One of the many things I struggle with is being vulnerable. This wrestle with vulnerability began in my early teens as I started discovering parts of myself that, if made public, were going to be susceptible to anything from misrepresentation to outright demonisation. So I kept a lot of those things to myself and fought my demons alone, in silence. I had mastered the art of concealing desires, emotions, and feelings.
But as I grew older, I realised that in certain spaces, I found myself recklessly vulnerable. It almost felt like an overcompensation for the concealing which happened throughout every other waking second. In those spaces, I felt my inhibitions and trepidations dissolve and soak the soles of my cold feet.
This vulnerability that I speak of existed in those fleeting tranquil moments when I shared intimate stories about myself and my life with strangers without any restrictions. During these moments, the voice of my mother who always told me “Buu, don’t talk to strangers” had been drowned by the loudness of my suppressed emotions as they fought to be released.
With strangers, I could share personal stories with a teardrop sliding down my cheeks, yet feeling no sense of shame or judgement. Even when their eyes burrowed into mine as I spoke, I didn’t feel the usual lump in my chest which formed when discussing such sensitive things with people I’m more familiar with.
It became a curious thing that those moments of serendipitous openness tended to occur more frequently with strangers and people I barely knew than my own friends and family. After taking a mind trip to investigate why this was the case, I am excited to have finally discovered the two main reasons why.
With Strangers, There Isn’t Any Pressure to Be Consistent
Most of our friends have a mental image of us that has been shaped by months, years, or decades of accumulated information about the different dimensions of our personality and our character. This image is something that we become familiar with through the frequent suggestions of our friends about who we are based on what we let them see.
Because of our awareness of this image they have of us, we feel a subtle pressure to remain consistent with it because any discrepancy would suggest to our friends that we aren’t being our ‘authentic’ selves or that something’s wrong. This forces us to craft monolithic versions of ourselves which gets reinforced by social influences from our friends, family, and acquaintances. In the process, the parts of ourselves which don’t fit into our monolithic narrative don’t die off. Rather, they remain suppressed waiting for the right moment to let themselves loose.
In my case, my monolithic narrative which has been crafted for me is that of the “guy who has it all figured out.” This narrative has been weaved together with the strings of my seemingly grand achievements. Therefore, most people who know me tend to be aware of this narrative of an Arinze who has it all figured out because things seem to be working for him. Even though, in the reality of things, that narrative is completely false, I often catch myself playing to the subconscious pressure of being consistent with the image of the ‘omniscient Arinze’ during my interactions with people. This most frequently takes the form of pretending to know stuff when I actually have no clue about what’s going on. Most times, I get away with it.
Talking with strangers or newly-formed acquaintances, on the other hand, frees me of this fixed narrative, the socially-curated image and the pressure to always maintain consistency in order to not appear duplicitous. During the time I spend talking with strangers, I am portaled far away from those social constructs and I’m free to be my full self; my vulnerable self. I embrace the multiplicity of my personality without having to shrink any fragments of it. It’s a surreal feeling which, due to its rarity, gets me to open up in ways I didn’t think was possible.
With Strangers, There’s Really Nothing To Lose
When you think about any of your friends, your mind is immediately flooded with an ocean of memories you made together. Some happy, some sad, and some oscillating between pain and laughter. Regardless of the nature of these memories, they are most likely things you’d prefer to preserve. In order to do this, your relationship with the said friend must be subjected to as few turbulences as possible in order to remain intact. That’s an incentive for you to not ‘burn bridges’ or feed the fires that burn them. It’s the same thing for me.
In my effort to preserve my friendships, I always hesitate to share sensitive things that I think might either offend my friends or that they may misunderstand. That’s because I don’t want to lose them. I can’t afford to. But with strangers, it’s a blank slate. There’s nothing to preserve. There’s no bridge that exists at all for there to be anything at risk of getting burnt. This creates a low-risk space for me to talk freely about my feelings and my experiences. As a result, I tend to be a lot more open, more honest, less withholding, and less awkward whenever the conversation grazes the tangent of something personally sensitive.
In all this, however, there’s a twist.
Although I enjoy the vulnerability that exists while talking with strangers, meeting strangers makes me very uneasy because of my introverted personality. I barely go out, and even when I do, I tend to always stick with a crowd I’m already familiar with. Maybe that explains why most of these strangers I’ve been vulnerable with have been one night stands. With them, the knowledge that we most likely wouldn’t see each other again frees us to be open to each other without fear of any consequences.
Over the next couple of months, I plan to meet new strangers by putting myself out there a lot more, going on more adventures, trying new things, and living life as an experience.
Until I meet another stranger who’s as willing to engage in a hearty conversation, I’ll keep bottling most things inside as I wait for our serendipitous encounter.
This piece was first published on my personal blog.