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21 September 2022

How learning to be vulnerable has brought me joy

From rugby to rock-climbing, I’m doing things I’m bad at – and it’s working wonders.

By Pravina Rudra

Over the past year I have learned that I struggle to be vulnerable. It feels strange to write that, because people generally know me as an over-sharer. But I came to discover various subtle ways in which I would put my guard up, or try to control things to protect myself from pain or embarrassment.

Like many neuroses, this seems to have started in adolescence – even earlier, perhaps, as aged four I had a brain tumour, and then medical interventions in my formative years. A difficulty in being vulnerable, I have since learned, is not uncommon among women of south Asian heritage. Cultural values can teach us to tense up, bristle and clench – to protect ourselves from others’ bad intentions, or worse, their judgement.

My attempt to unpick this habit began entirely accidentally. A friend encouraged me to start playing tag rugby this year. Initially the prospect didn’t seem appealing. I hadn’t played a team game since primary school – and has there ever been a sporting persona more intimidating than the “rugby lad”? My ignorance of the sport was profound: I never knew until I started playing that in rugby you have to pass the ball backwards. It seemed to me a highly inefficient way of getting it across the pitch.

At first I could barely catch the ball. Before tag sessions I’d wake up in the mornings feeling so nauseous I hoped I might throw up, and have an excuse not to go to what felt like a weekly humiliation. But slowly I realised that I wouldn’t get anywhere unless I ran and asked for the ball; that even when I dropped it no one really cared, and the world didn’t fold in on me.

I gradually found myself enjoying the sport, and scoring tries. Being vulnerable was paying off. So, with a friend, I started bouldering – wall-climbing but, crucially, without a harness (just the kind of security mechanism I favour). That, too, taught me to take risks – a lesson I’ve applied most recently by ending a relationship that wasn’t working. It felt foolhardy – would I ever meet someone else?

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In order to ascend the rock wall I must let go of one hold and swing my body upwards, without any certainty I’ll have the strength to grab on to another hold. In this way I realised I couldn’t move on, or meet someone else, unless I let go of what I’d had.

Then, recently, I went to a festival called Camp Wildfire – a “summer camp for adults”. Deep in the forest, we took part in everything from hide-and-seek to Nerf gun battles. I found that if I held on to the sides of the water slide, I’d never pick up speed or adrenaline. If I tried to protect myself from the twinge of rubber pellets by cowering behind a haystack, I’d never feel the rush of hitting my target.

My strangest discovery was that my attempts to exert control not only prevented enjoyment but took me further from the safety I was hoping for in the first place. If I froze up during burlesque dancing, for fear I wasn’t looking sexy, I’d stiffen into an unsexy robot anyhow. If I jumped from a height cautiously, failing to throw my arms and legs into the air, I’d injure my back on landing. If I started overthinking and shaking when I climbed a tree, I’d lose my grip. I filled my weekend with behavioural experiments that might otherwise be spread over a lifetime of therapy. Input: less control, led to output: better, happier, safer.

My friends laugh at the wholesome life I now lead: how, with my fellow rugby players I run and wave little fluorescent tags like they did in primary school. But the older I get, the more I relish these opportunities to risk making a fool of myself and to have a go at something I know nothing about.

I used to opt for the same hobbies I’d always pursued, with the goal of mastery. Now I want to do things I’m bad at – the more ridiculous the better.

I tend to find this is a growing trend among millennials – friends have taken up pole dancing, blokey men I know have started netball and life drawing. The founders of the camp I attended set it up because they mourned the fact that only children “play”, that adults do not traditionally engage in “activities”.

In terms of making myself vulnerable, I still have a way to go (perhaps I’ll try a naturist camp next). Continually countering every instinct I’ve developed over 28 years is painful (physically, too: I have cuts and scrapes all over). On my third ever rugby session a ball hit my face and was left with an orange make-up stain across half of it, much to my embarrassment. But I have learned that we must allow ourselves to be hurt in order to experience joy. And now I prefer to let life run its course; to go with the flow – because constructing barriers never did me much good.

Tracey Thorn is on sabbatical

[See also: We’re told not to have too many friends – but for me, there’s no such thing]

This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke