You ever have a friend whom you've known for a long time and yet you feel like you don't really know who they are? Or have you ever had a long conversation with someone but walked away feeling that they're still a mystery to you? Or if you're a Christian, have you ever been part of a small group that shares a lot but for some reason they still feel like strangers?
Yeah, me too. This may happen because some people are just private about their personal lives and won't disclose anything. We all know this type: shy, reclusive, introverted. They're single one day and then out of nowhere you get invited to their wedding. However I'm not talking about these guys.
I'm talking about people who actually seem to share a lot with you. They talk about their life, relational conflicts, and doubts about God. And yet despite them sharing all of this, you still feel like you don't really know them.
Why does this happen?
Transparency vs. Vulnerability
I think the reason lies in understanding the difference between transparency and vulnerability. While these two terms are pretty similar, they are also quite distinct - and understanding the distinction will help make sense of why some of our friends may feel like strangers.
"Transparency" means, by definition, the ability to see through something. So when someone's being transparent with you, they're letting you see into their lives. They'll let you know what's going on and even inform you about how they've been feeling. But while people who are transparent will share openly, they do so in a self-conscious, controlled way. In other words, they're presenting a processed, polished version of themselves.
"Vulnerability" though is a little different. When someone's being vulnerable, they're making themselves susceptible to the judgment of others. Vulnerability means they don't just let you know what's going on in their lives - they let you actually see how everything is affecting them. This involves them letting their guard down and relinquishing control. In other words, they're presenting an unprocessed, unpolished version of themselves.
And this can be scary.
Why We Fear Vulnerability
The tricky thing about "transparency" is that it makes us think we know a person. After all, they're opening and sharing about themselves. But that's the thing - people who are only transparent tend to only share about themselves. We know a lot of facts about them, but we don't really know them.
For example, if a friend told me that he lost his job, I'd feel sad and hope he finds a new one soon. However, if he told me he lost his job and now he feels completely lost - I'd feel strangely closer with him. Why? Well when someone loses their job, that tells me about his circumstances. But when he tells me how he's handling his circumstances, that tells me a lot about him.
And that's why it's probably difficult for us to be vulnerable with others because when doing so, we're letting people get to know the real us. And we don't want people to know the real us because if they do, then they now have the power to reject us. And we don't want that. That's why it's easier to put people at arms-length and tell them just enough so that they don't have to really know us.
Seeing the Difference
I remember meeting with someone over the course of several months and he'd share a lot about his life. Family issues. Relational issues. Doubts about his faith. Yet despite this wealth of information he'd share with me, I still felt so...disconnected to him. I knew a lot about him, but I felt like I still didn't really know him. And when I'd tell him this, he'd give me a quizzical look as if to say, "But I tell you everything."
However looking back, I realize I felt distant from him because even though he shared a lot of facts about his life, he never shared how he felt about those facts. He'd tell me he wasn't close with his parents - but he'd never let me see his bitterness. He'd tell me he broke up with his girlfriend, but he never expressed how lonely that made him feel. He'd tell me he was sad all week, but he'd never let me see his sadness.
In other words, whenever he'd share his life, it felt like reading a movie synopsis from a Wikipedia page. When you read about a movie on a Wikipedia page, you know what happened in a scene but you don't really know the emotions behind those scenes. That's how I felt about this brother. He shared a lot about what was happening in his life (transparent), but he never allowed me to see his raw feelings (vulnerability).
I don't know about you, but I've never read a Wikipedia page and felt warm affections for that article. And when people open up to others like a Wikipedia page, they rarely feel warm affections for them.
A Personal Struggle
I feel I know this not only because of my experiences with others but because of how others say they experience me. It's pretty easy for me to be transparent with people - there's really nothing that I'm afraid to share anymore. However despite this, people sometimes still tell me that they don't really know me. Before when people would say this I'd think, "Why? What else is there to know? I've shared everything."
But I think I'm beginning to understand what they're talking about. They don't just want to know what's been happening in my life - they want me to invite them into my life. They want to not just know that I'm struggling - they want to be there while I'm struggling. But I rarely let people in; instead I'll handle my struggles by myself and after the dust has settled, I will inform people about how I was able to overcome everything. In other words, I'll be transparent with them but not vulnerable.
And I do this because I'm afraid of rejection - at least rejection of the real me. But I'm slowly learning - through Christ, marriage, and ministry - that vulnerability is the only way people can really know me. And, as often cited, it's only when we feel truly known and truly loved simultaneously that we find true joy and acceptance.
If you ever have a friend or small group that shares a lot but something just feels a little off, I'd argue that it could be they're being transparent but not vulnerable. It could be they're sharing a lot about themselves - but they're not really sharing themselves.
Or if a friend or small group ever lets you know that though you share a lot, they still feel like they don't know you - it could be that you're being transparent but not vulnerable. You're letting people know enough about yourself without them really knowing who you really are.
And I guess with these categories in mind, I'd encourage people to take small steps towards vulnerability by letting others see you in your brokenness just a bit more.