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Father Mike Schmitz: How open can I be with people?

May 18, 2020

I am wondering how much I can be vulnerable with people. I have been able to tell some key people in my life about struggles of mine, but when can I tell others?

Thank you very much for writing. As I see it, based on the rest of your letter, there are two issues at work here.

Father Michael Schmitz
Father Michael Schmitz
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The first is your very good question about when to be vulnerable with others. In my years of working with young people, I find this is a lesson that is often learned the hard way. It usually goes something like this: A young person makes a connection with another young person and they become “instant friends.” Because this might be the first new friend they have ever had (all other friends are either family members or people they have known for their entire life), this relationship has a lot of new elements that those other relationships don’t. For example, those other relationships are close because of the very nature of the relationship. A situation in which a group of cousins who have been raised together doesn’t require that each cousin “bare their soul” to the others in order to have a solid friendship. What is more, when they do reach a point in their lives where they share deeper things, there is a history and a knowledge to guide that process.

And this is the missing piece. In a relationship that has just started, it is necessary to reveal things about yourself to the other. That is one of the key ways two people get to know each other. And yet, since they are still getting to know each other, they do not know the degree to which they can trust each other. And herein lies the problem: In order to be known, I have to reveal myself. But in order to know the depth to which self-revelation is wise, I need to know if I can trust the other person.

The solution? Patience.

Every one of us has had to learn that just because we have bonded with another person over sports, comic books, or even God, that doesn’t mean that we can trust another person with our heart. We want to be known. We want to know the other person. And there can be, at the start of a friendship, a certain urgency to share. But if we have ever made that mistake, we know that real wisdom in this situation demands slowing down and being wise. We have learned that trust has to be earned.

I want to repeat that: Trust must be earned.

How can you be vulnerable with people? By naturally sharing some things and seeing how the others respond. Do they honor those things you have shared? Do they fail to respond well to them? Over time, do they demonstrate that the are a “friend for a moment” and “friend for a season,” or a “friend for a lifetime”? That can only be known over the course of time. They truly have to prove themselves. And you will have to prove yourself as well.

Some might think that this is incorrect. They might claim that friendship ought to be freely given. I disagree. Love can be freely given. A person might not have to prove themselves in order to be loved. But we are not talking about whether or not someone is “worth loving.” We are talking about whether or not someone is worth trusting. The fact is, many people do not deserve your trust and being vulnerable. They have to prove themselves.

Now, onto the second part of your question.

You mentioned in your letter that the issues you are talking about are things that you struggle with. You further clarified that you’ve brought these things to confession and have shared these with close family members and a couple of select friends.

My question to your question is: Why does anyone else need to know?

I would imagine that this primarily comes from the (good) desire to be known. We all have this. It is the recognition that we are made for relationship. And in real relationship, there is a certain depth of self-revelation and “knowing” the other person. So it makes sense that you would want to share these things in order to be known more deeply.

But the issue as I see it is that you have “identified with” these actions or with the shame attached to these actions to such a degree that they are what you want to share, as if they are your true self.

But that is not true. You are not your sin. You are not your shame.

Of course, you might want to share these with others so that you can be reassured that you can share your shame and still be loved, but you have already done that with important people and with God. And they still love you. God still loves you. Why are you still carrying your shame? Jesus has already forgiven you, he does not want you to torture yourself over what he has already suffered in order to forgive you and set you free.

You are not disqualified from God’s love. You are not your shame. You can share it with those who have proven themselves worthy, but you can also leave it at the foot of the cross.

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].