Creating Environments Where it is Safe to Be Vulnerable

Creating Environments Where it is Safe to Be Vulnerable

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For who is God, but the Lord? And Who is a rock, except our God? —the God who girded me with strength, and made my way safe. Psalm 18:31-32

In the last reflection, we discussed the concept of vulnerability. In order to have an authentic relationship, there needs to be an environment where one can be vulnerable. One of the reasons that we struggle with vulnerability is that we live in environments of competition, where there are winners and losers. For example, in situations of employment, workers are commodities, and they are replaceable and disposable. The sad truth is that in many circumstances, it is not safe to be vulnerable.

Many people go through “crises of conscience.” They have doubts about their careers, or their marriages, or their faith, or their abilities, or other things. Let’s say, for example, that a teacher is struggling with doubts about whether he or she should continue teaching. Where can the teacher safely go to talk about these doubts? It’s not going to be the principal. Because if the principal doubts the teacher, the principal will want to replace the teacher. It can’t be the students. Because if the teacher lets on to the students that he or she might not feel like continuing to teach, the teacher will lose his or her authority in the classroom. It can’t be the parents of the students. Because if the teacher shares his or her doubts, he or she will lose the trust of the parents. What about other teachers? The problem in a competitive environment is that teachers may see other teachers as competition. Can other teachers be trusted with the secret doubts this teacher is carrying? If those teachers gossip, word will certainly get to the principal, other teachers, students and parents.

What if the person with doubts is the principal? Who will he or she confide in? The school board? The subordinate teachers? Parents? Students?

What if the doctor has doubts about practicing medicine? Does he or she confide in the nurses? Patients?

You get the point. Because so many people are riddled with doubts and struggles and have no one to confide them in, they suffer in silence. It may be with something significant, as we discussed in a previous reflection, or it might be something mundane, such as the “midlife crisis” that hits many people as they approach middle age or get to the middle of their careers.

Everyone needs at least one (and probably more than one) relationship where they can feel safe being vulnerable, where it is safe and expected to be honest. There are many people who don’t have this. There are many people from all walks of life who don’t have this.

There are a couple of specific types of people I’ve met over my years in ministry who seem to feel the most alone. One of them is the “CEO” type. The person who is at the top of the company or organization still has the same need to show vulnerability as anyone else. However, because this person has only subordinates, they feel they cannot confide in anyone and must maintain a certain image or persona, whether it is true or just a façade. Another type of person who might feel alone is the affluent person. People assume that money equates to happiness. It doesn’t necessarily. People who are affluent assume they will get no sympathy from those who are not, and don’t confide in affluent peers because, well, there is pressure also to keep up a certain image.

So we perpetuate this cycle of dishonesty, image, persona and façade because we haven’t learned how to be vulnerable, we haven’t managed to create environments where it is safe to be honest.

The first thing that is needed to have a safe environment is respect. That’s the building block of any relationship. When I hear confession, as an example, in my ministry, there is an implied rule, which many times I actually say to the person going to confession: “I love and respect you before you start, I will love and respect you when you are finished.” This statement creates a boundary, it tells the person coming to confession, that you can feel safe saying whatever you want to say and be assured that I won’t think any less of you. Imagine if I said, “well, you say what you want and I’ll think what I want,” no one would feel safe to be honest, worried that I might lose respect for them. It doesn’t matter whether we are priests hearing confessions, or friends hearing the pains of other friends, we have to create environments where people feel they will still be respected even if they say something that is disappointing.

The second thing that is needed in a safe environment is confidentiality. Everyone struggles with keeping confidences. There are two reasons for this—first, when we have news to share, we are more relevant in our peer groups. When we don’t have our own news to share, there is a great temptation to share the news of others, i.e. “did you hear about so and so?” It makes us relevant. Second, people are curious. We press each other for details about other people. And it is very hard, under pressure, to not want to share something that has been confided in us. There can’t be vulnerability without trust, and there can’t be trust if there is no ability to keep a confidence.

The third thing that is needed is commitment. This goes hand in hand with respect. If one is not sure a relationship is going to continue, it will be hard to be honest or to feel safe. If there is a commitment in a relationship, it will be easier to feel safe being honest. We can’t feel committed if we feel like we are disposable.

The fourth thing (and there may be more, but I’ll stop at four) that is needed is a mechanism to forgive and restore if, in being honest, one is also offensive. For instance, if I tell a friend that he has disappointed me and that friend might be hurt. The relationship could even get compromised. In another instance, in the context of being honest and trying sort out feelings when a friend has wronged me, I might say the wrong thing, or make a wrong step. It is critical in a relationship that if one person offends another, there is a mechanism for forgiveness and restoration.

Once one is assured that they won’t lose respect (or a job, a friendship, etc.), that what they say won’t be repeated, that there is a commitment to the relationship, and there are mechanisms in place for forgiveness and restoration to take place, it will be easier to be vulnerable, because a person will know that it is safe to be honest.

One additional key ingredient to keeping a relationship safe and honest is to keep it Christ-centered. When we pray for one another, forgive one another and seek to love one another as Christ loves us, behaving in a Christ-like manner to one another, it is much easier to maintain authentic, vulnerable and honest relationships.

Everyone needs a place where they can be vulnerable, where it is safe to be honest. If we cannot be honest, that leaves us to living our lives and building relationships that are less than honest. And this is discouraging! In order to feel encouraged in our lives and in our relationships, we need relationships where it is safe to be honest.

Lord, thank You for relationships and friendships I have made in my life. (List the names of your closest family, friends and confidants). Help me to be respectful in my relationships, to keep confidences, to listen without judgment and to forgive easily. Please guide my family and friends to do the same for me. Help me to create and maintain relationships where it is safe to be vulnerable. Bring others around me who can do the same for me. Amen.

It is critical that we create relationships where it is safe and expected to be honest.

The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! There you may find a database for past prayer team messages as well as books by Fr. Stavros and other information about his work and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.

These readings are under copyright and is used by permission. All rights reserved. These works may not be further reproduced, in print or on other websites or in any other form, without the prior written authorization of the copyright holder: Reading © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA, Apolytikion of Abbot Marcellus © Narthex Press, Kontakion of Abbot Marcellus © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA.

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0