We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection. ~ Brené Brown
The congested traffic curved for miles ahead of me, looking like a winding line of red ants marching down I-95. Tiny droplets of summer rain dotted my windshield as the smell of wet pavement wafted through my open window. I glanced at the glowing clock on my dashboard, hoping I wouldn’t be late to meet my friend Jeannie for dinner.
Jeannie was a new friend but someone I had admired and looked up to since I moved to Connecticut just more than a year prior. She was one of the very first people I met at church, and I was drawn to her magnetic personality and her uncanny ability to make me feel known and understood when I talked to her. I appreciated her candor and her infectious sense of humor. I just liked being around her. I knew Jeannie loved me for exactly who I was. But my admiration for her was accompanied by a strong desire for her to like me too. I had been here before with other friends I held in high esteem. No matter how safe and loving a friend had proven themselves to be, I fought the urge to edit myself and present an image I imagined this friend would like.
I was grateful to find a parking spot quickly and rushed toward the Italian restaurant we had agreed on, cutting through the humidity of the late August evening. I found Jeannie at a table situated in the corner of the patio strung with bistro lights. We had chosen this particular Italian restaurant because of its relatively vast selection of gluten-free pasta dishes. Carbohydrates of this nature are a true treat for the gluten-intolerant, and it was rare to actually have choices.
After we caught up on the recent details of our lives, our pasta dishes (with extra marinara sauce) arrived. We continued the conversation while eating, and I asked Jeannie about what her life looked like before she had kids.
She paused. The look on her face let me know I had stumbled upon something painful. Her eyes turned down and to the right before looking straight into mine as she replied, “Have I told you I was married before?” She hadn’t. But I could tell this question unlocked memories of a season that hurt my friend deeply.
Jeannie proceeded to share a piece of her history that I hadn’t known — a tale of a life that took place long before the life she lives and loves now. She detailed an unhealthy relationship characterized by heartache that was no fault of her own. Ultimately, she made the brave but devastating decision to walk away from a marriage that could not be restored. As she introduced me to this chapter of her story, sharing the events that led her to here and now, I quietly swept tears from my face. I found myself wishing I could step into those events she described and become a character who could take away even just a little of the pain she must have felt.
When Jeannie had told me everything she had to share, she looked up at me with a vulnerable expression.
I have never asked Jeannie how she felt after telling me her story. But I know how I feel when I share from the more vulnerable places of my heart. I start wondering if people will stay. My fear is not so much that they will physically get up and leave. I worry that revealing pieces of my true inner self, or the parts of myself that might not appeal to people, will cause others to love me less or, at the very least, view and value me differently. My worries usually take the form of questions like
Does this information change the way they think of me? Do I still hold the same place in their minds and hearts? Did I expose myself and give away too much? Am I just as special to them as I was before they knew this about me?
Typically, I have avoided putting myself in a position of hearing the answers to these questions by trying to be as perfect as possible, fearing rejection. Despite having close friendships growing up, in which vulnerability was comfortable and commonplace, I had difficulty trusting that I would appeal to others if I wasn’t perfect. I imagined instant dismissal if I failed to meet all of a person’s needs and expectations. I was keenly aware that I was not perfect. But between rejection and perfection, perfection was the preferred option.
Jeannie showed me another way — an entirely new path, free from the limiting (and exhausting) choices of rejection or perfection that I had typically given myself. I was honored that she would share her heart with me. But more than the events themselves, I was struck by how I felt toward her. I had always liked Jeannie and admired so many of her qualities. Now, I not only liked her but was stunned by the level of love I felt for her.
Her willingness to share with raw vulnerability didn’t cause me to back up but to lean in.
I had no interest in walking away. I wanted to walk alongside her. I felt close to her and honored to hold this painful part of her journey with her. It was a joy to be entrusted with both her past and the feelings that remain.
No words felt sufficient to communicate what I deeply wanted her to know. I found myself wishing I could rewind time and rescue her from all of it. I wanted to take any lingering feelings she carried as a result of these painful events and kill those lies with truth. I wanted to squeeze her tight enough to make her never forget how loved and worthy she is. But with these not being viable options, I reached under the table to find her hand. I held it tight and, through my tears, managed to speak the words, “I love you, and I am honored to know and hold your story.”
Jeannie’s willingness to entrust her heart to me shaped my own heart. I could feel a meaningful shift then, but I didn’t realize the level to which that dinner would serve as a marker for me to return to again and again. Jeannie opened a door that our culture generally tells us to keep closed, and the experience of walking through it was transformational for me. Her vulnerability caused the space between us to collapse, and it challenged my ideas about what really draws us to one another.
I had always operated from the belief that the more perfect I was, the more loved I could be and the more secure my position was inside that love. My strategy for getting close to people looked more like winning them over than connecting with them.
But performance is not intimacy. Applause is not love. Perfection doesn’t hold the key to connection.
I used to wonder about the harm in relying on perfection to cope with my fears of rejection. How could my perfectionism be hurtful to others? Wasn’t everyone grateful for my high standards? But the gentle and kind feedback I’ve received over the years from Jimmy and close friends is that when I maintain impossible standards for myself, it’s very difficult for others to imagine that I don’t carry those same impossible standards for them.
The amount of grace I show myself when I am not perfect (exactly zero) is the amount of grace they experience from me.
In my need to feel safe from rejection, I became an unsafe person to share with. When I choose to hide behind perfectionist tendencies, others don’t feel permission to fully be themselves or free to make mistakes around me. It’s difficult for them to experience love from me that is not attached to their performance.
Perfect is shiny and sterile and might be nice to look at — for a while. But perfect doesn’t move you. It doesn’t challenge you to think differently or compel you to feel anything that draws you close.
Vulnerability is messy, yes. But it is present, and raw, and moves us to experience joy outside of ourselves.
My evening with Jeannie demonstrated beautifully how our vulnerabilities, not our capabilities, draw us close to one another.
Ever since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, recognized their nakedness, and felt shame, the human race (regardless of culture) has been prone to hiding. We have become people who are tempted to shield our private selves with carefully constructed public selves. Adam and Eve physically hid themselves with fig leaves. We don’t tend to use foliage in this way anymore, but we are a people familiar with hiding, aren’t we? And hiding doesn’t just look like withdrawal. Hiding is anything we do to try to protect ourselves from pain: blame, shame, control, or escape.
As humans we’re confused by this notion of vulnerability. This struggle is not new. It appears that people in Jesus’ time were confused as well. We see this lack of understanding on the part of the people Jesus related with during His ministry here on earth. His interactions held something important in common, woven like a golden thread through the Gospels.
Every relationship and each encounter played a role in telling the bigger story that the only thing we need to be close to Jesus is… nothing.
I recognize myself in the disciples’ confusion when they asked Jesus who among them was the greatest. They assumed that the better and stronger they became, the closer to God’s favor they would be. But again and again, Jesus gently countered people’s ideas about greatness by seeking after the lost, making an invitation to the outcast, and healing the desperate and helpless. Jesus told us to be childlike in our faith. He wasn’t encouraging us to be immature but dependent — to be in a position of recognizing our imperfection and need for Him instead of being self-sufficiently perfect.
Perhaps Jesus’ relationships here on earth have something to teach us about our relationships with each other.
Intimacy is not the fruit of being perfect but of being people who acknowledge our need for Christ. This is where transformation begins.
Excerpted with permission from From Lost to Found by Nicole Zasowski, copyright Nicole Zasowski.
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Vulnerability can be scary. It requires that we let our imperfections show, hopefully and wisely in a safe environment of trust. Jesus didn’t ask us to be perfect. He knows how much we need Him in our imperfections! Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full