On Vulnerability & Cats

By Posted in - General on April 16th, 2014 30 Comments

So I asked Twitter & Facebook friends for a blog topic that was non-boring, and the very first response was VULNERABILITY.

Done. Everyone, it seems, is talking about vulnerability right now, which is fantastic. I credit Brene Brown,  who I just adore.

Here’s what’s hard 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.

How does it work for you, in your friendships? How do you create an environment of vulnerability around your table or in your community?

(30) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Amy - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    This is so true, Shauna. I saw this especially when we worked with teenagers. I had to share (some) of my own junk before they felt comfortable admitting their faults and insecurities.

  • Art Costello - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    I the different thinker approach vulnerability as a core value being fearless and not put much stock in what others think of but opening my heart and soul to full exposer embracing the inner self to all I encounter . Tears, laughter ,joy, sorrow, passion all worn on my shirt sleeve for the world to see. Makes for a good target for some but I ‘m proud of who I am.
    Love you insights, feed my mind and soul Thank You,

  • Eileen - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    I love Brene Brown and am part way through her book Daring Greatly. I agree with your 2 points about going first and creating a safe space. I’ve been a part of and have also facilitated several small groups and, like you said, in some groups the trust seems to establish quicker than other groups. I think, for me, going first means I am willing to share my flaws and my failures with the group…when the leader admits they don’t have it “all together” it goes a long way at helping others know that they are not alone.

  • Sandy Cooper - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    I love Brene Brown, too. And after reading her books this summer, I decided I’d start being more vulnerable, beginning in my home. The long and the short of it is that my husband (mostly) and my kids (a little) were not prepared for or comfortable with me saying things like, “I’m a little overwhelmed right now, can I have a minute to regroup before we continue this discussion?” Or “What you are saying really makes me angry. I will be back to discuss this later when I can talk without wanting to rip my hair out.” or “Gosh–today was a really bad day.”

    I realize I’ve spent the better part of 20 years of marriage acting like I was okay–or trying to anyway– even when I wasn’t because my husband always seems to be okay–I thought something was wrong with me because I couldn’t be okay all the time.

    Conceal don’t feel.

    I know that’s warped–even as I type that, it sounds horribly dysfunctional. But that’s pretty much our reality, and I feel like we created this culture for our children.

    I am slowly trying to get us as a family to a place of vulnerability, but also and more importantly, a safe place to do so.

    Going first, as you put it, is risky. Vulnerability needs safety and grace in order to thrive.

    • Mary - Reply

      April 18, 2014 at 6:50 am

      Sandy – the ‘conceal don’t feel’ reference to Frozen – you nailed it! I kind of pride myself on being vulnerable. It really does create this crazy space that makes others want to come directly to you and tell their story. And yet, when I really don’t have things figured out… I conceal, and pretend, and it sucks the life right out of me. I love the words you used in conversations w/your family. Thanks for inspiring me to step into it a little more w/my 12 yr old daughter…

  • shannon - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Something that struck me in this is how being vulnerable in the living room may be too intimate. Having the table between you and the group offers a physical barrier so that maybe people don’t feel quite so exposed as they let their wall down. I may be way off the mark but its an interesting thought. Thanks for this.

  • momoftwo - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    After attending the Hope Spoken conference, I’ve found the courage to be more vulnerable & open. Hoping for a ripple effect with others around me.

  • Melissa G - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    For me, vulnerability has been challenging. As a domestic violence survivor, I’ve needed to trust over time in order to be more open and vulnerable with people in my small group. I’ve learned to allow others time to trust in return. Yet, as I’m more open and vulnerable, others become more comfortable seeing me face and overcome my difficulties in life which leads to others becoming more open and vulnerable!!

  • Arlene - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks for this, Shauna. You know, I find it much more comforting to be vulnerable while being anonymous. Isn’t that strange? Shouldn’t I feel more brave in front of people I know, people who know me and love me? Instead, I sign up for conferences (such as HopeSpoken) and I lay it all out there, cry, talk about my pain, my guilt, and insecurities. As soon as I get back, I put my facade back up, sort of like a comfortable pair of undies. It’s something I need to work on and pray about.

  • Jo - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    Thank you for this, Shauna. I blogged about vulnerability, bravery, and cats earlier this week. But mine was about how i am like a cat — and i am not willing to be vulnerable because I’m afraid of being caught. The only place I’m still willing to risk vulnerability is in my story, because i know that that is worth the risk.

    I think God was in the metaphors on this one. He’s using your words to challenge me. I think what you’ve said is true. It starts with me being vulnerable. I am the cat that has to come out from behind the couch and let my gaurd down.


  • Lisa Lewis - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Shauna~ you captured the essence of many small groups; there’s something to be said for doing things shoulder to shoulder. The distraction allows the unfolding of the wrapping that protects the heart. Thanks for inspiring us to have crumpled napkins at the table!

  • Sam - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    Thank you so much for this! One of my dearest friends just wrote about how you are constantly inspiring her (and me)! Vulnerability is a big thing in both of our lives right now, so thank you for always inspiring us!


  • Lynette voss - Reply

    April 16, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    You are completely right “there’s something about keeping your hands moving that makes it easier for the words to flow…” There is actual brain research that found when we are doing something with our hands it deinhibits the part of our brain that causes anxiety and inhibition. How cool is that! Anyway as a small group facilitator I try to use stuff to keep peoples hands moving and the thoughts flowing!

