“I want you to make a collage.”
After a couple months of counseling, I had my first assignment. I was given a big piece of paper and told to draw a circle. Inside the circle I would put pictures that represent things I know to be true of myself. On the outside, things I think other people believe to be true of me.
I thought the assignment was pretty easy. I went home and mindlessly cut words and images from magazines and organized them on the paper. I didn’t think too deeply about what each piece meant as I glued it down. I just described myself the best I could in a visual representation of the me I put on display and allow people to see, and the me I keep carefully hidden.
A week later I brought it back. I unrolled it. We talked about it. She asked questions. I answered. And the past month has mostly looked like that.
This week, however, she asked a question I wasn’t ready to answer.
“Is there anything on here that you want to talk about?”
And that’s where I shut down. I could handle direct questions. “Tell me about the quote inside the circle…What does the smiling girl outside the circle represent?…Why did you put the wedding picture inside the circle instead of outside?” I was ok with that. I’m a pretty open book when people show that they are curious about my life – asking deep, intentional questions because they’re genuinely interested in my struggles, my victories, my day-to-day and the condition of my heart. But I won’t volunteer insight into my life if I’m not absolutely certain it’s wanted or welcomed, if I don’t feel 100% safe.
Of course, there’s no reason I shouldn’t feel safe with my counselor. I trust her and actually love going to my appointments, talking to her for an hour and knowing that she’s listening. But I think that’s where the road block lies for me. “If I tell her about _____, will she be interested and truly care? Or will she just be listening to me because that’s her job?” To willingly invite her to the deepest parts of my heart, without being prompted, feels terrifyingly vulnerable…and I’m not sure I’m ready to go there yet with her.
Or, for that matter, to even go there at all.
You may have noticed by now that pursuing and fighting for vulnerability has become a theme for us at AGLM. It’s something we each have learned to value and truly crave. Personally, it has a lot to do with my choice to seek counseling in the first place. I want to dive in and dig deep. I want to visit every dark, dusty, neglected corner of my heart. I want to face my demons, attack my struggles head on, connect all of the dots and understand the things that have shaped me into who I am.
Or at least in theory, I do. Once I actually start to go there, to that really tender place where my deepest wounds and most personal secrets are kept, it becomes a different story.
And that’s exactly where that question went.
So I pumped the breaks. Hard. Harder than I expected, actually. I tried to find a nonchalant way to change the subject. I smiled too much and laughed nervously, because that’s what I do when talking about something that makes me feel incredibly vulnerable and uncomfortable. I’ve always been that way. It’s my automatic defense against breaking. When something strikes a chord and tears feel imminent (and in that moment, they did), I instantly fight them with a happy face. It’s like I somehow think that if I can outwardly appear to be fine, I can trick my emotions into thinking it’s true.
I will not cry. I will not fall apart.
Because if I do, if I let one tear fall, the whole dam will break. And to crumble in a mess of emotions because something about my life is hard or hurts…that, to me, is the most raw, vulnerable state I can be in, and I am not ready to go there. Not alone, and certainly not in front of someone else.
It seems verbal vulnerability is much easier for me than letting my guard all the way down and getting my feelings involved…to say “I feel hurt/sad/angry/disappointed/etc” is one thing, but to provide evidence of that is too much for me. That’s where my boundary lies. That’s where the resistance kicks in.
So as I sat there on that couch, knowing she was waiting for a response, I decided the only thing I could do was be honest. Not about the pictures glued on that paper. But about the conflict I was feeling. About the part of me that really wants to go there, to that place, to see what more there is to learn from a simple collage…but also the other part of me – the stronger part – that was suddenly struck by a fear that paralyzed me and said, “This is too much…you think you’re ready, but you’re not…vulnerability is just not safe today.”
And she said, “Ok.” She didn’t push. My walls and defenses fell. And I felt safe again.
But it scares me to know that I have to go back there. That moment revealed that there’s a level of hurt I didn’t fully know existed. I didn’t realize I’ve been ignoring it…avoiding it. But now that I do, it’s just another dark, dusty corner of my heart that I know I need to visit. Maybe not all at once. But a little bit at a time I will start to let myself feel whatever lives there.
Maybe I will cry tears that need to be cried. Maybe I will find forgiveness that has been begging to be found. Maybe I will heal in a way I didn’t know I needed to heal. And maybe – just maybe – I will find a way to feel ready to invite someone to go there with me.