I was going through some really heavy shit at the time. I hadn't reconnected with my son yet—his high school graduation was coming up and I was tearing myself apart inside. I was still dealing with past unresolved childhood traumas as well, and I had just gone through a breakup. My business was also struggling. Every facet of my life was, as my niece likes to say, struggle bussin'. I had just met my Dad, who had been absent from my life since I was two (which I returned onto my own son) and I was feeling low and down on myself. Indeed, I was struggle bussin', and I was feeling defeated. I didn't want to talk about it, though, I was content to keep it all inside.
I met up with a good buddy of mine, Geoff. I like Geoff because he gives a hearty hug every time. We met up for lunch and after we sat down with our food and drinks, he started that conversation with How are you feeling, buddy? It was a combination of repressed feelings and just the question itself. My emotions spilled out of me, like a full Big Gulp turned upside down. I don't know that I would have had the same reaction had Geoff asked How are you doing? My response to that specific question is usually good, good! When I considered my feelings, I let everything out. I was a firehose of regret, guilt, self-loathing, and a lot of hurt.
And when I was done sharing, Geoff shared his stuff with me and he was going through some real life-changing shit, himself. We were both red and bleary-eyed by the end of our lunch—we both felt immense relief, we both could breathe a little easier and those weights on our chest were just a little bit lighter. We both felt safe to be vulnerable with one another.
I never mastered vulnerability. I was always afraid to share what I wanted, what I needed, I couldn't even share that I didn't know what I felt! I was scared to cause harm, I was scared to be seen, I was scared of what my friends, family, and lovers might think of me and so I kept all of those big feelings inside. And doing so wrecked me.
I can point to every failed relationship, every challenging friendship, every difficult client relationship and identify those times when I needed to speak up and share what I needed, how I felt, and then proceeded not to—eroding those relationships until there was nothing left but hurt, regret, and ill feelings.
That's not to say that a failed relationship and partnership is all on me. That's not true. But, in a relationship, each person contributes their 50% to the whole. What you do with yours affects the other person and vice-a-versa. When I couldn't communicate my feelings, displaying my inability to manage myself emotionally, it contributed to the imbalance of those relationships. Sometimes I remained in relationships that long-passed their expiration date; sometimes I caused harm out of spite and sometimes out of fear.
I'm no a master of vulnerability. However, I've learned a few tricks and I've been able to cultivate safety for myself and those around me and it starts with a willingness to be vulnerable. That means you need to get cozy with taking space and letting other people in on what you're feeling; it means you have to be willing to cause pain and trust that your feelings are being met by the other person.
For men, being vulnerable carries with it a stigma of inferiority or weakness—and there's a new wave of neo-macho flag waving by the conservatives in the US. That stigma needs to die. For me it was never a matter of whether I wasn't man enough or whatever, when it came to being vulnerable. It was a matter of feeling safe and bad habits cultivated a long time ago to preserve my emotional and physical safety.
What Vulnerability is and is Not
Vulnerability absolutely is being who you are, sharing the things you fear, sharing what your needs are, and expressing yourself even if the person on the other end reacts negatively.
In a way being vulnerable is like a game of emotional hot potato.
I've observed that being vulnerable can sometimes be mislabeled as oversharing or more specifically as trauma dumping. Trauma dumping is more or less someone sharing what they're feeling and/or experiencing—it's a thin line between dumping and vulnerability.
Vulnerability and Dating
I know you were all wondering how this all ties into dating and don't worry I'm getting there.
Our romantic relationships are important and we need to communicate our needs as well as listening to what our partner's needs are; it's important for both people to create that environment where we feel safe to communicate without fear of consequence.
I've made progress and experienced a couple of small breakthroughs. So what if the other person feels upset about how you feel? You deserve to be heard, your feelings matter, too. is what my therapist told me when I was telling her I wasn't feeling the warm and fuzzies about a gal I was seeing. So I took a risk. I told the gal I was dating what I was feeling and what I needed. In the past I would've let it go and internalized the bad feelings that came up and drive myself to ruin and shame. By speaking up, I gave myself permission to be heard and I put everything on the table. The gal I was seeing, didn't want the same things I wanted and we parted ways.
I know this sounds simple and maybe this is what you do without thinking about it. Not me. I grew up fearing confrontation, I grew up trying to be small, someone who didn't cause a fuss, someone who strived to keep the peace. Do you know how much energy that takes? Honestly, I still do it, I still have that urge to keep the peace to stay small. But now I recognize it and I can fight those urges as I have the tools and vocabulary for it.
The owner at the coffee shop up the street asked me How's everything going? To which I responded everything's great! And then he asked how's your dating life? And I replied well, okay, maybe not everything is great. Dating is a sham, man. Dating, particularly Online Dating, is a kick, man. It's up, it's down, it's incomprehensible and sometimes it can be summed up in one or two words fuck this!
When it came to dating on the apps, I got hung up on these back and forth message exchanges and often women would fade out—it's not because I didn't ask them out. I did and somewhat quickly, at that. But I always got mixed results.
What I started doing was being forward with where I'm at in life and what I want. An example of the messages I send are like this:
Hey! So, this might be a little forward of me but I want to save your time and mine. Clearly, I like your face and I'd like to take it on a date! But I want to share with you my stuff and things first. I'm looking for a partner, an LTR, but I'm not in a rush so I can take my time. I have a 21yo son, who lives with his Mother. There's no drama there. At this point, I don't want more kids; although used kids are just fine. So if you think this aligns with what you want, then we should make a plan where we go on one of those date things. Also, I'd love to know what you want and what's important to you.
Some of my friends have told me dude, that message is totally cringe, I hope you don't actually send that. Well, I do and I did send messages just like that. They're all difference of course, but the idea is the same (don't go carpet bombing people, please). I'll go through a couple of message exchanges and decide if I want to meet the person on the other end of the exchange, if I do I share that message with them.
While I haven't been keeping tabs on the success rate I can tell you that this approach has almost always gotten a positive response from women. First, the woman thanks me for being up front and usually agrees to a date or tells me that it's not a fit. Boom. Done. Everyone moves on with their lives or we plan a date.
Another thing that I do is that if I'm not feeling the date, I tell my date. I don't usually do it on the date but I have and it's uncomfortable. One date I went on, my date asked when our next date would be and I told her, look, this was lovely but I'm not feeling a connection here. I'm sorry. I didn't die, my date didn't break down in tears. Everyone moved on. Doing this as a man, I realize, is lot more safe than for a woman, who has to consider the temperament of the men they go on a date with. Typically, though, I just do that over text or in the dating app. I don't ghost anymore—that shit is weak, low-energy, stuff and something I was guilty of for a long time.
If you're not the kind of person who feels safe sharing what they're feeling, putting themselves out there, then maybe it's time to examine that more deeply and perhaps therapy is a good place to get started, especially for men.
It's okay to be unsure about how you're feeling but it's also okay to take that space and give voice to those feelings and needs and wants. They matter, too.
Once you feel comfortable sharing what's on your mind the world has a way of opening itself up for you just a little more.