3. Vulnerability is not weakness

This is part three of a four-part series on how a few things have recently shifted for me, and how I’ve internalised these new ideas to move forward professionally and personally in 2019.

When I was 11, I went on a little Christian camp in the winter holidays. Tucked away at Riverslea Lodge while the wind and rain howled outside, fifteen of us awkward tweens spent the days together with one thing in mind – creating without inhibition. This was before my brain developed the thought pattern that I was not creative, and looking back on this time, I have such fond memories. We weren’t forced to play team building games, go white-water rafting or make dinner on gas cookers outside. There is a time for learning those skills.

This was a camp for introverts, quiet thinkers, artists of any kind. Here, we learned instead to slow down, get into the flow, and express ourselves. We spent hours painting what we wanted to, creating a collaborative collage of Psalm 139, gluing feathers and pipe-cleaners down on A3-sized books about ourselves and eating spaghetti bolognese. I still struggled getting what I wanted in my head down out in front of me, but here it didn’t matter. Whatever I made was treasured by those around me, and I learned to see something special in it too.

It was at this camp that I was given my first journal. It had a pink plastic cover with an elastic band on the side. This was the first blank notebook I had that didn’t have to be filled with schoolwork. This could be for whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to write anything, but I could if I wanted to. The liberation of having a space that was just mine, for whatever I wanted it to be for, was incredible. I stuck Winnie the Pooh stickers on the front, did a glitter glue smiley-face to inspire myself and scrawled through the sheets without ever having to worry about ticks or comments at the end of each page.

The start of the journey…

First I started writing prayers. Then came the notes to sermons or books I was reading. Quotes. Poetry. And reams about what was going on in my life. As I finished this journal, then school, then university, a notebook would always be by my bedside. Throughout the ebb and flow of life stages, the journals became more or less important. Sometimes I would write twice a day, other times it would be twice a season.

I always knew that in those pages, the real Jemma could show herself. I didn’t have to censor or explain my feelings – they were just allowed to be. Throughout the years, the journals held a lot of fear, anger, longing, confusion, and shame. I was vulnerable with myself in those pages so that when I went out on the world, I didn’t have to be. I could be strong, smart, independent Jemma, with a plan and an answer.

Fast forward to 23rd April 2017 – a Sunday afternoon. I was sitting at the computer at the kitchen tale, googling ‘evening counselling Christchurch’. It was safe to say that the edges of the journals were leaking into everyday life, and I wasn’t coping.

I sat down with Toni for our first appointment in May and I haven’t looked back since. Psychotherapy, or counselling, is, by far, one of the most important things I can do for my own hauroa (the Māori philosophy of health and wellbeing). The cost of paying to see someone has made me take the investment seriously, and put my own mahi (work) into making it worthwhile. What I have talked about and learned with Toni has been nothing short of life-changing.

However, I couldn’t tell anyone about it. I was ashamed to be needing help, and I didn’t want anyone to ask why I was going. I saw it as an embarrassing thing to admit in a culture where we all want to show that we’ve got it all together. Arrogantly, I didn’t think I was the ‘kind of person’ who should be getting counselling. I had a façade that I was invested in keeping up, and this was a chink in the armour I wasn’t willing to talk about.  

Perhaps my fear of and my fascination with vulnerability are tied together; I have always deeply admired vulnerability in others. I remember when a dear friend stood up to give a sermon on Sunday and admitted to having lied when he gave his testimony six months ago. He stood in tears telling us about the real him – the addictions, the pain and the fear. That evening I saw a story told from a deeper place than I knew existed within us. My respect for him grew ten-fold, and our friendship did as well.

Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz ripped through me ten years ago – it was one of the most self-deprecatingly vulnerable books I’d ever read, and I loved it. I wanted to be able to think about myself like that, and write about it. But I couldn’t. I watch Tyler bear his soul and hear Christian share the heart-wrenching story about his past and I hear courage and strength. Their vulnerability is a shining beacon of hope for all of us.

I seek out these stories – people who’ve shared about the pain of relationships, the struggle of living with Crohn’s Disease, the fear and beauty of new beginnings, the very personal issue of mental health, and the disillusionment that comes with losing your faith.

The cognitive dissonance between my respect for others’ vulnerability and the disgust I had for my own was blinding. Seeing Toni once a fortnight, our conversations often turned to vulnerability. Why I’m scared of it, what I can learn from it, who it might be safe to be vulnerable with in my life, and why it’s so very important. In pushing deeper into these fears of inadequacy, shame and judgement, Toni was helping me to bring my whole self out into the light of day.

As the outer shell began to soften and my internal dialogue began its long, curved arc of change, I had the courage to tell my best friend that I was going to a counsellor. This made it easier to tell the next friend not just about the counselling, but a little bit about what I’d been working on. I was able to tell my parents who I was seeing, and how much it was helping me.

And do you know what? People were incredible interested, supportive and kind. As we all would be when a friend mentions something like this. As my story spilled out into the air, it fulfilled the prophecy – it gave my friends permission to share what they were scared to talk about as well.

These small steps helped me to move forward and have the courage to share about my counselling journey with 100 benevolent, enrolled strangers during the altMBA in 2018. I couldn’t function for 48 hours after I put my story up; I was torn between wanting to keep hitting refresh to check what people had commented, and wanting to delete it, resign from the course, and run away to the beach to scream at the waves for a long time.

It was James Thomas that shared some words that day that I will never, ever forget. A singer/songwriter from Vancouver, James was also on the altMBA with me. He helped me to see that asking for help isn’t weakness – it’s one of the bravest things we can do. Strength of the most special kind. He wrote something closer to a poem than a comment as a response. Here’s an excerpt:

“From my perspective, it is weirder to pretend like you don’t have problems.
This modern society is extremely relative and full of unhelpful ideas that to just belong we take onboard consciously or unconsciously. If you were miraculously well-adapted to this beautiful and strange circus automatically, you would probably be a robot.

People who do what you have just done and shared honestly are working to grow.
They test their edge with heart and it is exquisite.
When you share yourself this way, you just become more human.”

I am learning to shed the shame that comes with asking for help, and to become more human. Now here I am, able to type this and share with you, whom I may know, or maybe I don’t. I am learning that my fear is less powerful than the connection we may form through being vulnerable, and the light I may spark in sharing this.

Thank you for listening, and as always, reach out if you’d like to.

If any of this has resonated with you, please watch The School of Life’s video below. What Alain de Botton says is one of the truest things I’ve heard:

“There’s a lot that holds us back from trying psychotherapy. There’s the idea that you have to be a little mad or harbour some huge and strange problem to go and see a therapist. It can be hard to see that therapy isn’t in fact for the select disturbed few; it’s for everyone because actually it’s entirely ordinary to be rather confused, a bit anxious, and sometimes challenged by relationships, family life and the direction of your career. So really, the only qualification for going to therapy is to be a normal human being… It isn’t a sign of disturbance to go to therapy. It is the first sign of sanity, and of a proper, grown-up commitment to mental health.”

7 Replies to “3. Vulnerability is not weakness”

  1. Journaling has always been a great source of satisfaction for me ma’am. Though for me, I thought that positive affirmations and some other Law of attraction techniques would be more suited. And I haven’t looked back ever since.
    A great post indeed.

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