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5 Ways to Move From Vulnerability to Intimacy

Brene Brown is all the rage at Adventures. Her TED talk on vulnerability went viral – nearly 27 million views – and it sure hit a responsive chord with us. Why? Because it was a paradigm-shaker and we’ve seen its power. We all grew up with the paradigm of strong leaders who didn’t share thei…
By Seth Barnes

Brene Brown is all the rage at Adventures. Her TED talk on vulnerability went viral – nearly 27 million views – and it sure hit a responsive chord with us. Why? Because it was a paradigm-shaker and we’ve seen its power. We all grew up with the paradigm of strong leaders who didn’t share their weakness. It’s the paradigm we see in most churches.

But Jesus taught another way. Vulnerability was central to his teaching and praxis. As I wrote in my last blog, vulnerability gets us to intimacy. Today let’s look at how that actually happens.

There is a downside to vulnerability. It must be practiced in a relational and organic way or it’s just exhibitionism. If someone begins to share with you those parts of their life that are private, you may feel like you’ve stumbled into their bedroom as they were getting dressed. This is especially true if you don’t have the context of relationship.

So if you are hoping to connect at a deeper level with those around you, how do you know where to start and how much of your private life to share? It’s a real issue with a generation that leads with authenticity, but also struggles with commitment. People can find themselves revealing more than they intended.

We’ve all got parts of our lives that we may need to keep private for various reasons. How do we establish safety and trust? How do we leverage the principle of reciprocity to walk into tender places with people?

The chain of events leading to intimacy 

On the World Race, relative strangers go through this process much more quickly than normal with one another. It’s a great laboratory for understanding how vulnerability can generate intimacy.

When young people sign up for the World Race, we place them in teams of six to seven and then ask them to develop community. Some hang back, struggling to risk, but many more are intentional and jump in the deep end.

I’ve watched as some teams skate by on the thin ice of superficiality. Why risk when all that risk has produced in the past is broken relationships? At first we didn’t know how to make teams go any deeper than they wanted to go with one another. But over the last ten years, we’ve learned some important lessons that have made all the difference.

Lesson #1 Screen people

Screen the people you’re going to share with. Don’t share with a group without looking at it and knowing who’s in the audience. If you want to join AA, you are going to follow their protocols. 

We screen World Race candidates for a willingness to take a risk in order to grow. We only take one out of every seven people who begin an application with the World Race. Jesus screened his disciples this way and he screened those listening to his message as well. Speaking to the fit between his message and his listeners he said, “Don’t throw pearls before swine.” He had high standards for his disciples. 

Brown identifies six kinds of people who you should not confide in:

  1. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be.
  2. She responds “I feel so sorry for you.”
  3. She’s too disappointed in your imperfections.
  4. She scolds, “How did you let this happen?”
  5. She comforts, “You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad.”
  6. She one-ups you, “Well, that’s nothing. Listen what happened to me…”

Lesson #2 Fight for safety

Charlie Brown wanted to kick the football and Lucy promised to hold it for him. But when he ran up to it, she always pulled it away and he would land flat on his back. She promised reliability, but she was not to be trusted.

Betsy Garmon says, “Safety isn’t the opposite of Risk.  Safety isn’t a thing that you have to get over in order to risk.  Safety is a component of Risk.  Safety is the rock under your feet before you dive off of the cliff.  Safety is firm identity.  Safety is knowing who and whose you are.  When that level of safety and knowledge is woven into your soul, you’ll risk anything.”  

People will not take risks with one another unless they know in advance that they are not going to be shamed for doing so. On the World Race, we establish norms in advance – values that everyone subscribe to. It is essential that we establish Safety as a norm if we want to ask people to move into a vulnerable space. 

Lesson #3 Respond with empathy

I once risked sharing a vulnerable thing in our church and someone spoke up after I shared and tried to help me solve my problem. It was embarrassing. As leaders, we can’t let that happen.

If I’ve put myself out there with something that others might consider shameful, it’s important that people respond empathetically. Your empathy helps me to understand that, in spite of the shame I may have felt in the past, others can help me shoulder my burden now. Empathy establishes that I’m not a freak, but a flawed human being, just like everyone else in the group.

Lesson #4 Encourage reciprocity

Florence Foster Jenkins was known for her flat notes. Nothing falls flatter than vulnerability that is not appropriately acknowledged or reciprocated. If I share my secret, my act of courage needs to be in some way validated and met in kind. People need to sense the expectation that we listen to what the Spirit is doing and seek to follow him when he leads us into uncomfortable places.

When people take the risk of being vulnerable, the response of the group should emphatically validate that vulnerability is worth the risk. 

Lesson #5 Make it a habit

Typically what happens when people experience vulnerability is that they retreat to a safe place. The connection they made may have been amazing, but without finding that same connection over and over, people will just go back to their shallow, non-trusting, Facebooking ways.

It takes leadership to show that the environment is truly safe and that vulnerability is a part of the culture. Only then, after repeated interactions do people get to a place of intimacy.

When you put these five lessons together into a process, you create the potential for connection and redemption. When that becomes normal over time, you begin to move into a place where you are known and loved deeply – a place of intimacy.

So the process looks like this:

Safety —> Risk —> Vulnerability —> Empathy —->Reciprocity —> Intimacy

Getting to intimacy with friends

How do we apply these lessons to our everyday reality? 

First, recognize that the way you have structured your life may include a number of intimacy killers without you even being aware of it. Here are a few:

  • Large groups are typically not safe places.
  • Sarcasm is definitely unsafe behavior.
  • Poor listening skills will kill intimacy.
  • Social media kills intimacy. Turn it off!
  • Putting on a show; being inauthentic.

Move with intentionality, asking God to show you who to go deeper with. Where are you with that person now? See the relationship with a vision. Romantic relationships may give us the best picture of what is possible if we will just risk. When pursuing another, vulnerability is the norm.

Once you’ve got someone you want to go deeper with, look for parts of yourself that feel weak and even shameful, but which may prove to be a gift if shared. Pray into what it would look like to share things that you have roped off to the public.

You don’t have to fall in love to connect, but when you do find yourself connecting deeply with others, you may also discover that your capacity to love others and yourself grows.

God said, “It is not good for man to be alone,” yet many of us are profoundly lonely. You were made for connection, for intimacy. Let me encourage you to choose to risk afresh. Press into vulnerability and the path to connection and intimacy will open before you. It’s worth it.

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