Put Down the Armor: How Vulnerability Combats Fear and Shame - Jennifer Lombardi
“We wake up in the morning and we armor up and we put it on and say, I’m going to go out into the world, I’m basically going to kick some ass, I’m not going to let anyone see who I am and in doing so, I can protect myself against the things that hurt the most — judgment, criticism, fear, blame, ridicule. I’m going to armor up and I’m going to be safe.”
- Brenè Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong
Armoring up. If you’re like me, the idea of facing the world with some sort of protective shield that keeps me safe and keeps people at a distance sounds — in many settings — like a wonderful thing. Who wants to be hurt? Who wants to be seen as incompetent? Flawed? Insecure? Not me. Or, at least, that was me. In a big way. In the throes of my eating disorder.
Every time I faced something new — a new situation, a new expectation, a new social setting — I would feel my insides cinch up.
I was the kid who feared what people would think, feared making a mistake, feared upsetting someone, feared being a burden to anyone. But, at the same time, I hated being bored. I hated watching the world pass by and not being a part of it.
Deep down, I was a curious kid and felt passionate about a lot of things: theater, art, writing, animals, laughter, silliness, kindness, and more. I hated being stuck and being alone. So I made a deal with myself early on: never let them see you sweat. Maybe I heard this somewhere from my family or from a TV commercial. I have no idea. But, however this idea came to me is irrelevant. It stuck.
The problem was that I was suffering — profusely, on the inside. Emotionally, I was terrified of what people would think, terrified of making a mistake, and terrified of not knowing what to do or say. But I couldn’t show it. I taught myself to appear as though I was okay. I never acknowledged my fears. I never asked for help. Sadly, one of my ultimate goals in life between the ages of 11 and 18 was to never let anyone see me cry. Ever. This worked for a long time, until life got more complicated and demanding.
As I approached the end of my senior year in high school, I began to feel a new, larger tidal wave crash down on me. The pretending and holding back were not enough. That is when my eating disorder showed up and said, “Hey, when you need some reassurance that you can do anything and feel nothing, I’m here for you. Eat. Don’t eat. Over-exercise. Check out, do something ‘right’ and nothing else will matter.”
Twenty-two years later, as I sit here and reflect on that time and what I’ve learned since — as a clinician and as someone in recovery – I realize that I was armoring up in so many ways. And, I’ve learned, perhaps most importantly, that I’m not alone in armoring up, because we all do it — just maybe not through an eating disorder.
In recovery, I had to learn to recognize the role my eating disorder was playing in my armoring up — as I desperately avoiding being vulnerable and honest. But now I know that we can relate best to people who allow themselves to be vulnerable, who let us into the best parts of themselves and the darkest parts in an honest way. Someone who can own all of these parts is far easier for me to relate to and trust. And the irony was that unless I was willing to be vulnerable and real with myself and those closest to me, I couldn’t expect to trust myself.
The fear doesn’t go away, nor does the shame. But leaning into the discomfort of being vulnerable allowed empathy – true empathy – to show up in my life. And it made the fear and shame far more manageable.
Jennifer Lombardi, MFT, CEDS, is a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator-Candidate and Recovery Ambassador for Eating Recovery Center.