What are you going to do after you graduate?
How long did you date before you were engaged?
Do you know how many kids you’re going to have?
Do you stay home with the baby?
Have you started looking at schools?
It sometimes stresses me out when I get these sorts of lifestyle questions from people who don’t know me well. Not because I don’t have an answer, but because I can tell that the person asking the question has a strong opinion about my answer. And though I do welcome hearing other opinions and being challenged to grow in my thoughts, that desire is often overshadowed by my fear of being “judged.”
I know this is a common feeling, so much so that it has become a stereotype (especially within the parenting crowd.) In response, many of us simply choose not to engage in these kinds of conversations or not to ask questions at all. Which is sad. Because that means the small talk must get shallower and shallower. When we are afraid of each others’ opinions on everything important, what will be left to talk about?
Certainly, there is a way to make these conversations work. The feeling of judgment need not be an inherent response to any disagreement. I think the reason we often feel so defensive is because we feel like the other person only sees our opinion. What we feel, before feeling judged, is misunderstood. We feel like the other person doesn’t see us in our entirety and understand why it is we think the way we do. So when a stranger rejects our opinion they effectively reject our entire person.
My husband and I love to discuss every sort of topic. We like to seek answers together. We have challenged and changed each others’ opinions on all sorts of things from faith to family to food. And it is rare for one of us to feel threatened or judged by this. Because we know each other. We know each others’ hearts and we try to assume the best of those hearts. For every idea we might present to each other, every well-reasoned argument— there is a piece of the heart, as well. For all our intellectual, detached discussion, there is equal sharing of worries and joys and laughter. So when an opinion is challenged, it’s not a challenge of the whole person. Of course, any challenge to any part of ourselves requires of us some humility, but the humility is attainable when we feel otherwise secure and approved of.
Obviously, we can’t reach this same level of understanding and security with strangers. But we can take some proactive measures to create more understanding and security. Understanding and security can’t happen without vulnerability. I think an easy rule could go like this: if you’re going to bring up something controversial, be vulnerable first.
Humor is a great place to start. It softens the seriousness of it all and makes it clear that you don’t think this one topic the only thing of importance in the world. Moreover, humor is often self-deprecating– humbling– and humility is the beginning of vulnerability. So if you’re going to talk about why you don’t homeschool, start with a funny story about your disastrous first attempt at it. Make yourself the main reason why you changed your mind. If you’re going to talk about why you pulled your kids out of school in order to homeschool, start by saying something like, yeah, I guess we’re just gonna be the awkward family. If you’re going to talk about getting married at a young age, joke about how you couldn’t wait any longer to have sex. And if you’re going to talk about why you did wait a little longer to get married, joke that you weren’t sure how you felt about committing after the first seven years.
You don’t even have to joke to be vulnerable. You can just reveal a part of your heart. Reveal a weakness or insecurity. When you talk about breastfeeding, admit how much you might hate it. When you talk about prayer, it’s okay to admit that you often don’t feel like you get anything out of it, but you try to make it a habit anyway. When you talk about natural healing or diets or exercise plans, start by talking about your cheats. Start by talking about your imperfections. Because if the other person knows that you know you’re imperfect, open to change, in need of change, they won’t feel threatened by the fact that you see that same imperfection and need for change in them. They won’t have to worry that your possible disagreeing with them is a judgement of their entire character. If you’re vulnerable with them then they feel they can be vulnerable with you. And it is when people are mutually vulnerable that they are most open to change anyway.