There I was, sitting in a circle of a dozen Christian men who had come together for the express purpose of being vulnerable with each other. It felt awkward.
It was the group’s second meeting, and many of us didn’t know each other because we went to different churches. Naturally, guys were being cautious, trying to gauge whether they were in a safe place. I decided to fast-forward the process.
“I’d like to share,” I said, after which I spilled some deeply personal details of my life, hoping to inspire a little movement in the conversation.
It worked. Some of the other men began to open up, and the dynamic of the group quickly changed. I felt like I had done everyone a favor.
Later I told the group leader that I was glad I had joined the group because “my vulnerability will help the others drop their guard.” He pushed back.
“That’s not how it works. You don’t use vulnerability to make other people act a certain way or do something you want.”
His response seemed a little unfair, and maybe it was — I really was trying to be helpful — but when I thought back over it, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why was I being vulnerable? What was my true motive?
I pushed the questions away. They made me uncomfortable, and no wonder: I was in my late 20s and it was the first time I had ever questioned whether vulnerability could be inappropriate.
Vulnerability is such a celebrated virtue these days. Where our grandparents’ and even our parents’ generations valued keeping things under wraps, we’ve overcorrected by letting it all hang out. There is no topic too sacred for a blog post, no story too personal for Facebook, no detail too intimate for our church small group. When people drop their emotional drawers and expose the world to things it may not want or need to know, there’s only one thing we’re all supposed to do: applaud them for their courage and authenticity.
I know that sounds cold. That’s probably because it doesn’t take into account the people who sit in fearful silence when they should reveal what’s eating them alive. It ignores the fact that some people wear masks so others will think they’ve got it together. It overlooks those who daily live in shame. That’s not who I’m talking about here. These people need to experience the freedom that can come with full disclosure, and thank goodness there are resources like licensed professional counseling and pastoral care to help them do that.
But there are many others who need to recognize that while vulnerability can be a great gift, it works best when it’s done with respect for ourselves and others. Using vulnerability appropriately requires us to evaluate our motives, which may not come naturally for those of us who are good at sharing things others wouldn’t dare say.
Exploring Our Motives
When I was a child, my siblings and I suffered trauma that I didn’t fully heal from until I was an adult. Talking through the pain of those experiences with trusted friends, counselors and pastors was one of the most essential parts of my healing; I’m not sure I would’ve recovered otherwise. I believe this kind of soul-baring and burden sharing is in part what Galatians 6:2 is talking about when it says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
On the other hand, talking about those traumatic childhood experiences with others wasn’t always helpful. Sometimes when I shared the heartbreaking details of my story, I wasn’t really looking to share my burdens. Oddly, it took a premarital counseling session to realize this.
During this session with Tommy, one of my former pastors, I shared a story from when I was six years old. When I’d finished, Tommy did something I didn’t expect: He questioned my motives. It startled me at first, but then I let myself be truly vulnerable and admitted — both to Tommy and myself — that I liked seeing people react to these personal and often distressing narratives. I liked seeing them echo my hurt and offense. On occasion, I even used my stories to generate a false sense of intimacy when I wanted to establish a quick romantic connection with someone.
I was looking for sympathy and love, but freely baring my soul wasn’t the way I was going to get it.
The Gift of Discretion
There’s nothing wrong with sharing intimate details of our lives — some of my closest friendships have developed around shared acts of vulnerability. The problem is when we lose sight of who’s entitled to those details and who’s not. These days, I’ve gotten a lot better about discerning who those people are.
While I’m still known for being open and vulnerable, only my closest friends — my inner circle — have a backstage pass behind the public side of me. They’re the people I go to for empathy and support. At the same time, I’m willing to selectively share personal details with broader audiences, but I do it when I’m convinced God can use my story to draw attention to the way He’s working in people’s lives, including mine.
I haven’t arrived when it comes to using discretion, but I’m growing in wisdom in this area as I walk it out. I’ve become increasingly more comfortable letting my small group run its course without me offering unrestrained self-disclosure. I’m happy to let others spill their guts in a blog post. I’m OK when someone else is praised for “being so real.” There’s a time for that. But I’ve learned it’s not all the time.
I think the ongoing shift in me has come from simply asking myself what I’m trying to accomplish when I’m vulnerable, and whether I’m trying to get my listener to meet my need to be known and noticed. I realize, more than I did before, that God is the one who sees me and knows me (Genesis 16:13). I don’t have to let it all hang out to get what I want from others. Change has also come through recognizing that vulnerability puts my heart into someone’s hands. It gives them the power to speak into my situation. I only want to do that with friends who truly care for me and have been tested and proven.
Meanwhile, I’ve made Psalm 141:3 my prayer: “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” And in those moments when I sense the Holy Spirit leading me to hold back, I can obey by blessing people with the gift of discretion.
Copyright 2017 Joshua Rogers. All rights reserved.