How to Encourage Vulnerability
A couple of months ago, I was sitting in a small group focused on helping us process grief. For me, it was about processing the grief that I have over my father’s death. We were following a curriculum that is aimed at helping us with our emotions.
When I read the workbook, many Bible passages encouraged us to turn to God. God understands. God is good. God is our strength. I believe all that, yet these messages seemed to turn me off. Why would they?
In one of our small group sessions, it finally occurred to me that those passages felt very suffocating to me. In a moment of courage, I told the group that I felt suffocated by the Bible.
The group listened to me and accepted my feelings. That was a turning point for me. I became vulnerable, and they listened to me.
When we meet with couples, either individually or in a group, I often feel that they aren’t ready to be vulnerable. I can relate. When I meet new people, I often ask the question, “Can I trust these people? Can I be open? Is it safe?”
These feelings of distrust can go very deep. If we were hurt by others in our past, we try to protect ourselves. Even though you can go to a mentor and want to be open to them, it can be challenging. Building trust with others can take time.
We all have a harsh judge inside of us that feeds us thoughts that aren’t helpful. For me, one of those thoughts in my head was that I shouldn’t feel sad or angry in my grief. If I really had faith in God, I would be joyful.
I realized that this thought was something that was deeply ingrained in me. Part of this comes from my childhood. I believed that negative emotions have no place in the Christian life. I should be full of the joy of the Lord. I thought this, despite the logical part of my brain that knows that grief is OK.
People that we mentor also have harsh judges inside of their heads. Their harsh judge might be critical about their behaviors, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. It’s easy to believe these misconceptions.
Often, the harsh judge causes people to shut down. When I admitted that I saw the Bible verses as suffocating, it felt very risky to me. What if these other Christians thought less of me? What if they thought I didn’t measure up somehow? It would have been easier to not say anything.
In some ways, I was ashamed of my sadness and anger. I was concerned that I didn’t have enough faith in God. Shame is the sensing of being bad. This isn’t the sense of guilt over doing a bad action, but a sense of identity and worth. I am bad.
So, instead of confessing to a bad action, it’s easier to hide this. My wrong actions become proof that I am bad.
Shame can be a powerful emotion that prevents people from being vulnerable. What if I told you who I am and you rejected me? When someone has rejection or abandonment in their background, this fear of being rejected can be overwhelming.
Yet, Romans tells us, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). While someone may know this in their head, they may not feel it in their heart.
There can be a sense of being one-down to others. When there is a sense of not being worthy, then the thought is that other people are better. So, I can’t tell you what I am thinking or feeling because I don’t measure up.
Proving Our Worth
We often feel the need to prove our worth to others. We don’t want to admit that we struggle or that we don’t know something. We want people to think that we have everything put together.
Different people do this in different ways. Our desire is to be one-up over people. It may be projecting an image through clothes, money, looks, attitude, popularity, putting others down, or not admitting weakness. This can get in the way of being vulnerable to others.
Not Connecting With Our Emotions
Another way that we don’t become vulnerable is our own inability to connect with our emotions. For many, this is ingrained in them since they were a child. If their feelings were dismissed, they ignore their feelings and look to the logical side of their brain.
I struggle with this. My parents always wanted me to be happy and express pleasant emotions. If I was angry or sad, they ignored my feelings. If I persisted, they told me to go to my room until I felt better. I learned to dismiss my own emotions. Is it any wonder that I struggle to grieve?
Many people that come to us are like me. They have ignored their emotions for so long that they have a difficult time connecting with them. I have met with many people who have a difficult time connecting with their partner because they can’t recognize their own emotions or their spouse’s emotions.
How Can We Help?
As marriage mentors, we can help people by making it safe for them to be vulnerable. This is true in both group and individual settings.
First, extend love and acceptance. People may confess to terrible sins, or they may bring up secrets. At that moment, they are feeling very vulnerable. If they have rejection or shame issues, they are going to be afraid. Your response will communicate whether it is safe to continue to be open up. If we communicate unconditional acceptance and regard, it helps them to heal.
Second, move toward the emotion. The more you can move toward their emotion, the more you communicate loving acceptance. I often say, “That sounds like you took a huge risk saying that. Thank you for being so vulnerable. You know, that only makes me feel closer to you.” If I am in a group setting, I may say, “How do the rest of you react? Does it make you feel closer?”
Third, ask about the emotion. I may ask, “Was that scary to share? What emotions does that bring up for you right now?” When someone can’t express emotion, I often give them a list of emotions to help them pick one or more. Often, people are experiencing multiple emotions at one time.
I continuously remind myself that what is vulnerable to one person may not be a big deal to another person. When I shared how I used the Bible to dismiss my own emotions, it was a big realization to me. To others, that may not have been a big revelation. When others listened to me with empathy, it helped me process my own feelings and move past them. They didn’t need to do or say anything else.
Tips for Marriage Mentors:
- Extend love and acceptance – This is the essence of God’s grace. We love and accept others, regardless of their thoughts or behaviors. We can even disagree with their actions but still extend love and acceptance to them.
- Move toward the emotion – Allow people to express their feelings. Stating an emotion helps to calm it. Often, when people are allowed to communicate their feelings and be accepted, that is all that is needed.
- Ask about their emotion – Many people are very in touch with their feelings and are very good at expressing them. However, many people are not very aware of their feelings. It may take some work to be able to identify them.