This post is part of a series of reflections inspired by the book ‘Daring Greatly‘, which I read back in March. I reviewed the book here and expanded further from a parenting point of view. As I was reading the book, I considered whether there were areas in my life where I shy away from being vulnerable and as a result the post below is more personal than anything I’ve written before.
You know that lovely woman, who always has a smile for everyone, who is gentle and whilst not necessarily a loud popular person is always there with an encouraging word and who seems to really like you and everyone else? I know someone like this and she is an amazing and inspiring woman. But yeah, that’s SO not me. I have never been one of those welcoming people who invite confidences.
For one thing I have to prepare myself to do small talk with people I don’t know. This applies to most social settings like church or toddler groups, or even parties where I don’t know everyone or I am only acquainted to a few people but we’re not really actually friends. When I say I have to come prepared, I mean that I have to intentionally talk to myself as I am getting ready or walking down the road and say: ‘today, you are going to talk to one or two people you don’t know. You are going to make yourself available and maybe even approach them and be friendly and ask who they are and why they’re here or whatever.’ Also, if I don’t do this, prep myself in that way before heading into a social situation, I will most likely just default to sitting quietly saving up my energy, hugging my drink and observing, or finding one person I know really well and only speaking to them, or focusing on my little kids so I don’t have to talk to anyone. The reason I do this is in part because my natural instinct is not to talk unless I know people well. Talking to strangers can be excruciating. My greatest fear is that they will not respond and I won’t know how to extricate myself from the conversation and it will just be awkward. I’ve been snubbed enough times as a teen from my school peer group to know that’s not an experience I care to repeat as an adult. But deep down, I know that’s not all there is to it.
The thing is, at the toddler group and at church, I often see people in need. People in difficulty, who are struggling to keep their face from showing that life is just too much or that they are in physical pain; people for whom life is not easy, and I don’t mean that they got a bit frazzled because the car wouldn’t start in the morning; I mean people whose loved ones have a life-threatening illness, abuse survivors whose latest relationship has turned violent yet again, people whose past won’t allow them to move forward. Compassion doesn’t come easily to me, and I think this whole ’emotional capacity’ thing is a huge part of the problem. Deep down, I want to engage and help out, and I want to mean it. I want to be able to put a hand on their shoulder, ask ‘how are you doing’ and then just be a listening ear and maybe offer a prayer or encouragement that is not trite or fake. Sometimes I will come out of a church service with my grizzly baby and sit in the café, and I’ll notice a lone figure on one of the sofas, here but not here, in need of comfort I wish came easier for me to provide. And most often, I shy away from engaging, from extending that hand. I tell myself I am too unprepared to engage with people because of xyz and I am too tired, and I miss an opportunity to just be there for someone. But I fear this is just one big excuse.
This whole ‘I can’t do small talk’ thing is only one side of the story. The real reason I don’t engage is because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of being used, like I’ve been used a number of times before when I’ve extended a hand and got my whole arm bitten off, in my friendships and in my personal relationships. I’m afraid that whatever baggage people are carrying will be too much for me, that I will not be able to walk away from that conversation without carrying their burden too. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should be changed by meeting with a person in need. But mostly I am scared that I will be crushed under a burden too heavy for me too bear, under a burden I do not know how not to carry. It’s easy to say the words ‘you don’t have to take any of it on’, but it still happens even if you don’t mean to. And I don’t have the tools, I didn’t then and I don’t now. My emotional capacity is very small indeed. I can do friendships when there is a balance and we lean into each other in turn as life happens but we don’t need hand-holding all the time. That’s my comfort zone.
I know where it comes from, this small capacity, this disengagement and retreat from any person that might need more from me emotionally than I could ever get from them. It’s a series of big and small things that started in infancy. You don’t grow up in a house haunted by mental illness without learning about burdens. The burden of being expected to be ‘responsible’, the heavy, heavy burden and fear that comes with the realisation that your parent is not and never will be who you need them to be and that you’re the only thing you’ve got, the burden of not letting friends in because of what they might see in our house, of being a child who knows too much about adulthood, of unwittingly becoming the receptacle for someone else’s burden because ‘no one else can truly understands the reality of our daily life’.
The thing is, this habit of retreating and avoiding emotional engagement with people who might not be able to return support to me is now a hindrance rather than a protection. When I was growing up, it was the only thing I knew to do to not get hurt. It was a tactic to protect myself from rejection and burn-out and from being used. See a need, run away quick. It is probably a fairly normal response to what was going on in my life. As I am getting older however, I can see that it is my default setting for dealing with any emotional discomfort that comes my way, and it is stopping me from moving forward. It is the antithesis of vulnerability. If I want to grow as a person, I know I will have to take that risk and learn how to handle all the emotional baggage of other people without feeling overwhelmed or abused; I’m going to have to learn the tools to stop myself from taking other people’s burdens to the extent that I am unable to cope so that I can give more. I do know it is a risk and I still need to take care of myself. In the last few years, I’ve finally learnt to structure my life to create capacity. I have learnt to be completely comfortable saying no to things; I have acknowledged that my need for a thinking and a resting place in my day-to-day is imperative to my well-being and I have taken steps to create a rhythm where I am not rushing anywhere. And on the whole, I am managing it, even with two kids under three.
Ultimately, there’s no two ways about it, I will have to just jump in and invest into the messy lives of the people around me. I will probably still need to ‘talk myself into it’ as a daily intentional practice. But I get the sense that you need to stretch your emotional capacity like a balloon, with practice, a bit at a time, until you find yourself enlarged from within.