By Lora Mathis
In the middle of a breakdown, my head is crueler to me than anyone I’ve met. It chimes in to tell me that no one cares about my suffering. That I am pathetic and that my suffering is a sign of personal failure. In stable moments, I reflect on my thoughts in a breakdown and feel as though I cannot totally trust my head. It feels like a traitor to my recovery. Or a bully. It took me awhile to realize that the things I tell myself in low moments are learned. They are internalized shame resulting from a society which insists that to feel is to be weak.
Society tells that the picture of strength is a stoic, emotionless person. We are taught to keep our pain to ourselves and not tell anyone we are suffering. Women, femmes, queers, and people of color are particularly shamed for their emotions. They are dismissed as “crazy” or “over-dramatic” when they express issues with their lives, especially when said issues stem from systemic forces. Society tells those in pain to keep their mouths shut, because allowing people to be openly vocal about their problems means acknowledging that there is work to be done.
I see unapologetic vulnerability as a way to push back against society’s shaming. Being upfront about what pains us helps us learn our hurt and allows others to know they are not alone. Plus, if our pain is out in the open, it becomes less of a terrifying, shapeless cloud and more of a thing that can be tackled, little by little, each day.
My form of healing heavily relies on documenting my emotionality via social media. I post very upfront statements about my mental illness on social media. I am a poet and artist who uses their work to sort through the trauma of mental illness and childhood abuse. Sharing my pain in a creative outlet and with strangers allows me to work up the courage to be upfront about these things in my day-to-day life. My healing has been a cycle of me chipping away at my layers and getting to the core of what I feel.
In October of 2015, I coined the term “radical softness as a weapon,” to describe my personal approach to healing. This term is about not shaming yourself for your pain and recognizing the strength in vulnerability. It is about regaining a voice after being silenced by forces such as mental illness, trauma, and systemic oppression -- and others’ reactions to your suffering from said forces. It is not about strategically using your emotions or manipulating others with your pain. It is about being soft and unashamed. It is about recognizing the power in vulnerability and repainting the image of strength.
I have spent years being ashamed of having an abundance of feelings and not being able to “control them.” (I have this in quotations because often I was told I was out of control when expressing valid anger towards abuse or trauma.) I was described as “overly-sensitive” and “angsty” when I had a breakdown that stemmed from mental illness. I thought that I should be able to snap my fingers and stop all of the negative thoughts in my head. I was told that continually breaking down was a sign that I was not trying hard enough.
By being vocal about my struggles, I am unlearning internalized shame. I am teaching myself to acknowledge the strength in constantly picking myself up. Being vulnerable is a way of survival to me. If I don’t speak up about these things they will eat me alive.
Healing is a personalized process and while I believe it can look differently for everyone, I think that the most power comes from viewing healing as collective action. Being open breaks stigma and offering support fosters spaces of growth.
Vulnerability is not weakness. It is a force. It is a method of collective resistance. It is a way of pushing back; of taking back your voice and saying, “enough.”