When he was six years old, I listened as my son and his buddy engaged in conversation in the back of my car on the way to our home for a play date. “Will you sleep over my house?” his buddy asked. My son was quiet, and his buddy continued, “It would be so great. We could stay up the whole night and sneak into the refrigerator….” My son was still quiet, and so his buddy repeated his question: “Want to sleep at my house?” My son pondered for a few seconds and then answered, “No. I don’t want to sleep at your house.” His friend was confused and asked, “Why not?” My son paused for a second and said, in a very matter of fact way, “Because I’m scared.” “Okay,” his friend said, and the conversation quickly shifted to Pokémon.
This memory came to me as I silently ate my lunch in the lobby of the OmniShoreham Hotel during a conference for psychotherapists. Earlier that morning, I heard a keynote in which the speaker asked us to reflect more on vulnerability as essential to growth, creativity, joy. In a workshop, I watched a demonstration of a clinician who masterfully guided a couple as they lowered their defenses and became more vulnerable with one another. “It is easier for me to tell you that I’m angry,” the wife courageously said to her husband, “than it is to tell you that I’m terrified of losing you.” And what was most resonant with me was a single image the keynote speaker asked us to ponder—the image of a heart covered with pieces of heavy armor.
I remembered feeling both proud and relieved when I heard the exchange between my son and his buddy a few years ago. Proud because my son was courageous—the very root of the word “courage” is “heart,” and my son’s naked words, “I’m scared,” suggested to me that he felt safe enough and free enough to speak truly, from the heart. Relieved because his friend, as many small children do, responded in a basic, open-hearted way. His “okay” signaled something deeper to my son: not only is it “okay” that he is scared, but he is okay. His friend loves and accepts him anyway.
And perhaps this small but significant moment in my son’s life left such a deep impression on me because it is a contrast to my own experience as a child, to the experience of many of us whose hearts have been armored because we learned, in many such moments in our lives, to feel ashamed.
The summer when I was six, my mother registered me for a “Dr. Seuss Day” workshop at the local library. She dropped me off at the library—for whatever reason, she couldn’t bring me inside, and she told me to go directly to the children’s room. When I got to the room, however, I saw that the door was closed. I was late, and I could see through the small, square window in the door that the workshop had started. A leader, surrounded by happy children donning Seuss-inspired hats, crouched at a small, portable stove, scrambling what looked like a green egg. For whatever reason, I felt afraid to open the door and walk inside, as if I were some unwelcome intruder, and so instead, I spent the hour walking the aisles of the library. At hour’s end, I spotted my mother walking into the children’s room, and by the time I got to the room, I could see her talking with the workshop leader. When I approached, my mother was silent and had a look of embarrassment on her face. The leader, with a look of annoyance, interrogated me, “Why, Becky, did you not come join us?” Their looks signaled to me that I could not speak from the heart—“I was afraid.” Instead, I said the only words I knew to say in that moment—“I don’t know.” My mother’s face softened a bit, but the leader responded, in a brassy, elevated voice, “Well that’s too bad, my dear, because you missed out on a lot of fun!” My mother was more tender with me than usual for the remainder of the day, but she never talked to me about what happened. On some level, I think she wanted to, but she didn’t know how. Her heart was armored, and I was learning to armor mine.
Here is what I have come to know. Vulnerability is the process of stripping away the heart’s armor. For me (and for many who have a history of shame), it’s the hardest and riskiest but most essential personal work. Without it, authentic growth, joy, love are impossible.
Here is what I also know. I can’t do the work alone. Shame has marked my history, but so too has acceptance and love from some people with whom I have felt safe enough to show the chinks in my heart’s armor. There have been people—not many but enough—with whom I have been able to say, “I am scared.” “I am lonely.” “I am sad.” And those people have wrapped me in the comfort of their love and assured me that I am not alone. As a therapist, I’ve spent many hours (even in my relatively short career) with women and men who have not been so lucky. I am grateful.
My son is now almost eight years old. He went to his first sleepover at a dear friend’s house a few months ago. I lay awake much of that night, wondering if he felt scared. When I went to pick him up in the morning, he was upset when I arrived and didn’t want to leave. It was big. “He’s really growing up,” I thought to myself somewhat wistfully.
And then a week ago, we chatted in the kitchen as I prepared our family dinner. He volunteered that his best friend asked him to accompany him for a week-long sleepaway camp this summer. “He said it would be so great and that we could share a bunk bed. He’d sleep on the bottom bunk, and I’d sleep on the top.” “And so what do you think?” I asked. “I told him that a week seems like a long time for me. I told him I felt too scared.” I started to feel my heart beat quickly and noticed myself stirring the bechamel quite vigorously as I asked, “And what did he say?” Without hesitation and with a sense of deep security, my son said, “He said, ‘Okay, then, maybe next year.’” And the two got on with their play.
A sense of deep calm washed over me. My heart felt soft. “Yes. Maybe next year.”