Why I wasn’t vulnerable with my friends, and what I’ve learnt from it

I recently had a visit from some friends and I didn’t handle it well. Or at least I don’t feel like I did.

As soon as they arrived my intentions to be open and vulnerable were completely shattered. My walls went up and I hid. Even my body language was closed off: I sat on the ground with my knees hugged tightly to my chest.

I felt fake, like I was putting on a front. And I hated it. It didn’t matter how much I tried to relax around them, I still found myself faking laughter and smiles.

I hardly said anything and only gave short answers to the questions about how I was and I felt like my tongue had seized up.

Guess what emotion I felt afterwards? Shame.

My thoughts went something along the lines of: ‘Why was I so closed off with them?’ ‘Why do I always do this?’ ‘God must be mad at me for not being vulnerable.’ ‘I owe it to them to be fully vulnerable.’

I still don’t know why I acted the way I did. I still don’t know why I put my walls up around some people and not others. In this case, there are a few different possibilities:

  • It’s possible that my past trauma was triggered by something but I don’t know what.
  • It’s likely that I felt like I wasn’t good enough and believed lies that they were judging me and they were better than me.
  • I think because I hadn’t seen them in so long it made my existing shame and social anxiety worse somehow.
  • I think I’d put these huge expectations on myself about how I was going to be a really good friend and really open with them and then when it came around to it I froze.
  • I know I felt unsafe and that could’ve been caused by any combination of the above reasons or anything else.

I’m starting to realise that instead of beating myself up for not being as fully vulnerable as I’d like, I can instead dig deeper and discover why I do it. There’s always a reason and it’s usually rooted in shame somewhere along the line.

I’m going to start just noticing when this happens in future. I’m not perfect and can’t expect myself to be 100% vulnerable in every situation and I need to stop shaming myself. Because the problem is rooted in shame, the solution must be rooted in self love.

Straight after my friends left, God started showing me some things in nature that are related to my difficulties in being open with people and I thought I’d share them with you.

Semi-transparent

Have you ever given a thought to the semi-transparency of leaves? No? I hadn’t either until recently. But have you noticed what happens when the sun shines through them? You can see the pattern of veins running through them, you can see the shadows cast by insects and other leaves, but best of all, they glow like a brilliant green fire.

If the leaves weren’t semi-transparent it wouldn’t be the same, they wouldn’t glow and you wouldn’t see the shadows either.

I want to be semi-transparent. I want to glow like the leaves in the sun. I want to knock down the walls that are keeping the light hidden and covering up the shadows too. I’m making it my mission to be more vulnerable, to let down the façade and shine in the light.

Sunlight shining through leaves.

God once gave me a picture in my head of something like a container or a wall which was broken into several pieces. Shining through the gaps between those pieces was the most beautiful light I’ve ever seen. It was bright but soft at the same time and it there were so many different colours in it. I realised that it’s only when I show my broken pieces, my weaknesses and struggles, that God’s light shines the most powerfully through me.

It’s actually in showing people the shadows and the difficulties that I have in my life that I’ve experienced the deepest levels of connection and trust, and that’s the most beautiful thing. It’s also the way for me to get free from so many of the things that bind me – shame and fears and self-doubt.

Unfortunately I wasn’t transparent with these friends who came to visit, in fact I was practically opaque. Shame, social anxiety and trauma are all things that block transparency for me personally, and cause me to put my walls up. In this case, it was likely a combination of all three.

For you it may be different factors that cause you to be opaque with the people you love. Perhaps things like fear of rejection or feeling overly exposed.

I want you to know that no matter how badly broken you are and how many shadows have been cast on you by this world, you’re still valuable, loved and accepted by the God who sees everything you’ve ever done and still cares about you.

Exposed

Last week my mum’s dark red peony put on a magnificent show. This week, the short-lived display is over and the petals are scattered across the lawn.

Now the growing seed heads are fully exposed.

The red peony at different stages: in full flower and with its seedheads exposed.

Ouch. Just that word, exposed, makes me feel uncomfortable. The thought of letting my own petals go and being fully seen just as I am makes me want to retreat further into myself.

For me, my petals are things like my smile and my positive outer shell.

Just a few days ago I had a conversation with a different friend about this. She just couldn’t understand how my inner world could be so different to how I come across on the outside and said something like: ‘Of course you must feel joy – you’re always smiling and laughing.’

She didn’t realise that my smile and laughter are petals that I hide behind. They feel safe, like I’m protected from people’s critical stares and judgement. Being around people without wearing a smile or laughter feels dangerously exposed.

You see, when I was sexually abused as a child I shut down my emotions completely, believing that it was dangerous to express emotion. Last year, 30-odd years after the abuse, I started making a conscious effort to feel my emotions. (I’m still learning to synchronise the inner parts of me with the outer parts of me, like learning to cry when I feel sad and pour out my heart to God and trusted friends and family when I’m feeling other strong emotions).

