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By: Shauna Niequist

One of the essential aspects of building a community is vulnerability, but here’s the hard thing about vulnerability: we like the idea of it, but then it’s a lot harder to actually do or experience or feel than we think it will be. We think we’ll march right into it, command it, look it right in the eye, schedule it: here we go, getting vulnerable in 3, 2, 1…

But in my experience, it’s a lot trickier than that. I think vulnerability is created two ways:

  1. You go first. Be brave.
  2. You create a safe space and wait for it, like a cat.

If you want vulnerability in your relationships, you have to be the one to start it—to tell the truth, to tell a secret, to dive into the messy part of your life and spill it all out.

Lots of times we keep ourselves all safe and locked up and guarded, and we promise that as soon as someone else is vulnerable, we’ll do it, too. But it doesn’t work that way. Someone has to be brave enough to begin. Why not you?

And the holding space part is crucial. Vulnerability is less like a sweet golden retriever, all directness and love, and more like a cat—unpredictable, reserved.

You don’t boss it. You don’t march right into it. You create space for it, and then it slides into your midst whenever it decides, taking its own sweet time, frankly.

Let’s be honest: our small group, a group I adore, has not been an easy nut to crack, in terms of vulnerability. Some people lay it all out there to whoever will listen. This group is not like that.

Again, I super-love them, but spilling our guts is not really in our repertoire. So I’m learning to create the space for it, and then wait. Like you’re waiting for a cat to come out from behind the couch, sort of acting like you don’t even care, but you really, really do.

And we’ve learning that we do better around the table than we do in the official “discussion” part of the evening in the living room—so much so that we’ve abandoned the living room entirely, because it seems with this group that the good stuff happens around the table.

There’s something about keeping your hands busy, like it tricks your mind and you just start talking. And there’s something about a messy table, crumpled napkins, me puttering around the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets, making tea and slicing cake.

I’ve even found that if I suspect that sneaky old cat is going to wander out any second, I get up from the table and bang around in the kitchen a little—I can still hear because it’s only like 5 feet away, but it breaks that pressure-y spell and the words start coming out. Counterintuitive, certainly, but effective.

Doing anything shoulder-to-shoulder helps, I’ve found. Running together, cooking together, working on motorcycles together. My darling brother is a motorcycle guy, and there’s basically not enough money in the world that could make him, say, go to coffee with one of the other motorcycle shop guys and stare at each other over a latte. They’d sooner die. But in the shop, shoulder to shoulder, tinkering and fixing, the big truth comes sliding out, the same way it does around the messy table, just when you think it won’t, like a stubborn, beautiful cat.

Vulnerability happens when you’re brave and start first, and when you hold a safe space and wait, when you log enough hours over time to create something really durable for that truth to tumble out onto, in a big, lovely, rich mess.

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