Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 18, 2020

Love as a two-way street: learning the value of vulnerability

By KELSEY KO | February 15, 2018

It was a particularly brisk day — the kind of fall day that teeters right at the edge of winter — when I crossed 31st Street last semester and made my way to the Counseling Center for my very first appointment. I wasn’t necessarily going to counseling for mental health issues, I was going to confront a fear that I’ve always had: therapy. 

While some people are scared of heights or needles, I’ve always been pretty terrified of sharing my feelings. I felt anxious while walking those few short blocks, my palms sweating and heart racing — the way I often get when I know I need to talk about myself. 

Near the end of the session, I explained to my counselor how I’d always considered being a therapist while growing up. My counselor told me why she decided to work as a counselor.

“I think some people are therapists even before they become therapists. I think I was one of those people,” she said.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always asked other people questions in order to deflect from talking about my own feelings. My counselor pointedly asked me if I had been that way my whole life, and that’s when it finally dawned on me. Yes. I’ve always been this way. I was a therapist by personality, just as she was. If there’s such a thing as temperament, mine was performing acts of emotional labor for free. 

At the tender age of 14, I walked into my first ever counseling appointment and refused to say anything. I despised the idea that someone was being paid to care about me. Deep down, I felt that my problems were minimal, so small in scale to those of others. I get out of bed every morning. I don’t have thoughts of taking my own life. Why should a counselor care about me?

I was never this harsh on my friends when it came to their personal struggles. I knew that with them, no problem — no matter how big or small — was unimportant.

I let a friend lean on me for support when a boy kept breaking her heart over and over again for years. I spent hours every week giving her all my emotional support, only to have her go back to him a second, third, then a fourth time.

I talked to boys in high school about their ailing mothers, their dependencies on recreational drug use, their struggles with mental health. I sat on the phone with them; I sat in cars with them; I let myself lose sleep in these acts of emotional labor — and I didn’t even have romantic feelings for them. And the funny thing is that these guys never once asked about me or how I was doing. They only felt comfortable opening up to women, but they were at a loss to provide support to others.

I think people have different ways of showing love. For me, loving was helping. Loving has always been being there on a fundamental level and asking for nothing in return. Unfortunately, I think a lot of women perform this kind of unrequited and free emotional labor.

There’s a ton of scholarship on how women perform the most unpaid labor. It’s the type of work that can’t be readily quantified and that many people have always taken for granted — raising children, feeding the family, caring for relatives. It’s your mom who always remembered to pack your lunchbox and cut the crust off your sandwich because you didn’t like it. It’s your wife who always asks questions about your day and makes sure the children brush their teeth before bed. 

Emotional labor is often defined as the process of managing your own feelings for others. It’s why we expect our customer service people to smile and ask us if we need anything. It’s why we expect our waiters and waitresses to be friendly and polite. But for me and a lot of other women, it’s also the act of putting in time for others and investing in their issues. It’s helping them do their own emotional labor and manage their feelings.

But on the flip side, I still struggle with the whole emotional vulnerability thing as well. Besides being a woman, I know there are parts of my own background that keep emotional openness from coming naturally to me. I’m also the child of Asian immigrants, which means I was raised in a household that valued stoicism, quiet strength and “saving face” aka preventing embarrassment at all costs. My loving, wonderful parents — bless them — never expressed their love openly and also never encouraged me to share my feelings.

Steeped in that kind of culture, it’s hard to entrust both the ugly and the pretty parts of yourself to someone else without fear of judgment. Being vulnerable is hoping someone will love you enough to accept the not-so-fun, not-so-happy parts of you. And that’s pretty scary.

Once I got to college, confronting that demon that I first came face-to-face with at 14 years old — that demon called therapy — terrified me. I had to talk about myself to someone I didn’t really know for a whole hour, and that notion rattled me to the core. And get this: I had to go in and do it willingly. Face it. Ask for help and say, “My problems feel too big for me, even though I also feel they are smaller than those of others.”

I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who can call up a friend immediately when something is bothering me. It’s still easier for me to process feelings through writing than by speaking out loud. But these days I’m making a conscious effort — to open up, to be candid, to share greater parts of my life with the people I love. Because isn’t loving also trusting someone with yourself, as much as it is about being there for the other person? It’s about your emotional vulnerability as much as it is about your emotional labor. 

At my counseling session, my counselor told me that even therapists need therapists. And I’m starting to believe her.

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