe I will anymore. This reflex to go all-in, I realize now, was in response to a deep-seated insecurity of desperately wanting, if not needing, to belong. But now I can pour my heart into other things, be loving and compassionate in other ways, start my own family, open my own bookstore. Live more life. Make more art. Be in the community, abundant in creativity and expression, and share that wealth. For all the social rejection I have experienced, the magnitude of self-acceptance is far greater, and the beauty of a new path, however unknown, is the knowingness I now walk with. The aspens are really quite wonderful when they let go of the sun and savor the light.

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