Vulnerability is hard in Christian community

Vulnerability is hard in Christian community

Written on 01/11/2020
Anna Bailey

Written by Anna Bailey

When I get stressed, I start laughing and can’t stop. Add caffeine and sleep deprivation, and I’ll end up on the floor, hiding in a blanket, giggling for no good reason. Comical? Yes. Healthy? Probably not.

The topic of mental health and vulnerability intimidates me. How can we tackle such an important, sensitive topic, with our limited knowledge? Lightbulb: focus on vulnerability.

As an English major at Redeemer University College, I have words for everything. I can label and over-think my emotions all day long. But walk by me in the halls and ask, “How are you?” and you’ll get “I’m okay, you?” Or, on a bad day, nervous laughter and “Oh, you know!” But eventually, my emotions erupt, like a volcano exploding, and I end up hiding in my hoodie, laughing till I cry.  

Here’s what I realized: Christian communities (and other kinds) can give us many good things, but they can also create obstacles that shut down vulnerability. We may feel like we’re opening up, but our conversations fall into predictable patterns. How many of these examples sound familiar?

“You can’t tell anyone…”

Gossip. It’s usually not malicious and is often between close friends. But it’s hard to be honest about how your day is going when your story might not stop with that person.

“Any boy/girl drama?”

Relationship drama. It quickly creates bonds and secrets, but it also takes over. People often skip straight to relationship stories and forget to check in on each other or bring up other topics.

I’ll pray for you. Bring it all to God. Insert favourite Christian cliché.”

None of these are wrong. But Christian communities excel at creating expectations and guilt. If we’re anxious or unhappy, we feel we haven’t prayed enough, read the Bible enough, leaned into our faith enough…the list goes on. Admitting how we feel is difficult when people slap spiritual band-aids onto sadness.

We revert to these surface-level conversation traps because they’re easier than looking at what’s underneath—like that one drawer in everyone’s kitchen for things they don’t want to deal with.

Cliché answers to real problems are just one aspect of the expectations created in Christian communities. Expectations can also limit vulnerability.

Gender expectations can be especially difficult. Girls are expected to be emotional. But when we are, we’re made to feel predictable, overdramatic, or illegitimate. I can’t speak from a male perspective, but I’ve noticed that guys are expected to suppress emotion and are rarely given healthy, socially-acceptable coping mechanisms.

Another huge problem is the desire to save face. Too often, fear of judgment leads people to hide their worries and mistakes, past or present. Of course, this adds to the problem by causing others to think they’re the only one who’s failed or struggled. This leads to a vicious cycle of shame in communities meant to live out God’s grace.

Expectations aren’t always easy to define or tackle. But start by finding what keeps you from identifying your emotions. Perhaps some people are naturally vulnerable; most have to practice.

Self-reflection is important for communities too. If we think we’re good at vulnerability, it’s easy to slip into superficiality and gossip.

When I’m sad or stressed I feel guilty, like I’m losing touch with my own faith. However, I see life as a story, and it’s comforting to know I’m not the author. Believing that we aren’t in control gives us room for any emotion.

God calls us to trust Him; He doesn’t call us to be constantly happy. Only if we acknowledge what’s happening in everyday conversations can we spot what others aren’t saying and help each other face the volcanoes simmering behind our smiling faces.