Big Girls Do Cry: On Why It’s Okay to Be Vulnerable

“What are your strengths and weaknesses?” Standard interview question, isn’t it? And sure enough, you can probably gather some strengths, but with the weaknesses, it gets a little more tricky. You have to be careful not to give yourself a backhanded compliment (“I’m such a perfectionist” *giggles*) and point out an actual area of improvement, but you also have to make sure you mention something you can actually improve upon (“I’m late to work every morning, but it’s okay, I set a lot of alarms now.” Yeah, sure.) So yes, you really need to reflect upon that one, but hey, if you think about it, there’s a kind of strength in knowing your weaknesses. And sometimes, you can even turn your weaknesses into strengths. 

Where am I going with all this? Well, I like to think that I know my weaknesses pretty well. I’m a major drama queen. I like to justify it by saying I’m a writer who is all about conflict for storytelling purposes, but that’s heaps of crap. I’m also way too impulsive and oversensitive. My freshman year at USC, I tore up my name on my RA’s bulletin board, ironically one that was about emotion control, because I felt that I had been put in an uncomfortable situation because of it. Was I overreacting? Most certainly. But I’ll also be the first to admit that I spent a great portion of that year crying on my bathroom carpet at 3 AM, partly due to that entire chain of events. Was that overreacting? Maybe. But I couldn’t help it, and not for a moment was I proud of it. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t great at all, which is why last summer, I decided to cut back on the tears.

And this is where it gets important. Here’s the deal with crying: it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an emotional release that stops you from doing potentially worse things, things that I will not get into in this post. But it’s not necessarily a good thing either.  My second semester, I’d created this great theory of being a “happy mess,” which was complete and utter BS, and was essentially just me forcing myself not to cry instead of, y’know, dealing with the problem at its core. But since I was to be an RA my sophomore year, there was no room for the mess part. I thought about it a lot over the summer, and I figured that as a peer leader, I’d have to be strong, confident, happy and, well, basically have my life together. There was to be no time for tears and emotional breakdowns, which is why my motto soon became “RAs Don’t Cry.” You know, like Big Girls Don’t Cry. “Happiness is a choice” they say, and although I’m pretty sure that is not true at all, I tried to convince myself that it was. All throughout RA training, I would force myself not to cry (except for that one exercise that literally had 200 people crying), and when I did (on move-in day, a situation related to the year before), I hated myself for it. Nevertheless, for a little while, I seemed to be doing okay, with no major emotional outbursts. That is, until that one day in band camp when I decided I couldn’t be in Silks any longer.

That’s when the façade began to crumble. RAs do cry. RAs are people, and people cry all the time. Being in a leadership position doesn’t mean you’re no longer a person. Yes, this job requires a great deal of emotional strength, but we are by no means superhuman–and nor should we be. Holding up an illusion of perfection, after all, can be equally destructive. Leaders are role models whom people inadvertently compare themselves to, so yes, we should project a positive image, but pretending to be faultless is simply lying. It’s lying that can make people feel inferior or insecure, and lying that prompts people to believe we won’t understand their problems and will judge their life choices. Yes, trust me, I’ve been there, that’s how it works. So it’s okay for leaders to be vulnerable, as it is for any other person to be vulnerable. 

And you know what, sometimes an RA should be vulnerable, because vulnerability makes us human.
It was a Thursday night in band camp, and I hated every second of it. And I know that you’re not supposed to enjoy band camp, but this was different. I felt like an outsider. I felt like I didn’t belong, a although feeling that haunts me every second of my life, for reasons we won’t get into now, this time it was real. And feeling like I didn’t belong terrified me. At the same time, I also felt incredibly guilty for what I saw as abandoning my residents. I felt selfish for doing something for my personal enjoyment when I signed up for a job that was all about being selfless and helping others. So on the Friday before classes started — two days after my residents moved in and two days before the end of band camp — I chose to quit marching band. I couldn’t be the RA poster child and the Silks poster child at the same time, and couldn’t be putting 100% into both things, as I knew that eventually, I would be letting an amazing group of people down. And since there wasn’t exactly a choice to make there, I handed in my flag. 

Except, I didn’t feel any better. I felt that I had failed, once again, I felt like a quitter for not persevering through band camp, and I was heartbroken over giving up spinning and abandoning the Silks. I felt empty, in a sense. That day, I went back to my apartment, opened my door, put some cupcakes on top of my condom bucket (lol) for my residents, and tried to be the super-RA I had always wanted to be. Except I was still in tears, and when my residents ran into me, a super-RA is probably the last thing they saw me as. And then an odd thing happened. “You know you can always talk to us if you’re sad,” one of them said. 

Those were my words, and I told him so. Those were my standard, exclusive RA words.

“But you’re crying” he said. And then I told him how I quit band so I could be a better RA. I told him that I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, and that I was abandoning them by doing something that isn’t all that important. And so he responded, “yes, we need you now, because we’ve just moved in. And yes, we’ll need you from time to time, but we won’t need you all the time. You clearly love band, and we’d feel bad if you quit for us.”
Needless to say, the next day I was back in band. (After a wonderful one-on-one with my section leader who essentially said that I’m letting the Silks down by leaving them. Band, she said, shouldn’t be my number one priority, as it isn’t hers either, and it should simply be something I do because I enjoy it. As long as I’m there and I do everything to the best of my abilities and circumstances, I’m good.) Most people just saw me quitting the band for 24 hours as one of my drama queen moments, and though it wasn’t, I was okay with that. You know, sometimes you just need to distance yourself from something to realize how much it actually matters to you. I also discovered that by opening up to my residents — and, perhaps, by crying in front of them — I got a lot closer to them. They saw that I’m not just this idea of a person, that I’m more than my job and my position, and that I’m a person who actually has feelings and things she is passionate about. And I can confidently say that to this day, those two guys who saw my crying in my apartment are some of my residents that I’m closest to.

Of course, by no means am I saying that RAs should make crying in front of their residents a habit, or that we should in any way use our residents as emotional dumpsters. If anything, we’re the emotional dumpsters in the RA-resident relationship. What I am saying, however, is that even if you’re in a leadership position, it never hurts to show that you’re human. We’re all more than our position and job title. Just because we choose to pursue a job that is essentially about caring for people and acting as a role model, we don’t always have to have everything in line. Plus, that also makes it really easy to burn out.
Personally, I’m terrified of people who appear perfect. They’re intimidating, they seem unreal to me, and I for sure would not want to open up to them. I’d feel ashamed and self-conscious that I’m not as great as them, and what’s more, I’d feel judged. I’d feel like a failure talking to a living proof of the fact that I’m doing life wrong. And yes, I know that’s stupid and that nobody’s perfect, Hannah Montana has taught me that, so I shouldn’t be intimidated by people who seem to have everything together. But I am, and I know I’m not the only one. On the other hand, vulnerability is often misinterpreted as a weakness, when it really isn’t one. I’m much more comfortable being vulnerable with someone who is vulnerable with me. As conflicting as it sounds, it requires courage to be vulnerable, there is strength in being vulnerable. You hear me?

Vulnerability is a strength. And that’s all I have to say about that.
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