Beyond Sex Ed: Bliss in vulnerability

Every spring, Brianna Booth, director of positive sexuality, teaches a class where students talk about sex, sexuality, intimacy and relationships by telling their own stories. Stories reveal the reality of unexpressed feelings, silenced desires, big love, big pain and searing heartache. This series is dedicated to pulling back that curtain — together, we’ll build a more intimate world. Read the introduction to the series here.

I have a confession to make. Three years ago, as I neared the end of my frosh year, I wrote an article that explored the daunting task of facing my truths. I haven’t shared this with many people, but the article — aptly titled “Ignorance is bliss” — didn’t come from a place of bravery. It was written from a place of guilt. 

Earlier that spring, I had taken a class called “Storycraft: Sexuality, Intimacy & Relationships.” In this class, students courageously shared their stories, exploring the intricacies of sex, sexuality, intimacy and relationships in their lives. On the morning of the final performance, I woke up feeling panicked. 

The idea of divulging any aspect of myself, including a story I had specifically chosen to present because I believed it was, for lack of a better description, “stupid” and “naive” and would thus demand minimal vulnerability on my part, repulsed me. A few hours before the final performance, I emailed Brianna Booth, our instructor, sharing with her a half-baked lie about why it would be emotionally unwise for me to share my story. In a cohort of 13 people, I was the only student who didn’t perform.

In the weeks that followed, I grappled with an overwhelming sense of disappointment. I felt like a failure, like I had failed the class, failed Brianna and failed myself. It was against this backdrop of guilt that I penned the aforementioned article. Writing the article was no feat of courage; it was an attempt to save face. 

I am now a senior. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at sharing emotional truths about myself, but a few weeks into fall quarter, I got a rude awakening. On a random Tuesday night at Huang basement, I asked my best friend Daniela if she thought I was doing better this year — whether I seemed happier. She gave me a hesitant “yes,” saying that, in her eyes, I seemed more-or-less the same as I had always been, content as ever. I seemed the same because I hadn’t divulged anything substantial that indicated otherwise. 

Daniela’s response shocked me. How could my best friend not know that I wasn’t the same as ever, that I had been struggling, deeply, and I’d worked really hard to be where I am now? In that moment, I felt unseen, confronting the unfair expectation I had harbored: that those close to me should know and intuit my inner world without needing explicit communication. If Daniela couldn’t do that, if she couldn’t perceive my unspoken reality, did that diminish our friendship? Did she really even know me?

This mindset, I recognize, is characteristic of someone in pain; nevertheless, the sting of our conversation lingered for a few days, eventually transforming into heartbreak as I realized that my own tendency to withhold and share only the most rehearsed and non-“cringey” facets of my mind was the reason Daniela hadn’t known the full extent of how I was doing. The importance of vulnerability became undeniable. I decided to go to therapy again.

Therapy is a path I had trodden and retreated from several times before. My previous attempts were half-hearted, marred by a lack of commitment. But perhaps it was a sense of obligation to my past and future selves, or a desire to be a better friend and communicator, or the relatability of my new therapist — cool, funny, sarcastic, queer woman of color — somehow, I found the courage to persist this time, embracing the tears that came after and sometimes during sessions.

In therapy, I confronted my tendency to intellectualize emotions, dissecting why I felt a certain way instead of allowing myself to feel them. I realized my aversion to challenging conversations wasn’t just about fear of losing control or getting hurt. Interestingly, it wasn’t the pain I feared. At its core, I was grappling with a sense of insignificance, a nagging thought that I cared for others more than they cared for me. This belief led me to think that sharing my deeper, “icky” emotions would disrupt my relationships and alter how others viewed me, making me a burden in their lives.

This realization became clearer during the summer between my junior and senior year in India. I remember a night out with my housemate Rimaz and his friends, one of the most fulfilling nights of my life because I engaged in probing conversations openly, forming social connections that remain intact and feel nourishing to this day. In contrast, sharing a similar night with Daniela feels daunting. With Rimaz, the transient nature of our relationship lessened the stakes of any potential emotional invalidation. But with Daniela, our long-standing, deep connection amplifies the risks. 

My struggle with vulnerability isn’t about an unwillingness to share; in fact, I yearn to share everything with those I love. It brings me joy, and it makes me feel free. However, each time I open up, I confront a profound existential anxiety: the fear that my emotions, my very existence, might be regarded as insignificant. It’s a precarious balance, teetering between seeking validation and the dread of being disregarded.

This past quarter, I took deliberate steps toward changing my perception of myself and embracing vulnerability. Through a combination of therapy, nervous system regulation, conversations with my favorite advisor ever Gabriel and, perhaps a little embarrassingly, insights gained from Twitter, I’ve come to understand the incredible power and adaptability of the human brain. The belief that I’m insignificant is merely a collection of thoughts, many of which did not originate from me, but were absorbed from mainstream culture and personal experiences that I know now don’t define me but at the time made me feel unworthy. I’ve realized that I don’t have to identify with these thoughts anymore. I have the power to create new thought patterns. When I do, there’s a literal transformation within my brain — neurons fire differently, and new connections are formed.

So when the fear of vulnerability arises, manifesting in physical responses like a clenched stomach and nervous scratching, I remind myself that these are signs of old beliefs. They are remnants of a past need for self-protection, now obsolete. I gently remind myself that true safety doesn’t lie in veiled hints and emotional distance, but in embracing vulnerability and intimacy. The false sense of security that lack of vulnerability provides doesn’t serve me anymore. I aspire to engage with others and be engaged myself — to see, understand and be understood in full authenticity. Inspired by Brené Brown, I strive for the courage to be visible and vulnerable, even when outcomes are uncertain.

In a moment that feels like coming full circle, I shared the story I had intended to present on the final day of my freshman class with two of my close friends at the end of fall quarter. It revolves around my struggles with the self-hatred and self-imposed, incredibly misogynistic comparisons I experienced and imparted upon other girls during my relationship with my first boyfriend, about six years ago. 

Narrating the story is an act of gesture of love and compassion toward my freshman self who, overwhelmed and embarrassed that she was once so affected by something that feels so insignificant now, chose not to share her story. It is also a recognition of my 15-year-old self, grappling with feelings and situations new to her. This adolescent story, once a source of internal struggle, is now embraced with understanding and kindness. It reflects my growth and learning since then.

There is bliss to be found in vulnerability.