Relationships : Vulnerability
When was the last time you opened up to someone, no holds bared? Today, Christine Gilland considers the idea of raw, unbridled honesty.
I was having a conversation with some friends at the pub the other day – just one of those rambling, lazy Sunday afternoon conversations – when someone asked me a question, and everything changed. It was a question that I didn’t really want to answer, that I was unprepared for. I felt my mind close up like a steel trap. My armour immediately emerged, my senses all telling me that this was a situation where going on the defensive was the only way out.
In that moment, I realised that I had two choices – I could admit that I didn’t have a clue, or I could try and bravado it out and deflect the conversation. I chose to do the latter, and shrugged off the question with a joke. The conversation continued on and everything seemed fine on the surface, but there was something about the connection that was lost.
Thinking about it afterwards got me thinking about vulnerability. Ironically, it’s a subject that often makes people uncomfortable. We’re trained from our earliest days to put on a brave face for the world, to maintain a front that appears as transparent as glass yet is as tough as concrete, impenetrable.
Raw honesty can be touching, but for the insecure it is unbearably over-the-top. I know because I was that uncomfortable, self-conscious person who could barely resist rolling my eyes when people shared a little too much. And don’t even get me started on my reaction when some poor innocent once suggested that I join an accountability group. An accountability group! The idea of sharing that much information with a bunch of people, even close friends, made me go cold with fear.
Fast forward a few years and things have changed a bit. Now I’m one of those annoying people who sit too close, ask too many questions and quite frankly, when I get you in my line of vision, you’ll stay there until I’m done with you, thank you very much. This usually means that at parties, I end up making friends with all the other intense people (we find each other very quickly, possibly because no one else wants to talk to us) and we end up talking in a corner for hours, emerging triumphant and exhausted, having solved none of the world’s problems but with a book recommendation list a mile long and another ‘kindred spirit’ with whom to exchange shiny-eyed, wordless exchanges at social occasions.
It would take too long to tell you, blow by blow, what caused this change. And as you can tell from my recent conversation in the pub, I still have a long way to go. But I will say that a little fable might be helpful here.
It goes like this: a girl is born. She has a good family but somewhere along the way, she ends up thinking that everyone else is together in a way that she’s not. It might be through family stuff, or it might be at school. But she’s still pretty young when she figures out that she’s different. And that this must be hidden at all costs. So then she starts pretending to be together as well. Sometimes she does such a good job that people describe her as ‘the together one’. Sometimes the cracks appear and then she’s described as ‘the sensitive one’. But the sensitivity is easier and easer to contain as she gets older and things seem to be going well.
Then life begins to unravel. At first it’s just one of the threads in the cord, but soon she’s watching all of the strands, so many of them seemingly unconnected until now, spiraling and tumbling away from each other. It’s all come to nothing. She has to give up or start again.
When I started again, I was alone. I had moved to a city where I had no friends and no support, and I was stubbornly refusing to leave. I also had no job (not as fun as it looks, it turns out), no church, no community and at one point, no house to live in. One of my parents had nearly died of a stroke, and was permanently disabled, changing the lives of everyone in our family. In addition, one of the most important relationships of my life at that time had completely disintegrated in a horrible way.
Everything looked different. I needed other people. I needed their support and advice and comfort. I realised that I had to find people who were able to support me – and I did. I also found plenty of people who couldn’t really handle it, who only wanted a part of the ‘together Christine’ and who disappeared when help was needed.
I’m not going to lie, it was hard to have those first conversations, to admit that I needed help. It was hard to cry in front of a friend, or admit to feeling homesick and lonely. It’s still hard sometimes. It was hard to let go of people who I was attached to, but who didn’t feel ‘safe’. Sometimes, as crazy as it seems, it’s hard to pursue the things that bring life.
The thing is, to pursue vulnerability, we need something outside of ourselves – it’s an outward thing. Through it all, my faith and my friends have been the things that have consistently called me back to honesty – friends who have asked the tough questions and stuck by me in the answers, and a faith where God was so real, that at times I thought I saw His face.
A TED talk on vulnerability went viral a couple of years ago and rightly so. There is an incredible power in it, a lightness and relief that comes when someone lays down their cards and says ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need help’. It’s amazing to watch and incredibly hard to do. But so, so worth it.
And that conversation at the pub? Thankfully, I had the chance to go back to the conversation and admit that I actually had no idea. And it wasn’t so bad. I looked like a bit of an idiot, but nobody died. And as I keep practicing vulnerability, I hope that next time I’ll let ‘together Christine’ take a break from the conversation completely. And yes, you’ll probably find that conversation happening in the corner at the next party.
Words by Christine Gilland
Image by Johanna Lees