Arts·Year in Review

I hate being vulnerable — but this year, Ariana Grande taught me to find strength in it

In 2018, watching Grande became an ambassador for vulnerability showed me that I can embrace the same.

In 2018, watching Grande became an ambassador for vulnerability showed me that I can embrace the same

Ariana Grande performs at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

Where were you when Ariana Grande began dating Pete Davidson? When you heard they'd gotten engaged? When you read that they'd amicably ended things?

Whose couch were you lounging on when you read about Grande's new, post-Davidson single? When you first played "thank u, next"? When you thought about how her lyrics applied to your own life, and imagined the exes you'd name, if given the chance to write a similar song?

When did you first realize you'd let Ariana Grande in?

I hate, and am bad at, being vulnerable. I want to be there for my friends, and I like fixing my loved ones' problems. But I would always rather backflip into an inferno than ask for help. Opening up about aspects of my personal life — whether it be guys, family or work — is a nightmare I try to talk myself out of before I, inevitably, admit defeat and reach out via text. I even wrestle with exposing myself as a real person (instead of looking like whatever I think perfection is) to friends I've known for decades, and avoid making face-to-face revelations like saying, "I'm sad and need help," to keep up my guise.

The problem is that my friends aren't idiots. Quite the opposite, unsurprisingly: they are brilliant extended family members who aren't shocked when I admit that I'm not a robot, and that I am, instead, a human woman who needs ears and advice. Embarrassingly, I'm the only one who has ever thought my performance as an unfeeling machine was halfway convincing. And as such, I'm the only person who has needed to make peace with what's actually true.

This year, Ariana Grande lived the opposite way that I tend to. She opened up about her PTSD in the wake of last year's bombing in Manchester. She spoke about heartbreak and about finding new love. And then, following ex Mac Miller's tragic death, she admitted, via social media, that she was Going Through It and needed a break — all before releasing a song that saw her explore themes of self-acceptance. Ultimately, Grande became the poster child for radical and powerful vulnerability.

I've seen that to be vulnerable is to be strong, and to be transparent is to show one's capacity for self-awareness. I know my problem with vulnerability is of my own creation: I'm the one who has bought into the myth that perfection is a type of currency that measures the worth of a person or artist.- Anne T. Donahue

Grande isn't unique in her choice to express herself online or in her music, of course — that's what the arts are for. This year alone, artists such as Mitski, Robyn and Janelle Monáe all released albums that explored themes of power, sexuality, relationships and the complexities of being alive. And for years, artists like Drake and Justin Bieber have used their music to convey their capacity for feeling (even though so many of their songs tend to hoist blame on the women they're singing about).

But what made Grande stand out was her choice to share so much, in real time — to utilize social media and release music that felt truly current, as though she were using her songs to work through things as they happened instead of offering perspective after the fact. And that's something I, the perpetual hater of vulnerability, fear most.

I hate looking like a work in progress. I hate seeming like I'm in the middle of something. I hate revealing that I don't have it all figured out, and that I'm still trying to learn the equation — let alone solve the problem itself. I don't like to let my mask slip, and tend to delay even my most personal writing until after I've consulted with friends, family and the people I trust. I like to control everything, especially the way I'm perceived. Yet I bow down to Grande when she's doing the opposite.

This is because I've seen that to be vulnerable is to be strong, and to be transparent is to show one's capacity for self-awareness. I know my problem with vulnerability is of my own creation: I'm the one who has bought into the myth that perfection is a type of currency that measures the worth of a person or artist. And I'm also the one who believes that anyone who spots one of my flaws has "won," as though we're all competing for...actually, I'm not exactly sure. (Success? Praise? The veneer with the fewest cracks?)

So no, Grande's generosity of self didn't cure me of my need to be perfect, nor did it make me more likely to use Twitter or Instagram to open up about my personal life. But it did teach me something. Because while I may not be ready to give strangers a look into my soul in 280 characters, or even in work I've done, I've watched as Grande survived doing it. And if she can extend herself to reach the millions of strangers who follow her, I can ask my best friends for advice or to listen to me vent about whatever nonsense is consuming me. Though I think I'm still many years away from figuring out who in my past taught me love, patience and pain, it was Grande who taught me that I can, sometimes, be vulnerable.

now