Courage to be Vulnerable
It's hard to be vulnerable. Especially if you're used to being the "strong one." How can we cultivate safe spaces and a spirit of vulnerability?
"You rarely let me into your internal world. I'd like to support you more, if you want, but in order to do that I need to be let in more and know you are hurting.
I can't read between the lines very well. I'd give you more support if you told me in the moment, rather than finding out through your blog later. I don't always know what you need, because you so rarely ask for it."
Ouch. I had just finished a rant to one of my best friends, Andrea, venting slightly unfair grievances I had over certain friendships I felt were too one-sided and lacking in support. She'd given me some sympathetic but objective perspective, and then she called me out -- she was glad I was being open now, but generally I was reluctant to be vulnerable and ask for help. Dang, she's so right, I thought. Why am I like this?
Do you consider yourself the "strong one" in your relationships? Do you feel the need to always wear a "calm and collected" mask? Do you, like me, resist showing vulnerability? Have you ever asked yourself why?
For me, part of it is personality. "I am quite a stoic character," I acknowledged to Andrea. "I've always preferred to work through something quietly myself rather than 'making a fuss' -- which could be quite British, on reflection."
I can't blame my Britishness entirely, though, and personalities are molded by our experiences to some degree.
"Much of what we call our 'personalities' is actually the mosaic of our choices for self-protection plus our plan to get something of the love we were created for." Stasi Eldredge, Captivating
My past plays a significant role in my reluctance to be vulnerable, as I imagine it does for you, particularly wounds received and agreements made during turbulent teenage years, and in unhappy romances. I remember resolving, at one point, never to show when I was upset because then people would know my weaknesses and know where to hurt me.
Moving around a lot had an impact, too. I never knew how long a friendship would last. Even now, I expect people to exit my life at some point, so as a self-protective measure I can tend to avoid deeper connection.
For the friendships I did have growing up, I often perceived myself to be cast in the role of the "strong one." From around 8 years old, I remember having a string of friendships in which I seemed to be the level-headed one while the other was falling to pieces. Sometimes others seemed so caught up in their own drama (which was sometimes truly traumatic) that they didn't seem interested or capable of supporting me in mine.
Another factor, I realized, was my perfectionism. Trying to keep your best face forward and do everything possible to be good enough, to be worthy of love and acceptance, does not allow much room for anything that can be perceived as weakness.
Besides, doesn't it feel somehow extremely humiliating to admit to needing help? It hurts the pride.
However, constantly trying to self-protect, to be self-sufficient, to be strong on our own, can be exhausting and demoralizing. And it sabotages us in the area we truly long for -- real connection. We need community. We need to let another person see our humanity, our struggles, our pain sometimes. (Men, you too, not just women!)
"I still think there's merit in not always making a fuss, or in processing things yourself," I admitted to Andrea, "but I'm also coming to see there is value in vulnerability sometimes. That burdens don't always have to be borne alone. That sometimes people are safe enough to let them see behind the smile."
"True community is what we need the most and fear the most," I remember hearing once. (If only I could remember where.) This quote resonated with me then and resonates with me now. And true community involves giving and receiving.
Caveat: This does not mean you should start oversharing with all and sundry! It's important to establish healthy boundaries and find safe people. (There's lots of resources out there to help with this. Try Boundaries or Safe People by Drs. Cloud and Townsend.)
"Share each other's burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ." (Gal 6:2)
And what is the law of Christ? In a nutshell, as He explained it, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind...and love your neighbor as you love yourself." (See Matthew 22:36-40)
So, based on my experience, what can I recommend if you see yourself as the "strong one?"
Know there are people who want to support you and will love you even when they realize you're not perfect (hint: they already know that, and they're still by your side). Realize it's OK to need help. Try taking off the mask sometimes. Embrace healthy vulnerability, even if you have to take it slow. What do I recommend if you are the friend trying to help the "strong one?" (And this applies to you, my friend, reading this.)
Be a safe person. Build trust (and realise that trust is built in the small moments). Be patient, but don't be afraid to call them out gently sometimes. Ask them how they're really doing, and really listen. Show them, in whatever way they receive love best, that you genuinely care.
Ultimately, vulnerability is powerful. Vulnerability allows us to move towards the community, intimacy, and love that we all need. And I am learning this one tiny, trembling step at a time.
First written in 2017