Vulnerable in the Mess
People are messy. We are all so messy. I’m not talking about the clutter or the stuff, though I will get to that one of these days. My draft on minimalism and materialism is too long for one who is proclaiming minimalism as a better lifestyle. Fortunately, a post about how people are all messy can be a bit imperfect, right? I am people, and therefore messy. I ask no forgiveness for messiness today.
Anyways, people are messy. People carry a muddle of mistakes and sad stories and scars. All of us have these wounds that mar our perspective, that impair our understanding. We have imperfect chapters in our lives, and, when the page turns, the imperfection follows. We enter friendships after back-stabbings, romances after heartbreaks, families after loss. As we do, we carry our bruised, bloodied souls into new relationships.
Such is life. We are all so terribly messy. And we seem to be messy all alone in this world. We walk around, pretending to have it all together. We post on Instagram how neat and composed we are, but it’s an illusion. We broadcast a filtered reality with the chaos hidden just outside the peripheral. We try to hide it, but we all have our mess.
What’s your mess? What’s the emotional disarray you are hiding in a closet, under your bed, in the backseat of your old car? What’s the hurt, mistrust, fear heaped in the corner of your heart? And have you let anyone see it?
Like everyone else, I’ve got my own unique mess. I’ve got nagging self-esteem worries that say I’m not enough, that I’m not beautiful nor lovable. I’ve got irrational thoughts that question my worthiness. I’ve got scars from every person who took advantage of my belief in them, who manipulated my faith in them, who left me without looking back. I’ve got baggage from trying to be brave, be fearless, take risks, and sometimes meeting failure. And I’m messy and irrational in the way that can only come from losing someone I love and trying to understand a future without her and thus trying to live a more purposeful life when life also seems purposeless.
I’ve got my own messy. It’s a messy that struggles with insecurity. It’s a messy that uses self-deprecating humor and corny jokes because she can’t handle compliments, goodbyes, and feeling exposed. It’s a messy that will smile when inside she is crying, will say she is fine when she just wants to be held, will talk for hours when she doesn’t even understand her own point. I am messy.
And for years, I was ashamed of my mess. I first learned to hide my mess starting with wiping away the tears trickling down my cheek as a nine year old on a school bus ride home. I first learned to hide my mess by swearing to never cry in public again, to never cry where someone could use my tears as ammunition against me. I learned that being vulnerable was too risky, and I couldn’t handle the failure that comes when others are not receptive of my open, honest, messy self. I learned how to put the walls up to hide my messiness, to never let people see my weakness. I learned to use smiles to mask fear, sadness, loneliness.
I became good at tucking away my messy when someone would enter my life. I didn’t trust enough to be vulnerable. I was too afraid of the judgement that can come from letting someone see the messy.
But, it’s impossible to be anything but vulnerable during the sudden loss of a loved one. I couldn’t, at least. I never prepared for it. Besides, it’s hard to not feel exposed when news media call your cell phone number to ask for a statement within the same day. It’s hard to hide vulnerability when you are just too broken to notice life happening around you. Shock makes it hard to put on a smile and function. I had no real choice in being vulnerable. I just was. When Katie died, I shattered. That was the first time I could remember, since that bus ride over twenty years before, where I was crying in front of people I would rather not have. That was the first time in twenty years that I openly wept in front of people.
A year has passed, and I’m human again. I’m changed, I’m still dealing with grief, I’m still bruised, but I am able to decide to be vulnerable again. I get to decide again if I want to hide my messy from people. And why wouldn’t I? Not everyone was accepting of my mess. Not everyone stuck by. People were uncomfortable, scared, intimidated, impatient with my mess. I was vulnerable and they were not all kind. I could decide it was too hard, put up the walls again, and let no one in. If no one sees the mess, they can’t reject me, right?
But if no one sees the mess, they can’t know me. If they cannot see me, they cannot know me. If they cannot see me, how can they love me?
I have discovered new layers of love from when my mess was exposed. I have discovered true friendship when people saw me at my worst and didn’t turn around. They looked it over, looked at me, and they stayed. They didn’t love me despite my mess. They loved me, mess and all. It’s a beautiful moment when you are vulnerable with the right people. The people who loved me saw me at my worst, my most awful, my darkest, and they stayed, they were present, they showed up. They let me be messy, gave me hope without pushing me, listened and did not judge. They didn’t try to fix me, they didn’t lie to me, they were honest and encouraging, patience and supportive. They gave me time and they also cheered me on when I began the tidying process. They were present. Being allowed to be messy without shame is a gift. I have that with these people. They came into my mess and loved me.
