When I was leading a Bible study, I was perplexed by the persistence of complex challenges among the faithful women.
Over time, I recognized another troubling issue. When hurting people turn to the Christian community for support, things like judgment and advice-giving too often take the place of grace and unconditional love. While I believe most people are well-intentioned, inappropriate responses to distress undermine relationships.
Misguided reactions to distress block relationship.
Attempts to be helpful can block connection because they are rooted in fear, not love. We fear vulnerability, and it is very vulnerable to go through challenges or walk with someone who is. Distress provokes painful emotions and distorted beliefs about ourselves, such as, “I’m unlovable.” Sometimes we question our faith. Because it’s so tender and risky, it makes sense that reactive responses to adversity reflect a desire to avoid our own and others’ vulnerability. But our fear of vulnerability blocks our capacity to connect when we need it most.
I learned the cost of minimizing vulnerability myself when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I’d been waiting for a call from the surgeon for several days. When the call finally came, I sat down on the window seat, listening to the rush of words from the surgeon. When she said, “carcinoma,” I was stunned. Despite the possibility that the biopsy would show cancer, the doctors I’d seen uniformly told me, “it’s probably nothing.”
But it wasn’t “nothing.”
The surgeon was reassuring as she told me I would need another surgery and radiation, using phrases like “caught it early,” “excellent prognosis.” But there was no space, no pause between diagnosis, treatment, and the implicit message that it was “no big deal.”
I understand why she rushed to reassure me, but I learned that her hurried attempt to soften the blow was the beginning of what felt like a concerted effort to keep me from feeling the natural sadness and fear provoked by my diagnosis.
I felt the impact of minimizing vulnerability.
Over the next few days, as I shared the news with family and friends, I often heard comments that, while well-intentioned, minimized the impact of the experience. “Oh well, it is what it is.” “At least they caught it early.” Words caught in my throat; it no longer felt like the person was listening. The conversation moved on to other topics, leaving me alone with my experience, feeling self-critical for reaching out in the first place.
Turning toward vulnerability is not our natural, instinctive response. This is why common reactions to distress, while well-intentioned, can be harmful. When people turn to their spiritual community for support and, instead, feel judged or dismissed with pat answers, it can provoke shame and a sense that God’s grace and healing are not available.
Our fear blocks our heart and impacts our response to suffering. The fear we feel is real, and it is powerful. We cannot simply talk ourselves out of being afraid because our early experiences of vulnerability exert a powerful influence on a subconscious level. I provide more information about the impact of early experiences in the book.
To offer the connection needed during challenging times, we must first learn to befriend our fear