I was recently preparing to lead a book discussion on the topic of vulnerability. Being vulnerable is a challenging thing. In many ways, we are often taught that to be vulnerable means to be weak which his quite literally the opposite of what being vulnerable truly is. In order to be vulnerable, one must expose the soft underbelly of their soul for others to see. In many ways, being vulnerable is the strongest thing we can do as humans and as Christians. While I was doing my research for the lesson I found a number of wonderful devotions, articles and videos on the topic leading me to understand that this is a topic that we all struggle with on many levels.
The book discussion made me reflect on the fact that I have often been asked how I am able to be so vulnerable in my writings and have to confess that the question takes me by surprise. When I write, I rarely consider the idea of being or not being vulnerable. As a writer, actor or musician (all things I dabble in to one extent or another), vulnerability must be part of what is offered. If I am not open and honest, exposing myself emotionally in my art, how can I expect to touch those receive my artistic offering? So I write, I sing, I act…offering myself to various audiences in hopes that what I have placed in front of them is a blessing in some form or fashion.
I am a very open person, willing to discuss very difficult topics and open my old wounds should that action be able to help others…and yet as I reflect on the things I have opened up about, there are many things I am less willing – or not willing – to express in any way. What makes the difference? Well, for one thing, we as a society have developed a more compassionate skin about some things more than others. There are some items that were previously taboo for discussion that now, when discussed or exposed, are things that others are able to be empathetic and supportive about rather than judgmental. For example, things like the #metoo movement make having been harassed almost like being a member of a club – something that bonds people like me to one another providing support and understanding where previously there may been none.
But then there are the other things.
These are the things that, when I awaken in the middle of the night, get my mind wound up and keep me from sleeping through the night; the things that have shaped me enough to know they have made an impact in who I am and how I relate to the world around me and I am unable to keep from wondering if I would be as acceptable to those around me should those little items be exposed for general knowledge.
It’s not that I’ve done anything horrific. To be honest, all of the things that I hide behind the “non-public” side of my wall of vulnerability are things that I would easily forgive in others but for me, they feel unacceptable; unforgiveable. Some are embarrassing, some are hard lessons that caused growth and change, but nothing is really more than that. So why am I so unable to share these things?
Shame is, of course, is the anchor that locks those things in my heart and mind. It has this uncanny ability to magnify actions and words making them out to be gigantic monsters in my life rather than the itty bitty dust bunnies they probably are. I’m sure you are all familiar with how that works. Something happens – big or small – and suddenly you’re not able to face the people that witnessed the action or your relationships are forever altered (at least in your mind) because of that action. What makes it worse, at least for me, is that whenever that little event is mentioned by someone trying to offer grace and compassion about it, all I can do is beat myself up just a little more about it.
But shame is also not the only reason for my two-faced vulnerability wall.
The other reason is the way others respond to vulnerability.
You see, when someone tells a story that is challenging or difficult, it is the start of a conversation and stories that are vulnerable in nature often makes those who are listening feel anxious or uncomfortable. We all want to say that our first reaction to such a story would be one of compassion and love, but I would suggest that more often than not, our first reaction is to wonder how they got themselves into that situation in the first place or wonder how they could have done “x” and then, depending on the situation, the most common responses are to either judge the individual for the action to which they confessed or try to find a way to “fix” the problem. Now those initial reactions can be hidden from view in if they take place via social media, but in person, that is not the case.
In person, the individual who has courageously decided to take that step and tell their story sees the entire emotional response play out across the faces of those listening even if nothing is actually said. They see the shock, the anger, the disbelief, the judgment. It plays out right in front of them and suddenly a new level of strength is needed – strength to deal with the repercussions of openness. And unfortunately in my life, and I’m sure many of yours as well, when I have been able to be strong enough to be vulnerable about a situation or action, the response has been anything but supportive. The “why would you ever” statements are almost equally balanced with the “if you would have only done this…”, statements that lead me to feel that I have failed not only for being in whatever situation I had spoken of, but not being smart enough or tough enough or quick enough to respond the way others feel I should.
The thing is that I don’t share my stories to have someone try to “fix” me or to create a situation where I can be humiliated again due to the judgment of others. I choose to be vulnerable to open the doors to things that are painful in life and let others know they are not alone in their suffering. But despite this desire, I have realized that there are things others are not ready to hear; not ready to be forced to come to terms with in others. For this reason, I have created my dual-sided vulnerability wall because in the end, I am not trying to make others uncomfortable, but to invite healing both for myself and for others. If my choosing to be vulnerable about an event in my life creates more strife for both me and the people hearing it, I am not doing what I set out to do.
So is there a point to all of this ranting? You will be happy to know that yes, there is…and here it is.
Vulnerability is a two-way street and it requires equal amounts of risk from both sides. It requires the storyteller to expose those tender places in their hearts and souls and it requires the listener to graciously accept this offering for what it is – a show of strength and healing – and not try to judge or fix it. Additionally, it requires that the person opening their heart do so after significant prayer and discernment to ensure that what is being exposed doesn’t place an unusually heavy burden on those who will listen. Finally, it requires that both parties – the giver and the receiver – be gracious toward one another recognizing the difficulty of the situation on both sides of the coin. It is here at this place of graciousness that we can truly express the love of God and be the reflection of His mercy and grace rather than a reflection of the ugliness that surrounds us all.