But I’m a little less messy now. Oh, I am still messy, but my mess is controlled. I am in control again. I put up the walls and I now just let in the people who matter. I’m not vulnerable with everyone. But sometimes a new person comes along, a person I want to let in, because I must if I want to be seen and loved. And it’s scary to let those walls intentionally down, to risk criticism and rejection. However, there is also something special about giving people permission to see my vulnerability, to see the messes I hide; and there is a love I feel when those people stay.
I learned that, when we are vulnerable with people who matter, the right people, the people who love us, they stay. When we are vulnerable with people who care, they support you, cheer you on. They don’t try to “fix” you, but they will help you tidy up. It’s a scary business to have the courage to be vulnerable. It’s a test I still fear failing. I shouldn’t. I don’t miss the people I have lost when they decided my messy was too much for them. I really don’t. Rather, I deeply appreciate the people who stuck next to me, who didn’t hesitate, who trusted me enough with their messy in return.
Yet, being vulnerable is still a struggle. It’s still a challenge to intentionally let people see the mess. I fear judgement from people who I value. I fear being let down again. I know, in the end, I won’t miss the person who doesn’t want to be there, but I am not ready to say goodbye.
Who wouldn’t fear the heartbreak that can come from being vulnerable with someone, trusting them with all your weaknesses, fears, and soft spots? Heck, I don’t even like it when friends and family see my dishes are dirty and my bed is unmade. My inner messy is so much more personal.
To be vulnerable is to be courageously honest about the mess with someone else. To be vulnerable is to risk sharing weakness to someone who can use it against you. To be intentionally vulnerable is to risk learning if someone truly loves you for your whole self. To be vulnerable is be completely open with who you are, be seen completely, and ask, “Am I enough?”
What is that, anyways? This fear that we are not enough. I know I am not alone in that. I have met people who fail to see their own incredible beauty and put limitations on themselves because they feel they are never enough. I have seen people put themselves down for not being strong enough, smart enough, pretty enough, and they punish themselves. They decide they are unworthy of a better life, a joyous life, that they are deserving of the pain they experience. Some try to become enough, they try to rid themselves of all the flaws and mess inside, meanwhile they are sitting on the sidelines of life because they believe they must first become enough to participate. It is utter nonsense. While I appreciate people who are constantly seeking to improve themselves, I am sad for those who deny themselves in the present because they cannot see their current greatness. They fail to see that they already are incredible.
Besides, if we always see our mess as reasons we are not ready to put ourselves out there, to see ourselves as enough for someone else, we never will be ready. We will always be messy imperfect creatures. We will always have room for growth and improvement. We will never be perfect. But we are enough, mess and all.
So what’s your mess? Do you know it? Are you working on it? That’s great if you are. But are you hiding it from the people who matter? Why? Because the people who matter will stay. The people who matter will love your mess as much as they love you. If they don’t, then they weren’t the people who matter.
And trust me, you need those people. You need them to see all of you and know they love all of you. You need them to be see your mess. It is way too exhausting to be messy all alone. It is so much easier to tidy up, to improve yourself with the support of true friends. I think too many of us are trying to figure it out alone, because we don’t want people to know the shame we carry, because we don’t see ourselves as worthy, because we don’t want to burden people we love, because we don’t want to be vulnerable with our imperfect selves, because we want to be perfect before we start moving forward. Let me tell you, you will always be messy. You will always be flawed. But you are worthy, you are beautiful and strong and incredible, and you are all these things because of your whole self, including the mess.
Let people on the inside. Let the people who matter in. It makes life a little easier to not be alone. It makes life better to have people who love you sit with you in the mess on days when you are struggling. It’s good to have a friend who says that, until you are ready to move forward, they are just going to sit right next to you and hold your hand. It’s terrifying to first share your mess with people, knowing they could walk away, but how lovely it is to find people who love you so completely that they love you in your mess. We all need the people who see the mess inside, the mess you are still working on, and they smile and say you are enough as is.