Image by David Dávila Vilanova, used with Creative Commons License
Vulnerability. It’s a powerful state to be in. Opening yourself up to judgment because you have put yourself out there – your whole self – can be terrifying. Sometimes you wonder if it’s worthwhile to do so or if you even have the strength. Sometimes you end up getting hurt, but sometimes it ends up being the best decision you could have made. Vulnerability can open doors to understanding and camaraderie. But getting there? Getting there can be hard. It takes courage. But it can be done.
On Easter Sunday my pastor talked about vulnerability within the walls of the church. She told the story of an older widow who stopped attending services after her husband’s funeral because being in church brought her to tears at the memory. Although I haven’t been in that exact situation, I can empathize to a point. While the pastor mentioned that, if you can’t cry in a church, where can you cry?, I know that opening yourself up in such a personal way is difficult. I often try to hide my tears when I’m around others because it’s too difficult and embarrassing to explain what’s going on. I recall working at a Wal-Mart while in college and having someone approach me to ask if I was okay. I clearly wasn’t – my face was swollen and tear-stained – but I maintained that I was fine. “I know you’re not okay,” said the co-worker, “so if you need anything, let me know.” In some ways, it would be easier to attribute tears to something more people find relatable or something that has less of a stigma attached to it. At the same time, dispelling that stigma generally requires one to admit to something people usually don’t like to discuss. The more open one is, the more options there are for paving the way for those who come after.
I’ve talked before about making attempts to be more honest with my fellow churchgoers about my mental health concerns. It’s a long and difficult process, but I feel I am making progress. I find when I am done opening up that it’s not as scary as I assumed it would be. People can often be more understanding than you would give them credit for. At the same time, I worry that I am saying too much too soon. I can’t tell if mental health concerns are a personal problem because of the stigma that surrounds them or because they are simply that – a personal problem. I have found in the past that if I spring my mental health concerns on a newly budding relationship it can damage it irreparably. Not everyone is willing to deal with mental health concerns or support someone who is coping with them. Oftentimes it is difficult for someone coping with metal health concerns to differentiate between when to go to a friend and when to go to a mental health professional, and putting too much on a person who lacks training is unfair. I still don’t know, having been on both sides of the issue, if it is inappropriate to ask a friend to talk you down or spend the night with you if you are feeling suicidal, for instance. And while some people may appreciate the gesture of calling the police after reaching out or a cry for help, others may resent you for it even if it ended up being the right thing to do. It can be a difficult call to determine how close to danger someone is when they reach the point of suicidal ideation, and because psychiatric hospitals are often not helpful unless someone is truly in crisis, forcing someone to get “help” they might not actually need can often be just as damaging as waiting until it’s too late. Because of serious issues like these, it can be frightening for a neurotypical person with a lack of experience in this arena to take on a sometimes taxing friendship with someone who not only deals with mental health concerns but also might not quite know how to really deal with their concerns themselves. And while vulnerability and opening up don’t always lead to such serious discussions, there are times when a simple and honest answer to “How are you feeling today?” can lead to a snowball effect. Sometimes the honest answer of “I am unsure whether or not I want to live right now” can lead to empathy from someone who has overcome something similar, but other times it can be crossing a line when the person you need to be talking to is a professional.
Vulnerability is an art. It takes practice to know when it is appropriate to open up. It is a learned skill to know when one is battling stigma, when one should reach out for support within an interpersonal relationship, and when it is more appropriate to discuss the issue with a therapist or a doctor. But when one masters the art of vulnerability, it can open doors and shatter walls. It can lend itself to the human experience and lead to connections. Vulnerability is often knowing when and how to make those connections and knowing when it is best to stick to small talk. When you know how to open up, it can make those moments when you need to keep something to yourself more bearable. And when you do open up? You can cause change – change for the better. Change for others. Change for yourself.