“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (Inigo Montoya, ftw!)

Vulnerability. Openness. Intimacy. Buzz buzz buzz. I fear these words are becoming empty and meaningless. Christians throw the terms around like we know what they are, but they’re becoming buzz-words. Christianese, even.

Small groups and Bible studies say that they want to create a dynamic that is conducive to vulnerability. Leadership experts say that good leaders are vulnerable and open. Pastors and clergy explain that churches need to be safe places for vulnerability and authenticity.

I’m getting frustrated.

Why? Because the words are losing their meaning. We just assume we know all know what we’re talking about. Call me crazy, but I think the first step toward vulnerability, intimacy, authenticity, etc. is maybe talking about what the hell those things are in the first place. We can’t pursue it if we don’t know what it is or what it looks like.

We can grasp the basic premise of vulnerability. We understand that it’s necessary for deep relationships and intimacy. But when you cry for vulnerability, and she cries for vulnerability, and I cry for vulnerability, I wonder if we’re actually crying out for different things and calling them by the same name.

I would argue that oftentimes, we are. We often confuse openness with vulnerability, and vice versa.

So what’s the difference?

I consider myself a very open person–for better or for worse. I don’t mind talking about who I am. I like to discuss what makes me tick, what makes others tick, what life events have formed their identities, what traumas have birthed their insecurities, their fears, their triumphs. Most times, I don’t mind expressing my opinion, if conversation permits. I’ll tell you how it feels to have parents who are fighting painful illness and disability. I’ll tell you how much it sucks to deal with chronic pain. I don’t mind saying that I have anxiety or that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing with my adult life. Why?

Because I like people to know me. Part of that may be my personality type; as an INFJ (introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging–so I find it easy to connect with others), I don’t like shallow conversation. I jump right into the deep end, and I want to share who I am, what I’ve experienced, what I believe–and I want you to as well. I like discussing things that matter.

I will show my scars. I will speak of the demons that have come and gone and the ones that I’m still fending off. I will tell you about my darkest moments, if the context or situation is appropriate and if I think it will benefit our friendship.

(Note: That doesn’t mean I don’t find it difficult or exhausting, nor does it mean that I necessarily open up for the right reasons all the time. Often times after sharing part of my story, I am terrified and insecure, constantly wondering what people think of my story, if they believe me, if they think I’m foolish, if they think I was just trying to get attention, if they relate at all, etc. And then there’s the reasons behind opening up and sharing, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Vulnerability is more than openness. Oftentimes, we view openness and vulnerability as one in the same, and they aren’t. If openness is telling you about my darkest moments, then vulnerability is lighting a lantern and inviting you to traverse all the dark places with me. It’s more than showing you my scars. It’s letting them bleed in front of you. It’s more than talking about anxiety. It’s letting you stick around when I’m having a panic attack. It’s more than telling you about how much it sucks that my parents are sick and in pain. It’s letting myself weep and mourn over it and allowing you to see me in that moment.

Openness is sharing your story; vulnerability is letting people inside your story. It’s letting people not only hear about the skeletons in your closet, but to see them, to feel them, to help you rid of them or accept them or confront them.

Openness leads to vulnerability leads to intimacy. I can choose to stop at openness and go no further, or I can light the lantern and take a step into the darkness with you alongside me–which is why I’m choosy about who I am going to be vulnerable with.

To be open is to share about you. But to be vulnerable is to share you–unapologetic, true, 100%, genuine, dirty, mucky, beautiful, sinful, messed up, tear-stained, glittering, weak, terrified, but strong and determined you. Sometimes that means expressing a need. Sometimes that means admitting a weakness or acknowledging a hurt. Other times, it means saying things that are hard to say but need to be said. Sometimes that means showing a side of you that people will not like. Sometimes that means rejection or conflict or pain or insecurity. And that’s okay.

I am open. Sometimes too open, sometimes not open enough. But I am not quite vulnerable, and it’s because I’m still learning what it means for me to light my lantern and invite those around me into my darkness. I’m learning who it is I am called to be vulnerable with, and I’m learning that it is not everyone I meet. I am learning what it looks like to be unapologetically me while still striving for more. I am learning how to use my openness for the good and the healing of others and not just for myself. I am learning how to share my story in a way that invites the important people in my life into my story, into the depths and crevaces.

(Note again, sorry. I want to point out that I intentionally said “important people” and not just “people.” Being vulnerable with everyone is not a good idea. And being vulnerable with just anyone is equally not advisable. Be choosy. Be intentional. Be smart, be wise. Don’t just let anyone down into your dark places and skeleton closets. Not everyone will help heal. Some will hurt.)

Oi! What a painstaking process living life can be when you add other people into the mix (says the introvert).