How would you respond?
This is a follow on to a previous post, ‘leaving the script behind‘ which talked about having the courage to be vulnerable. But what about the other side; how do we react when someone opens up and is vulnerable with us?
My palms start to get hot and sweaty, I’m feeling restless, fidgety; the fight or flight adrenaline is starting to course through my veins and I’m trying to think of excuses…
This is my natural reaction when I can sense that the person I am talking to is a) about to get emotional, b) sharing something that makes them feel uncomfortable, or c) starting to talk about their feelings.
On the whole, I do have a personal rule that I am not actually allowed to make an excuse and suddenly get up and run! But sometimes (read: always), that is my natural instinct. I have to purposefully make a mental note to take the time to think before I speak and to look the person in the eye to show that I actually have a deep respect for their courage. Meanwhile, inside I am normally panicking about what I’m now meant to do.
Faced with someone else’s vulnerability, the stakes suddenly get high. The more someone shares, the easier it will be for us to say the ‘wrong thing’, or to not know what to say at all. The harder it is to know what response they are looking for from you. There is also that sense of responsibility that we can then feel ongoing to be doing something about it. The self-imposed expectation that we should be able to fix them.
But what most people need is not necessarily to be fixed (not by you, anyway). It also is not what most people want either (have you ever tried it and got a positive reaction?). First and foremost hurting people need to be heard; they need to be seen and to be acknowledged. They need to know that you are there in their reality and that they are accepted as they are. That they are loved, regardless. Because to be able to let someone in to the brokenness, the darkest moments, the saddest parts of life, means you don’t have to be alone in it. And when you know that you are still valued when you are at your most real, then you also know that there is nothing that can take that value away.
Being given the opportunity to play this role in someone’s life is an incredibly humbling thing. And there is a responsibility – one that we need to take seriously and be actively seeking to fulfil – not to fix them, but to love them. It isn’t a heavy burden, although it isn’t always an easy one to bear either. It takes effort.
When we do push through the awkwardness (the average British person’s kryptonite), the result is the kind of relationships that we all crave. One where we carry each other’s burdens, where we share life, joy, tears and trust. There might be moments of embarrassment, but on the other side of it, we also won’t have to feel so alone. We will come to know (and be known by) the people around us, not just know of them. I love what Atticus says to Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
When someone shows us their vulnerability, they are letting us climb into their skin and walk around in it. We have the opportunity of experiencing life from their perspective. To understand the people we rub along with day by day… that is how we build relationships that have the power to bring freedom, forgiveness and healing.