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The Vulnerability Distortion

Is your vulnerability healthy or distorted?

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“I don’t know why this generation feels like airing their dirty laundry,” an 80-year-old woman shared her concerns around our table one evening. With her painted-blue-nails and fun hair clips, she was far from a prude. She was simply of a different generation — a generation that defined the word “vulnerable” as “weak” or “being at risk of exploitation.”

My generation of women sees vulnerability as strength — as being so comfortable with ourselves and our story that we can share candidly. I read a quote once that nails the reason we have opened our lives to one another: “We impress others with our strengths, but connect with them in our weaknesses.”

But this wiser-and-older-woman’s words have stayed with me. There is a tension between her wisdom and the above quote. I know her concerns are merited. Vulnerability does leave us open for attack, and self-deprecation often gives glory to the things going wrong before the things going right. And it makes me wonder, what are the weaknesses of sharing weaknesses?

If I could title this summer anything I so desired, it would be, “The Last Summer of Full-Time Ministry.” It’s been difficult and hurtful and challenging, and maybe someday I’ll write a post on all the advice I’ve received on how to stay the course in things that are difficult and hurtful and challenging, but how perhaps the advice is untrue as the church is supposed to be evidence of God’s power to bring peace and unity to broken people, but we often camp out on the “broken” part of that statement and use it as an excuse to hurt one another. But that will be a different piece with, as evidenced above, a lot of run-on sentences.

If I comb through the past few months and look for commonalities between pain, I find two themes present: Inability to resolve conflict in healthy ways, and misunderstanding of appropriate boundaries in vulnerability.

The ways in which conflict is resolved and the reasons for which conflict is left unresolved has become fascinating to me. It wasn’t until my mom and I went through an extended period of frustration and pain and silence that I understood the unhealthy way in which I handled disagreements. I shutdown. I severed. I walked away. I was textbook conflict avoidance. My silence in conflict was meant to be a punishment to the person who had made me angry. It was totally passive-aggressive and completely unhealthy.

And so this year I’ve invested a lot of myself in learning how to better manage conflict. I decided that I should charge the school brigade with a petition to teach conflict management in high schools. Where were all the lessons on this? Why did no one tell me?

But the misunderstanding in vulnerability is perhaps the conversation that is most imperative for today’s woman in today’s churches. Do you remember the era when prayer requests could easily slip into gossip sessions? Oh, please pray for Sally as she found out her husband was having an affair with the kindergarten teacher. And of course you wanted to pray for Sally, but now you knew all Sally’s junk, too. A juicy bit of prayer-group-gossip.

I’ve seen the same digression inside small groups that were initially organized to cultivate vulnerability. This is a tragedy because both prayer and vulnerability are vital to our sense of belonging.

So below are some ways to help determine how healthy your circles of vulnerability are. Those of you who know me, know that I write these from experience. I have been on both sides of the vulnerability distortion and am grateful for growth and changing of ways.

Determining the health of your vulnerability is found in the answer to one question: Are my statements of vulnerability focused on myself, or do they bring another person into the conversation who isn’t present?

For example, if I’m struggling in a friendship and need to share about that friendship struggle, are my statements focused on my own insecurities?

Healthy and vulnerable statement: I have walked away from hard friendships since I was eight years old. I know it’s time to be able to push through difficulties in communication, or failed expectations, but I’m not sure how.

Distorted vulnerability: {Friend’s name} has hurt me so many times that I don’t know how to get over it. It was one thing when she {____________} but this latest event is more than I can handle.

Healthy and vulnerable statement: My husband has been struggling in his relationship to church and I’m really trying to figure out how to encourage him with out nagging.

Distorted statement: My husband has been struggling with our pastor because {___________} happened and it wasn’t resolved.

Healthy and vulnerable statement: Intimacy doesn’t come easy in our marriage. I’m not sure of what’s okay and what’s not okay in the realm of physical intimacy.

Distorted vulnerability: He always wants to {____________} but it’s uncomfortable for me and makes me feel dirty.

When we see it mapped out like this, it’s easy to surmise that distorted vulnerability isn’t true vulnerability. Vulnerability is connecting with someone else in our own weaknesses, but distorted vulnerability brings up others’ weaknesses and sharing the emotions they evoke in us.

I believe this happens only because we haven’t learned how to handle conflict correctly. As a result, we look for camaraderie in our struggles and end up crossing a line into gossip. Vulnerability brings life and clarity, but gossip is the death of many relationships.

So ask yourself that question and keep it on the forefront of your mind when you’re involved in small groups. Through awareness and gentle guidance, you can keep your group headed for health and vitality.

I don’t know if you’re like me and need to go back through your conversations to evaluate the purity of your vulnerability. Perhaps there are some apologies you need to speak, or some conflict you need to resolve. What I do know is that vulnerability is supposed to be a good thing. I find it’s a beautiful evolution from the generations before us. Does it set us up for over-exposure? It does. But I also believe one of the greatest lies is that we face our struggles alone. If vulnerability silences that lie, then I say bring it.

But bring it into an arena of peace. Bring it for the purpose of growth. Bring it with the expectation that you will leave the conversation changed. When vulnerability is done correctly, we exit feeling as though our souls have clasped hands and the feeling of aloneness is no more.

[This post first appeared at Marian’s blog, Uprooted and Undone, on September 16, 2015. Reprinted here with permission.]

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Marian Green resides with her husband and four children. She is an adoptive mom, a pastor's wife, and (once again) a student. She is currently working on a non-fiction project for "bad girls" -- helping women who have lived lives of promiscuity to redefine marital intimacy. In between it all she takes a deep breath and realizes, none of this was what she had planned in life ... and she loves it. Marian blogs at Uprooted and Undone.

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The Vulnerability Distortion

by Marian Green time to read: 5 min