The risk/reward of being vulnerable



By Caitlin Kelly

In a time of social media perfection, who dares publicly admit to a flaw or two?

This, from The New York Times:

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, a public academic, writer and lecturer, said that vulnerability in practice means allowing others to see what you are ashamed of — showing uncomfortable truths ranging from not being able to afford rent to simply feeling lost. In a culture that places an extremely high value on nearly unattainable perfection and likability, these revelations can be quite terrifying. But “it can benefit us greatly to let down walls that can often be exhausting to maintain,” Ms. Cargle said.


A few years ago, attending an annual New York City writers’ conference, mostly filled with others competing for the same pool of well-paid freelance work, a writer I barely knew stopped me in the hall and said, clearly a bit horrified: “Your blog is so…honest.”

Maybe not her exact words, but she was clearly shocked by how much I choose to reveal here, with the potential that employers might see it, and what would they think then?


Maybe that I’m simply human?


I grew up in a family that just didn’t discuss difficult things and never talked about our feelings. I was in boarding school at the age of 8 and summer camp ages 8 to 16, always sharing a bedroom with four to six other girls, some of whom could be cruel.

So being vulnerable and revealing my fears or doubts or weakness? NOT a wise choice, either at home or there.

I’ve always been able to count on a few very close friends, who know the full story. But being in a public and highly competitive industry has also meant that when, at 30, I very much misplaced my trust in a colleague in Toronto, those juicy details about me provided months of vicious gossip about me —- even spread to a pal in India.


I left Toronto, furious and wary, and never went back.

I learned to be more cautious about being trusting and truthful with anyone professionally, leaving myself vulnerable as a result.

I clammed up tight.

It takes courage to admit things are difficult or you’re scared or you don’t think you’ll ever achieve your dreams or goals. You take the risk, in so doing, that your words will be used to wound you, and it happens.

And the Internet is — like this blog — a very large place full of strangers, some of whom wish us well and some of whom delight in our travails; any time a journalist bemoans losing their job on Twitter, there’s a parade of “Learn to code!” shitty replies.


Young Caitlin-01

The only photo I have of me at this age, maybe seven, in the backyard of the last home I shared with both parents, in Toronto. The gate in the background was nicknamed “Catti’s Gate”, my family nickname. I treasure this image because I was happy and relaxed and loved that big house and backyard and neighborhood. I still miss it.


So I was always a very private person — until June 2018 when I got a breast cancer diagnosis. It was as good as these things get: stage zero, totally removed and no need for chemo, only radiation. But it cracked me open. There was no way I would get through it all without admitting I was scared, and willing to receive the tremendous love and support that came my way: flowers and gifts and cards and emails and phone calls that revealed that people actually loved me, a lot.

I had never been so sure of that.



That’s me, pre-surgery, July 6, 2018, clutching a small stuffed rhinoceros because everyone needs a little comfort in those nervous hours.


I  now reveal quite a lot about myself on social media — here and Facebook and Twitter. It’s a deliberate choice and one that doesn’t work well for many others. I get that.

But I’m in the last few years of a long and successful career, so if someone dislikes me now — or decides not to work with me because of what they read — see ya!

I’ve posted some serious and intimate stuff here and in my published personal essays, like this one, which ran in 2008 in The New York Times, about why I enjoy my apartment building.

After the story ran, in which I named a neighbor who made me a sandwich after my first husband walked out and I hadn’t eaten in days, she laughed, nicely, and said: “That must have been some sandwich!”

Little did she know how much it really did mean to me — with my family both emotionally and physically distant and not many close friends nearby.

Only by my taking the risk of being vulnerable enough to write about it, to an audience of millions of strangers, did she know.




13 thoughts on “The risk/reward of being vulnerable

  1. Jan Jasper

    Caitlin, thanks for this. I clicked the link and read your fascinating 2008 New York Times essay about your building with the older residents, and the window it has provided you into the kinds of experiences that much older people have. I’d guess that most young and middle-aged people are exposed to very few older people, maybe just their own grandparents- which leaves a gap too easily filled by stereotypes. But you’ve had a much broader view. Thanks so much for sharing your observations.

  2. Your essay is very poignant.
    Our B.C. home is in a 19+ (read 65+) building. I don’t care much for it as we can’t have a dog and I also don’t like being one of the youngest there. The denizens are mostly very old and very crotchety. It is open to those above 19, but yikes, I don’t think there’s anyone under 55. I much prefer living among a regular demographic. My husband is getting it ready to sell; we’re hoping that it’s sold by the end of Sept. Your neighbours sound lovely, though.

    1. Thanks!

      Ouch….I hear you!

      Our neighbors are generally pretty nice. There are definitely some crotchety ones and, to be blunt, I’m also weary of feeling that we live (as we do) in an old age home. I arrived here at 30! I also see why it’s a good fit for older folk — no stairs at all, a very quiet pretty street, etc. We have lived here long enough we are allowed to have a dog — but can’t decide what to get.

      I keep Googling various bits of real estate in Ontario, NS and parts of France in the vain hope of being able to buy a house we like and can afford that’s not a wreck — maybe even as a 2nd home. It’s tough. Ontario (only under $300,000 for a house) is hopeless — I found 275 houses and ONE was attractive; at $200K I found 158 in NS and several were gorgeous but not easy to get to.

      1. It’s a hot, hot seller’s market in Canada right now. Apparently the hottest in 40 years. Lots of pent-up buying enthusiasm, it seems. It’s partly why we have chosen to sell now. Have you looked at prices in Quebec? We did a serious look (and found some excellent deals) but in the end didn’t want to deal with all that snow. We have decided to stay in Penticton. 😳Good luck with your search.

  3. Jan Jasper

    Please, please if you do decide to get a dog, adopt one from a shelter or a rescue organization. Dog breeders cause the death of millions of dogs per year- there aren’t enough homes so the “excess” ones are euthanized (Same with cats.) It is a myth that only dogs with behavior problems end up in shelters. Ever since I was a child my family and I have had shelter dogs and none of them had behavior problems. My beloved dog I had for over 8 years just died a month and a half ago, and I have already adopted a new furry friend. This current dog was languishing at the shelter because she is 8 or 9 years old and nobody wanted her. So I adopted her. She is the friendliest and most affectionate dog I’ve ever had. If you prefer a specific breed, go online for breed rescues. My late husband had allergies so we could only take certain breeds, but we always found an appropriate rescue dog.

    1. Thanks!

      I have so very few photos of me growing up I was so thrilled that my husband was able to work with the image — a very sun-faded color photo — to achieve this.

      We had two, Mizpah and Horowitz.

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