I used to have a client who wouldn’t let me use the word “vulnerable”. I understood why she was so opposed. Growing up in an extremely abusive environment she had learned that it was neither safe nor constructive to be vulnerable. Children are incredibly resourceful at finding ways to survive.
On a forum this week someone had asked for feedback about a product. He wanted to try and understand why there didn’t seem to be much interest in what he had created. Many of us took time to read his material and offer feedback, but in response to almost every comment made the originator of the material was defensive. Rather than accepting what was offered, considering that it might be lending just the insight needed, he simply tried to justify his failing project and so stayed in the same dissatisfying place. Sometimes the vulnerability we most need is hard to find.
Being vulnerable is hard for a number of reasons, not least of which is the acute awareness that being emotionally open and relaxed makes us more susceptible to criticism and pain, and we don’t like either.
Going into therapy in a way which supports recovery or growth requires us to be vulnerable. It needs honesty and openness, the willingness to lay ourselves bare, an acceptance that we don’t have the answers and might not even know what the questions are. It is often frightening and almost always hard work. These are challenges which, when grasped with enthusiasm, demonstrate a strength rather than a submission to weakness. I have lost count of the times clients have faltered in their work because they despise themselves for being vulnerable and so find it too hard to go to the places inside them which are the most illuminating.
When we tell someone we love them or accept hearing it we are being vulnerable; when we create something and show it to people we are being vulnerable; when we speak our innermost thoughts and share something which is truly of ourselves we are being vulnerable. Accepting the risk of rejection or ridicule is vulnerability on a grand scale, and it is an action of great strength.
Only vulnerability enables two people to connect in a deep and meaningful way. How is it possible to really know someone if we are constantly guarding ourselves from the possibility of being seen as we are? Vulnerability broadens our emotional capacity because, while it certainly creates more space and potential for hurt and disappointment, it also enables us to experience true joy, genuine desire, deep love and beauty. The vulnerable are wonderful creatures, the invulnerable are unavailable.
A fundamental need of all humans is growth. We are hard wired to keep moving forwards, learning new things, exposing ourselves to new experiences and becoming more tomorrow than we were yesterday. A life without growth is one of emotional stagnation and that, to humans, is like a death. There can be no growth without vulnerability, and it requires that we accept and acknowledge all that we don’t already know.
So many of us try to cover up gaps in our knowledge for fear of appearing in some way defective and, therefore, less valuable than we wish to be. As parents we can be particularly guilty of refusing to show that we are vulnerable, but showing our children that we sometimes screw up on a grand scale is a vulnerability so beautiful and valuable. Without an illustration of how it is to falter, they too can grow fearing the consequences of failure and therefore denying their own vulnerability, making their lives smaller in the process. To err is the most human of all characteristics. If permanent perfection is a futile dream (and it is) then vulnerability is the reality which keeps us rooted firmly to the ground.
A client is describing to me a terrible row with her mother. It is clear that both of them are hurting but neither wants to admit it to the other. So they use anger instead of love, they choose pseudo power instead of being vulnerable and, in so doing, they propel themselves steadily away from one another instead of where they most want to be, close and connected through a willingness to be vulnerable. Sound familiar?