One of my biggest secrets that I’ve subconsciously worked very hard to keep is that I have become so skilled at being open rather than vulnerable. At a first glance, these may seem exactly the same and I even agreed with the similarities before. I would go around saying “I’m an open book! Ask anything you want!” And I did believe it, for a time. Yet, after starting college a lot of my hometown friends individually talked to me about how they felt I never shared as much as they did. Instinctively, I was confused and defensive. Of course I share, you just don’t listen, I would think. But this defense mechanism wasn’t all true.
My friends were absolutely right to an extent. I considered myself an open book but I only waited for people to want to flip through the pages and ask questions. I would rarely open up voluntarily and when someone did spark an opening conversation, I would do so carefully. I would subconsciously or consciously strategize everything I said. So that it would make sense, so that it would be agreeable, or so that it didn’t give away more than I wanted it to. In essence, I would talk about the activities of my day when prompted but wouldn’t mention all the feelings I was struggling to deal with. When meeting new people, I would offer opinions and thoughts on things that they already said to keep the conversation going but would refrain from offering the same personal information about myself.
I don’t think I was truly aware and able to understand any of this until more recently. I stumbled upon a Tik Tok (that I spent a while looking for but still couldn’t find again) where someone was talking about how their therapist compared this tendency to a magician’s hat. We easily pull out basic or even seemingly-deep-but-not-actually details about ourselves out of this hat, yet there is a false bottom making the hat look empty when there’s actually much more hiding underneath. For example, saying “I’m just tired” or “School’s been hard” has always been easier than having to explain “I’m in a really bad headspace right now.” I remember taking a minute to process this metaphor and relate it to myself. It was exactly the explanation I didn’t have words for yet.
I was a magician putting on a show for nearly everyone in my life while keeping the vulnerable side of me to myself, tucked deep down. This was probably one of the biggest revelations of my life to date, as it made me question more of my habits and more of my relationships. I struggled to figure out where to put the blame, on myself for not being vulnerable or on others for not making me feel safe enough to do so. In the end, I think it comes down to both sides but more so on my own since that’s the only side I can control. I hadn’t yet given anyone the chance to know the real me so how could I expect them to know how to make me feel comfortable in the first place? It led to a lot of buried resentment. I would often only tell others the tip of the iceberg of anxiety I was experiencing then get frustrated when they wouldn’t understand or know how to help. Explaining our emotions is hard but absolutely necessary if we want to deepen our relationships with others, or at least give them a chance to care for us in the way we need them to.
Since then, I’ve contemplated this so much more and once I decided to change it, I started trying different ways to do so. I’ve made it a point to answer not just as honestly but as vulnerable as possible when having an intentionally open conversation with friends. I continue to listen to them but try to respond with my own feelings more often. I can’t expect the people in my life to trust me when I haven’t yet given them that same respect. And I’ve even tried talking to new people. I’ve realized sometimes it is way easier to be yourself with people who don’t know any different. Trying to change a perception my childhood friends have seen and adapted to for years is the difficult part, but not impossible. My main focus now is sharing my thoughts and feelings with others and keeping around the ones who genuinely care and do the same with me. If this is something you find relatable, ask yourself next time you are talking to someone who cares about you: am I just being open or truly vulnerable?