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Vulnerability is Scary…We Should Do It Anyway

Jan 19, 2016

Have you ever had someone tell you the truth and it stung?

A few years ago, my wife and I had some friends over to our house for dinner. As we were hanging out after the meal and talking, we ended up talking about some dynamics in our church. I made a comment about how I had recently switched the shoes I wore on Sundays because I was walking around so much my feet began to hurt. One of the ladies in our living room quipped that I must have been in too much of a hurry because of how I treat people. The room got quiet and I asked her to clarify her comment. She explained how I failed to recognize people in a room if they weren’t the people I had to see on my agenda. In effect, I was ignoring people because (she perceived) they weren’t important enough to me. 

The truth stung that day and I began to seriously re-examine how I engaged people, not only on Sundays at my church but everywhere I went.

Several months following this conversation, I was considering how to illustrate a point in a sermon and I remembered this story. I do my best to tell stories regularly where I’m the villain, not necessarily the hero. I think this helps people connect with me (and ultimately my message) more personally. I feel it also helps any people who are tempted to put me on a pedestal to remember my humanity.

vulnerability lonely animal

(Side Note: Whenever any of us share vulnerably, two things are possible. We could be loved or we could wounded. Those we’re sharing with could accept us and love us in sprite of our struggle. They could also reject us and use the new information to hurt us. Honestly, I think many of us don’t share authentically because we’re afraid of the second outcome. The risk isn’t simply worth the reward.)

Back to the story…the morning after I shared that story in my message, I received an email from a key volunteer in our church. I read these words. “I was so gratified to hear that someone told you that because I’ve seen that weakness in you for a long time.” For three long paragraphs, he proceeded to pile on, lining up the litany of faults I had in this area. He also repeatedly compared me to another member of our staff, to whom it was very clear I did not measure up. When I finished reading that email, I couldn’t figure out if I was more hurt or angry.

Before I go on, I’ve moved through an intentional process of forgiveness. This isn’t a post about forgiveness but if that’s a struggle for you, check out my free eBook on forgiveness here.

One of our greatest fears is the fear of vulnerability. When we are vulnerable, we open the door to be wounded. The potential hurt could be devastating.

However, another of our greatest fears is the fear of isolation. Many of us are alone but we don’t want to be. We wish we had someone to share with or who wanted to spend time with us. (Now as one introvert reminded me recently, being alone and being lonely are entirely different matters.)

So, which is worse? Being wounded or being lonely? Protecting yourself from being hurt or distancing yourself from other people?

I love the way writer and researcher, Ed Stetzer, describes this quandary. “The danger of being in community is hurt; the danger of not being in community is a shipwreck.”

The stakes are high. Your greatest fear (being wounded) could keep you from your greatest need (being loved).

I write about fear every week because I believe our fears often keep us from the lives we want, the ones we were created to live. Living with courage and hope is dangerous and risky but it is much better than hiding behind fear and avoiding opportunities because we prefer to be safe.

vulnerability lonely flower

4 Steps to Overcome The Fear of Vulnerability

So, how do you overcome the fear of vulnerability without getting completely betrayed? Here’s what I’ve learned from personal experience and the wisdom of others.

Acknowledge the risks of vulnerability

You could be hurt by someone when they know you personally. But you could also be loved. In his book, Everybody’s Normal ‘Til You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg writes, “The irony of masks is that although we wear them to make other people think well of us, they are drawn to us only when we take them off…You can only be loved to the extent that you are known.” There are inherent risks to vulnerability, which never go away. Every time I share and it’s risky, I get scared and have to battle my fears. It happened as recently as yesterday and will happen again soon.

Remember – relationships move at the speed of trust

Be slow and intentional with vulnerability. I remember a friend in college who would meet girls, develop a crush and spend the whole night at Denny’s sharing all of their deep dark secrets. When these friends shared what happened, I told them they were unwise. (I may or may not have used other, more “pointed” terms. My memory is a bit foggy.) Since trust is built over time as someone shows a consistent pattern of behavior, we ought not to share all our secrets at once.

Determine if the person is safe

Not everyone can be trusted with access to the most vulnerable parts of your story and who you are. A small amount of life experience should be sufficient to teach us this. One of my favorite authors is psychologist Henry Cloud. Dr. Cloud’s book, Boundaries, has been a bestseller for over twenty years. He wrote a book several years ago entitled Safe People. In the book, he outlines 10 qualities of unsafe people. Three of them are noteworthy here.  Unsafe people do not like to admit their weaknesses. They demand trust instead of earning it, and they apologize without changing their behavior.

Give the gift of going second

I first heard Anne Marie Miller write on this subject.

“It’s the hardest thing to go first, to confess the broken using awkward words and avoiding eye contact. What happens on the other side of that confession is something beautiful. When you confess, there’s somebody on the other side of that confession who could very well be keeping a secret too. So when you go first, you’re opening up this amazing opportunity for trust. You’re saying, “I’m broken.” That trust carries so much power with it. It can give people the courage to go second. When people go second, it’s not an easy thing, but because you’ve already broken the silence—you’ve already released some of the shame in that confession—it makes it a little bit easier. They know they can trust you. And so you give them a gift. The Gift of Going Second. It’s the Gift of Going Second that starts waves of confession and healing.”

The truth is someone is going to have to go first. One of us will have to risk. If you’ve gone first before, you’ve probably learned the same lesson I have – you’re not nearly as alone as you think you are. Giving gift of going second is all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and remembering how powerful it was for you when someone shared their story with you. If someone has given you this gift, pay it forward to someone else.

Our future is shaped in large part by how we respond to our fears. The way we respond to our fear of vulnerability will determine the future of our relationships.

Brené Brown writes and speaks far more eloquently than I about the subject of vulnerability. I recommend reading and watching everything she has to say on the subject.

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