The power of vulnerability

When we were children we used to think that when we were grown-up we would not longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…to be alive is to accept vulnerability.

–       Madeleine L’Engle (novelist)

I’m often aware how difficult, how very hard it is, to acknowledge my own vulnerability. After all, being vulnerable means being open to physical or emotional wounding. But when I do acknowledge this part of myself, and show it to someone I trust in an appropriate way, it is extremely powerful.

That would seem to be a contradiction – how can dropping one’s familiar protection actually be powerful?

I think it’s because vulnerability is what can connect us, at a deeper level, to others and help us feel less alone. It is also an acknowledgement of reality and of our humanity – that even though we try to, we can’t control our lives or control others.

There is a difference, however, between being in touch with one’s authentic vulnerability and being over identified with it.  People who are over identified with their vulnerability are often extremely sensitive and find it hard to protect themselves and get their needs met. They are often regarded, and see themselves, as ‘victims’, always been taken advantage of or exploited.

Authentic vulnerability is less about blaming others and more about just being open about one’s deeper feelings – such as sadness, distress, loneliness or anxiety.

I’m thinking of a couple going through problems I was seeing, in which the man allowed himself to cry at his fear the relationship may not be saved. His partner was moved emotionally and it enabled them both to show a deeper part of themselves to each other.

But vulnerability is regularly devalued in our competitive and materialist society, which values ‘masculine’ qualities like strength, fortitude and mental toughness.

Because of this many people, particularly men, have an understandable reluctance to show, or even allow themselves to feel, vulnerability. To them it can feel like weakness and it intensely scary, especially for those who were shamed by parents when they showed vulnerability as children.

Because of the large number of people who were shamed as children for feeling sad or distressed, showing one’s own vulnerability to others is something to be done cautiously. Otherwise we can be re-shamed if someone sees our vulnerability and tells us not to behave ‘like a child’.

But there is also a high price to pay when we protect our vulnerability too rigidly, as these defences can become barriers to connecting with others at a deeper level.

In my therapy work, with both individuals and couples, I am constantly struck by how hard it is for people to be seen in their vulnerability. They shield their face, look down or even try and make a joke.

With a couple, I will try and express appreciation at the risk one of them has taken in showing true vulnerability. I will also try and make sure that the other partner does not squash or dismiss what has been said.

This is because it is these moments of vulnerability between partners that offer the prospect for deeper connection and healing. To show vulnerability is to let go, even if only for a moment, the desire to be powerful and to be ‘right’. Instead, it opens a small space for the other person to be moved and to connect.


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