The balancing act of vulnerability and self-preservation


If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with me, or even if you read my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a very open person. I wear my heart on my sleeve (for better or for worse) and my empathy for those around me knows no bounds. For example, I routinely find myself listening to the struggles and life stories of complete strangers.

“It’s like they can sniff you out,” a friend joked, “I’m not sure how you do it.”

But really, how could I not? If there’s something happening on my face that’s telling people, “you can trust me with your secrets and I won’t judge you,” then who am I to refuse an ear?

While my empathy and sensitivity tend to help me connect with people, these traits also leave me quite vulnerable. My openness actually makes me the perfect target. And my penchant for forgiveness and seeing the best in people means that opportunists often take advantage of me. A vulture can quite easily cash in on chance after chance while I make excuses for their behavior. 

I’ve been the victim of poor intentions more times than I can count. My best friend growing up consistently and cruelly bullied me to build herself up. In college, I was catfished and emotionally abused by an ex while I idiotically believed every lie that came out of his pathological mouth. It took me three years to leave him, and five more to stop responding to his communications. I’ve had numerous “friends” over the years who have used me, screwed me over, manipulated me, taken advantage of my kindness and completely sucked me dry.

My mother looked on, exasperated, as I gave myself away time and time again: As I insisted on seeing the good in a man who tortured me so badly that I ran out into the woods in the middle of winter and curled up in fetal position in the snow to suffer my panic attacks alone where no one could find me. As I gave out second, third and fourth chances to a friend who tried to get my mother fired after we’d taken her into our home. As I let a stranger who had no where to stay sleep on my couch and woke up to find him sexually assaulting me.

“You have got to look out for yourself, Chelsea,” she told me, time and time again. The problem was, I didn’t know how to.

When I look back on these difficult memories, or when I tell their stories, it’s always so obvious to me, in retrospect, that these people were out for themselves, and I was nothing but a target. Being a researcher by occupation and nature, I want to figure things out. And try as I might to look back and understand how others can be so cruel, I tend to find myself with more questions than answers. Yet, something I could not see until very recently is the common denominator: me.

Yes, me.

It hurts to feel like I own a piece of being victimized by those who pushed me down. And yet, didn’t I let them? Didn’t I let them all in; let them take pieces of me, let them consume me? Didn’t I ignore my better judgment and the screaming voice inside me that said, “this isn’t right! This isn’t how love works!” Didn’t I let my desperate need to be accepted, seen and understood supersede my survival instinct? Why do I push down that crucial voice — the one that recognizes instantly when others are being taken advantage of but can’t seem to break through when my own feelings are involved? Why do I continue to let people hurt me? Why can’t I learn to put my guard up; to stick up for myself? Why do I default to trust?

I know it’s not all my fault per say. Vulnerability is part of what makes me, me and I’m not to blame for the wonton actions of others. But where does vulnerability end and stupidity begin?

That’s exactly what I am exploring now. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m trying to learn to find a balance between the openhearted person that I am and looking out for myself.

Lately, this has meant stepping back from friendships that drain me and never fill me up, and being very careful with my time and commitments. I cannot be everything to everyone, and I need to stop letting people take from me, just because. I have to be discerning with my time and energy, because unfortunately, I do not have an unlimited supply to give away. Those resources are finite, and I am learning to be smarter with how I expend them.

This is part of the beauty if growing older. We realize that we don’t really have to do all of those things we used to think were compulsory. We learn that self-care and setting boundaries means having more to give others (hopefully, to those who are deserving), not less. We learn to discern where our energies are best spent as well as what and who are not worth our time.

Still, the free-spirited lover in me hates to be discerning. She believes that beauty lies where the boundaries break down. She sees no point in missing out on the best parts of life and relationships in order to protect herself. And maybe partly, she’s right. But maybe, I can still have those things, and they should only be reserved for the people who have proved they’re deserving.

Maybe, after spending the majority of my life feeling sucked dry by those around me and being used as a stepping stone one too many times, I’m finally ready to try the other path: The path of self-preservation.


10 thoughts on “The balancing act of vulnerability and self-preservation

  1. Pingback: The balancing act of vulnerability and self-preservation | syzygy26

  2. That sounds like the exact place I’m in right now. Teetering on solitude and loneliness is a close one. It’s hard when you know that you’re overflowing with love to give someone but you don’t have the person to give it to, and certainly don’t want to give it to the wrong one again.

  3. Looking out for yourself and looking out for others are such hard things to balance. I used to be quite a lot more open but I’ve grown a lot harsher and more shut off, and I’m still trying to learn how to set boundaries. But losing that openness can be so hard, for all the reasons you listed. I hope you’re able to find your sense of balance in these things and continue on stronger and wiser for it.

  4. Thank you for sharing this! As I reached adulthood and became educated on people and things around me, I started to realize I am what you would call a “people pleaser”. I would normally say yes to anything and anyone disregarding my own desires. I struggled with this due to my upbringing, growing up in a house where it was my parents way or the highway. Fortunately, I’ve spent time gradually saying no to things I actually couldn’t do and setting boundaries with my family, which then made it easy with creating boundaries with my friends and strangers (there is a book I purchased at Barnes and Nobles to assist with this). It’s a process, but you will see progress. Stay true to who you are and focus on yourself, the positive people in your life will only add to your own fulfillment!

  5. I once had a minister tell me survivors seemed to have a mark that only preditors and other survivors can see, like hobo marks on the side walk. I am not sure this is true but it certainly seems to be. This is an excellent review of this challenge we all face daily.

  6. this is great stuff! you are an amazing woman! wish we lived closer, I know we’d be friends! I read this and thought, wow this is me! Rockin’ name by the way! Stand up for yourself and I’ll stand up with you! I think most women would empower other women!

  7. Well written and wonderful as always. I can completely relate, too – one of the things I picked up in years of therapy is understanding that I, too, am worthy of my best intentions.

  8. The ultimate human lifestyle is putting others before self. To trade beauty for a thick skin, in my opinion is not a good deal. We humans fear death or the end of self. What we fail to realize is that this material life is a small reflection of true reality. Unless a seed fall into the ground it really is not living. Self-preservation is natural and it perpetuates this material reality. You give because it brings you life. You reflect and it appears you have been taken. But you give again because it brings you life. What you fail to realize it that you are now living in every person you have ever died in. Its a mystery only from a material point of view. However we are infinite and eternal and we never die. You are amazing and so is every human. Thanks!

  9. This is beautifully written and I can relate so well. I’ve often thought to myself that of all the times I’ve been taken advantage of, wouldn’t I have learned to stop trusting at some point? I never have. I still haven’t. I am an open book waiting to be read. Longing to share my stories and tales in hopes of helping the next kindred spirit along their jounrey. Thank you for reminding myself, and others, that we are not alone in this world.

  10. I totally understand what it’s like to be empathetic and sensitive. It makes life harder but getting hurt by people is worth it if I can be there for the right people. But no matter what, don’t ever let someone make you take what you don’t want. You are your own, strong person.

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