But what nobody's talking about is what to do when someone actually is vulnerable. It's just as foreign for us to be vulnerable, as it is to receive it. We have a nasty habit, especially in the church, of trying to fix people, or give silver linings to hard issues and deep pain. I know this well, because I do it too. I catch myself often trying to pull others up, shouldering burdens that aren't mine and taking on perspectives that can leave me jaded and compassion fatigued.
So what does it look like to respond to vulnerability in a healthy, appropriate, and most importantly, loving way?
1. Thank them. It's hard to be open, to risk being vulnerable. When someone opens their chest and shows you their heart, they feel as if they are risking everything. "I'm so honored you shared with that with me" can go a long way in alleviating the anxiety and panic that comes with vulnerability.
2. Empathize, don't sympathize. Empathy is the ability to enter into someone's story and sit there awhile without feeling the need to fix, silver line, or give advice. We'd do well to cultivate this in our churches. Empathy relieves the person receiving from having all the answers. For a powerful video on how to empathize, click here! Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn..
3. Resist the urge to fix. (See number 2) Fixing assumes there is something wrong with the person, and it can create an environment of shame. Many times when we have the urge to fix, it has more to do with our anxiety, than theirs. It's hard to see people in pain---it creates anxiety in us if we aren't sure how to process it. But if we rescue people out of pain, we're doing them and ourselves a disservice. Pain and processing pain, are natural and healthy parts of the Christian walk. Just look at David's Psalms. If they teach us anything, it's that God doesn't mind our anger, sadness, anxiety, depression, or despair.
4. Validate. It's common in the Christian world to feel like if you are angry, sad, mad, or any other negative emotion, you are somehow failing or dishonoring God. But that's simply not true, and the Bible actually has multiple passages to help support the fact that he doesn't expect us to keep a happy face all the time. Unfortunately scripture can be manipulated or taken out of context so that the end result sounds something like "only think about good things." Remember we must take scripture in context with both the surrounding passages, as well as in the over arching themes of the entire text. Something like "I can understand how you'd feel that way..." relieves the guilt and shame that can come with expressing the more negative emotions.
5. Me too. These are the two most powerful words in the English Language. If someone is sharing, and you've felt or feel the same, tell them. It's nice to know we're not alone. (CAUTION: If someone is hurting, this is not the time to rehash your story. "Me too" is more than sufficient for this situation.)
6. Don't Speak. No, I'm not talking about the No Doubt song. Sometimes the best thing you can do is...well...nothing. Not every vulnerable encounter needs a response. Sometimes the best thing we can do is listen. Really listen. Most people aren't looking for advice or guidance---they are looking for someone who can handle their story.
Most importantly, let's remember that it's not about you--your hang ups, your anxiety over seeing someone in pain, or your opinion of what they should do next. This is not the time for silver linings, advice, or any phrase that begins with "at least..." This is a time to hold another's heart carefully. View it as an honor, and treat the information you receive accordingly.