The prompt: “What is your greatest fear?”

I stare at the question. Five words, black and white, evoking a panoply of images and thoughts and memories. It could be casual dinner conversation or a hushed exchange between friends or lovers. It could be something as simple as heights or spiders or something much more convoluted and dense. Fear is funny; it obeys no logic.

The question begs vulnerability, which ironically, is my greatest fear. I don’t want to hand you my heart and have it not be taken care of. Then I’d feel like a fool.

I fear I’ll find words that fit but only make sense in my mind, and when they come out of my mouth you’ll give me a strange look that’s immediately isolating. I fear that what I have to say will turn into a pigeonhole that you’ll shove me into. I fear you’ll judge me. I fear the color you have envisioned around me will change hues. I fear you’ll tell me I’m wrong. I fear you’ll tell me I’m crazy. I fear you’ll laugh. I fear that you won’t laugh. I am small. I am weak. I am scared.

But there’s a catch: you can’t have connection without vulnerability, and I’m equally as afraid of being alone as I am of being vulnerable, so I’m in a bit of a double bind. I suppose that holds a bit true for us all; otherwise, vulnerability wouldn’t be such a hot topic.

I dig a little deeper. I think back on the times that I was hurt, betrayed by someone I thought loved and cared about me. The wound has healed — it isn’t even tender. Then, I think of the times I hurt or betrayed someone I loved and care about. Those wounds still throb from time to time. The shame of having let someone down feels like the lead bib I used to wear at the dentist when I’d get x-rays. I realize that I don’t fear vulnerability because I fear being hurt; I fear it because I am afraid of hurting you.

I’ve been told that I have tough armor to pierce. One would think I have it up because I’m sensitive and have trouble letting people in. The truth is, I’m getting to know you so that I know how not to disappoint you. I’m learning what your eggshells are so that I know not to walk on them. I have to keep my armor up while I do that, though, so I won’t slip and reveal something about myself that could jeopardize this blossoming connection. I’ve internalized that when people leave, it’s my fault. So if I do everything right, maybe you won’t leave.

Here’s the thing about armor, though: it’s really just a very small, form-fitting cage. It keeps people out, but it also keeps me in. If I spend so much time calculating the convenience of my role in your life, I lose time to foster a meaningful connection by just being my authentic self and letting the pieces fall where they may. I don’t have to tailor myself to be worthy of your time and energy and love. I am worthy by default, because we all are.

“What is your greatest fear?” I’m asked. Five words, black and white.

I respond with four of my own, in riotous and vivid hues: “Forgetting I am worthy.”

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