  • Katie Pidge - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 12:30 am

    I love this! So true that vulneralbily starts with you. Just recently I was wanting more of that connection with the ladies in my small group and putting the blame on them, then I realized it needed to be me to start it. So at our next meeting I just tried to be as open as possible and bam! Just like that they started talking and an instant bond began to form. Thank you for reminding us of the part we play in creating vulnerability!!!

  • […] Shauna Niequist writes, “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?” (On Vulnerability & Cats: http://shaunaniequist.com/vulnerability-cats/) […]

  • Amanda - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 9:23 am

    I love this shoulder to shoulder idea…its puts into words what we all expereince. I find sunglasses help too! Sunglassess to sunglasses, not quite as charming. I just wrote a quick post about my favorite Brene quote…


    Thanks for inspiring so many!

  • Jeniece - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Bahaha, I love that you sense that vulnerability cat and get up to bang around in the kitchen. You are too good.

    My friends and I are in crazy toddler stage with our kids, so creating vulnerability usually happens when the house is quiet and we can actually process and be present with our emotions. Sitting in the peace and letting our bodies lean back into the couch, holding a cup of something warm..things come out. Lots of real life, beautiful, messy things present themselves in those quiet hours.

  • Kimberley - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Thank you for this! This is a subject dear to my heart…part of pursuing each other is being the first to be vulnerable. I have tried doing this in my blog as well. In have had great feedback…transparency is catchy…people will come…but most come like a cat, like you said. :) it’s still so awesome though that they come!

  • Molly - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    I’ve noticed with my small group of 20 and 30 something women, we can sit around the living room, discuss scripture, and follow a pre-prescribed lesson. We can’t really discuss our lives in that space. When we meet up for dinner after work, however, our hearts open and our friendships become deeply intimate. I crave the vulnerability we have in the unscheduled moments to happen in the scheduled moments. Thank you for your encouragement to let the vulnerability begin with me!

  • Cathi - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    There is one aspect of vulnerability that always trips me up….the sharing part that makes another person look bad…that exposes other peoples’ mess-ups, shortcomings, sins. It is easy for me to be vulnerable about my own problems, where I fall short, where I am not quite together….but it is very difficult for me to really expose things I have been thru that put other people in a bad light. I am conflicted there because I might want people to understand more about me, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing it all. Does that make sense? Anyway…just thoughts. Thanks for all your beautiful words.

  • Elise - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    I wrote a post called “Vulnerability Out of Order” a few months ago on my blog, looktotheacorn.blogspot.com. I totally agree with you, Shauna; it requires bravery and taking the first step. I’m so glad so many people are talking about it…being vulnerable teaches us how to love boldly with grace!

  • LuAnn - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Around the table (my style), around the motorcycle (my son’s style) . . . I like these pictures! A piece about vulnerability that I am learning is the need to first be a safe place for myself. If I am beating myself, up other people see the potential for me to beat them up as well. They are less likely to risk vulnerability. If I offer myself grace, they have courage to believe that they will experience grace from me.

  • Brigetta - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    This is so good & I love Brene Brown. My husband and I lead a small group too and I agree that it starts with being brave and sharing first. Being authentic and not that “perfect Christian” goes a long way because as we all know, it doesn’t exist.

  • Christie - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks for sharing your observations about sitting around the table!

    Any suggestions as to an activity small group leaders can give their group to keep those hands busy??

    • Kimberley - Reply

      April 17, 2014 at 7:05 pm

      Christie, we have recently asked each other these questions: “what was your relationship like with your earthly father? How do you think that has affected how you view your Heavenly Father?” …it’s been amazing to see how that question immediately makes a group go deeper.

  • Laurie Kimbell - Reply

    April 17, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    Great post! I feel safe enough to be vulnerable when I can share my junk without receiving any feedback unless I ask for it. When I know people will thank me for sharing without trying to fix me. I’m most vulnerable around folks who are comfortable in other people’s pain, discomfort and shame because I know they won’t run away from me.

  • Sarah - Reply

    April 18, 2014 at 6:35 am

    Shoulder to shoulder for me…I tend to get quiet around the table…because I really like to eat. ;)

  • Gidget Roberts - Reply

    April 18, 2014 at 6:41 am

    My husband just bought an old jeep . Mostly because my college age son needed a car. I waS a little unsure that a jeep was the best choice, especially since my son is more into sports cars than big all terrain vehicles . My husband said it would be good for him. What I have witnessed is just what you describe. A new level of intimacy developing between dad and both our sons. The jeep is this moms answer to prayer! Nothing better than seeing my boys have real relationship with their father! (And their teenagers!) He is so good!

  • The Weekly End - Reply

    April 18, 2014 at 7:56 am

    […] On Vulnerability and Cats :: Shauna Niequist Create space, and go first. […]

  • Andrea Worley - Reply

    April 19, 2014 at 12:05 am

    This is just so beautiful and true!! I’m seeing this be true as I open up to a group of women. I’m learning to create the community I crave, and being vulnerable is such a big part of that I think! Thank you for sharing your heart.

Please leave a Comment