As part of this journey I recently discovered that what I once thought was joy was actually a sense of hollowness mixed with a bit of dread. And that’s when I discovered that my smile isn’t an expression of my inner world at all but a suit of armour against other people’s scrutiny.

I found myself hiding behind my smile and false laughter a lot when those friends were visiting. It feels like a big step backwards but I have actually had some major triumphs in this area recently. For example, I was really proud of myself a couple of months ago when I had an entire conversation without smiling.

I know that so many of us who live with shame face similar battles. Your petals might be something completely different to mine. What are your petals?

Unfurling

Over the weeks I’ve been watching the single flower on my mum’s cream-coloured peony grow from a tiny round bud, swelling to the size of a ping-pong ball.

Earlier this week, the outer petals started to peel away and spread outwards. The inner petals still formed layers protecting the heart of the flower. It wasn’t yet ready to fully open.

When I returned to it the next day I found that all the petals had come away from the centre and, although not yet fully in bloom, they were no longer tightly clenched shut like before. The centre, or heart, of the flower was just about visible.

The next day, the flower was fully opened out, its centre fully exposed.

Sometimes I, too, am like a tight, round bud, clutching my many layers of petals closely over my heart. It takes me a long time to unfurl too, just like the peony flower.

My own unfurling journey started five years ago with a bee. I had just experienced a devastating breakup and the loss of so many things I loved all in one go. My heart was broken and I blamed myself. I felt such shame and believed the lie that I was unlovable. I couldn’t believe that anyone could ever love me, even my parents and especially not God.

One day I sat on a bench in the warmth of the sun and a bee flew over and sat next to me. I remember saying something to it along the lines of: ‘Why on earth would you want to sit next to me?’ It’s hard to explain but through this bee I could feel the love and acceptance of God warming my heart. That was the moment that some of the petals started to come away from my heart.

My point here is that, just as it took the warmth and light of the sun to cause the peony to unfurl, it takes the warmth and light of love to cause this human heart to unfurl too. Whether that’s the love of God showing me that I was accepted through a bee sitting next to me or the love and acceptance of those nearest me through their actions and words. I know couldn’t have felt safe to unfurl without love.

What things need to be present for your heart to feel comfortable enough to unfurl? Have you got anyone in your life who offers you the kind of unconditional love and acceptance that can help you to trust and unfurl?

Forced unfurling

Have you ever been too impatient for a flower to bloom and tried to open it up yourself? I have, far more times than I care to admit – I even tried it a few months ago with an amaryllis. The result is usually the same – damage. Usually it’s a torn petal but sometimes the petal can fully break off in my fingers. Thankfully I’ve never yet managed to damage the whole bud in the process.

I’ve discovered through that recent visit from my friends that unfurling your heart before you’re ready – or where the light and warmth of love isn’t fully there – can also lead to damage, or at the very least temporary pain and discomfort.

It’s only while I’ve been in the process of writing this blog post that I’ve made a very painful discovery about one of those friends who I thought I knew. The reason I was so shut down during their visit was that my trauma was triggered. It was something that I speculated on when I first started writing this post (and I even wrote it in the introduction) but I didn’t know what the trigger was.

Now I do.

The father of one of those friends raped me when I was a teenager. I didn’t recognise the signs before because I was already battling with the effects of separate sexual abuse from my childhood.

The very sight of her triggered me into ‘freeze’ mode and I left my body and started to shut down.

That’s why I couldn’t find the words to say. That’s why I put on a fake front with all the energy I could muster. That’s why I felt unsafe. That’s why I couldn’t be vulnerable.

Now I understand – it makes perfect sense.

Before I started writing this post – when God was still giving me inspiration through leaves and flowers and seedheads – he also spoke to me through a line in a book. I didn’t know then that I needed it. Perhaps you might need it too.

“You cannot be vulnerable if trust has been broken and hasn’t been rebuilt.”

Sheila Wray Gregoire, The Great Sex Rescue, p.224

At the time I couldn’t see how this applied to my relationship with those friends. Now I see that, although vulnerability is always a good thing to work towards – something so freeing – this doesn’t mean that it’s always appropriate to be completely vulnerable in every situation.

In trying to get free from my shame I’ve been choosing to be open and vulnerable with as many people as possible but now I know that sometimes there’s a limit to this. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe and there’s a reason for that and that’s OK.

Instead of shaming myself for not being vulnerable with those lovely friends, I need to take baby steps to rebuild trust. It’s not as though they’re the ones who broke the trust – neither of them did anything wrong. But trust can be broken even when it’s not someone’s fault. And eventually I’m sure that I will get to the stage of being able to trust and love them in the vulnerable way that I would like to.

If you have experienced sexual violence of any form, please know that you’re not alone and the shame and trauma that you’re feeling are completely normal in these circumstances. The UK government website also has information about sexual violence support services that can help you. I would also love to pray for you if you get in touch by either commenting anonymously below or using the contact form on this website.