The Courage to Be Vulnerable

Today’s blog post is going to be considerably more personal than usual, even in a blog that deals with my experiences with chronic physical and mental illnesses. Today I’m going to talk about a part of my past that I don’t like to bring up.

First, though, let me preface where this is coming from. I am in the last few pages of Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW and today’s section is called “The Courage to Be Vulnerable.” It’s the last section in a chapter entitled “Wholehearted Parenting: Daring to Be the Adults We Want Our Children to Be.” The second paragraph in the section is as follows:

As I travel across the country there seems to be growing concern on the part of parents and teachers that children are not learning how to handle adversity and disappointment because we’re always rescuing and protecting them. What’s interesting is that more often than not, I hear this concern from the same parents who are chronically intervening, rescuing, and protecting. It’s not that our children can’t stand the vulnerability of handling their own situations, it’s that we can’t stand the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, even when we know it’s the right thing to do.

This struck me not as a parent, but as a former child that experienced this behavior from my own parent.

Before I continue, I want to be very clear: I love my mother to death. I enjoy her company, I want the best for her, I worry when I can’t be there for her. (She’s in a nursing facility half the country away and neither of us have the financial ability to move closer to one another.) I know she did the best that she could with me, and I don’t hold any grudge against her for the way she handled my upbringing – but my mother was very much one of those parents that rescued and protected her son.

It wasn’t always that way. She did a great job of letting me experience life on my own terms and I did a great job of handling that – up until I was 13. That was the year I was repeatedly raped over a period of several months by a guy on my paper route, and Mom went from being relatively hands-off to a helicopter parent. I understand why Mom’s parenting style changed – there was a situation that occurred that she wasn’t there to protect me and a Bad Thing happened because of it, and she was determined that something like that would never happen to me again. I get that. But it severely affected my development as an adult.

Anytime I was faced with adversity or potential disappointment, my mother was there to bail me out of the situation I’d gotten myself in. That behavior continued well into my thirties, and didn’t actually stop altogether until my early forties. When I started living on my own, and started changing the questions from “Mom, I’m in trouble, can you help?” to “Mom, I’ve gotten into a situation and need some advice trying to get myself out of it,” her response was to immediately bail me out. This was usually a financial bailout of some kind. I tried several times to refuse her help, but she worked quickly to make my learning opportunities disappear before they were ever much of a situation at all, and I eventually learned that was what Mom was going to do, and that I wouldn’t learn things like how to make a budget and stick to it from her. I’ve finally gotten to the point that I consider myself grown up, but that’s only after several years of having no actual assistance and very little advice from Mom and needing to come up with the answers on my own.

I try to live my life without regrets, because I never know what decision that I would choose to alter in the past that would radically change my life today, and I like my life too much to want to take a chance on changing that, but there are times that I wish I’d learned how to be an adult earlier than what I did. I feel like I needed to learn that adversity and disappointment that Dr. Brown talks about in her passage above earlier than what I did. I can’t go back and change any of that, unfortunately, but I can move forward knowing that I finally learned what I needed to do to be a functioning adult.

It’s interesting to note that I don’t mention my father much in this. The reason for that is that Dad was very often a hands-off kind of parent and basically left me alone to try and fend for myself. I imagine there being quite the arguments between their parenting styles in my teens, with Dad always giving in to Mom in the interest of matrimonial harmony. The other reason that I don’t mention my father in this post is that he passed away when I was 26, and his ability to alter Mom’s behavior ended in 1995. Keep in mind that Mom was still bending over backward trying to preemptively bail me out of situations through late 2009, so that’s 14 years of Mom receiving no opposition to her parenting style of throwing money at the situation, one that was exacerbated for years by the windfall that was my dad’s life insurance policy.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t fight Mom more than I did, but I really didn’t have the self-confidence to be able to figure out my own way out of a situation, and I certainly didn’t have the know-how. At this point, it’s a thing that just was, and I’m glad that period of my life has come to an end.

So what does that mean moving forward? It means that I’ve finally figured out how to handle adverse financial situations, but it also means that my wife and I are barely scraping by. That will hopefully change in a year or so when I start looking to return to work in my new field of study – having two full incomes coming in will be a huge help to us becoming more social and more active in our hobbies, as well as provide the opportunity to travel more often to visit Mom and perhaps even save up to bring her out to be near us. We’ll just have to see.

It took me far longer than I wanted it to, but I finally learned that adversity and disappointment that comes with being vulnerable. I wish it had happened sooner, but I’m glad it finally happened at all. I’m a stronger person for it.

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