The Power of Vulnerability

I hesitate to use the word ‘vulnerability’ because it is generally associated with weakness and helplessness. Nevertheless, some individuals describe themselves as ‘ vulnerable’ most probably knowing that others will perceive them as weak, dependent and not able to stand on their own two feet. However, there is a wonderful wisdom and strength to this unconscious strategy – making it far from being weak – in that it powerfully places the responsibility on others to ‘look after’ the person. As creative, ingenious and unique human beings I believe that we are never weak, but in the face of threats to our wellbeing, we unconsciously form protective strategies to reduce or offset threats to our wellbeing. It is important to understand that these protectors are formed unconsciously and it is at some later stage when we encounter the emotional, social and intellectual safety to be real and authentic that we will allow such knowledge to rise to consciousness, make new choices and take alternative and progressive actions.

Is what I’m saying true? Can we actually believe that people’s passivity, anxiety, helplessness, manipulativeness, emotional and physical withdrawal and hypersensitivity are powers beyond measure? Many people in the caring professions also refer to such individuals as being vulnerable and I believe miss the point that within the threatening context these people have lived and are still encountering, they have found the best possible means of surviving the defensive behaviours of significant individuals in their lives – as a child – mother, father, sibling, teacher, grandparent, peer and as an adult – mother, father, sibling, employer, friend, lover, partner. Whether it is a professional helper or another person who labels the person as ‘vulnerable’, they too do so unconsciously, and thereby, their labelling has the effect of reinforcing the protectors of that person. What is happening here is that professional care workers or others are in a protected place themselves and when protectors meet protectors, inevitably they will escalate. However, were the observer to notice and affirm the creativity and power of the protective behaviour, the person seeking help, rather than encountering further threats, would experience emotional, social and intellectual safety. In experiencing such safe holdings, the person who is undoubtedly, suffering, may now allow what is unconscious to rise to consciousness so that authentic rather than further protective action can be taken. For example, a person who has asthma, in the embrace of unconditional love may allow consciousness to emerge of how she was rarely, if ever, allowed to breathe her own life and had always felt fearful and constricted by the perfectionism and lack of warmth by her mother. The new choices to be made are to cut the restrictive ties with her mother, to be determined to live her own life and to love herself in the ways, sadly, that her mother was not in a place to offer.

What is interesting is that when it comes to describing a person who is vicious, aggressive, dominating, controlling, arrogant and authoritarian, we do not use the term ‘vulnerable’, even though the person is every bit as fearful. This is, true to what I believe, equally clever because aggressive-type responses are more obviously threatening to our presence and authentic actions than the more passive type responses that fall under the motivated ‘misnomer’ of ‘vulnerable.’ The labels we put on those who are aggressive are counter-aggressive in nature, the hope being that these will stop the person in their violating tracks and, thereby, reduce the threats our wellbeing. However, individuals who are aggressive and violent equally need our understanding and compassion because they too are hiding their wholeness and certain aspects of self-expression.

In examining any human behaviour, unless a person is in a heightened state of consciousness, what you see and hear is not what you need ‘to get’ – on the contrary, it is what you don’t see is what needs to be uncovered. Protective responses are designed to cover up what you dare not show. Uncovering what is hidden is only possible when unconditional love and belief in the person is present. This is as true in understanding ourselves as it is in the understanding of another. The word ‘understand’ when hyphenated – under-stand – indicates the necessity to get below the ‘stand’ (the protective behaviour) of self or another. Responding to the face value of what you or another says or does results in what needs to come to consciousness receding further into darkness. The reality is that such defensive responding is common in most homes, classrooms, workplaces, the Dail and churches. We are complex beings, powerful in guarding the unique diamond of Self and we will only allow spontaneous and authentic expression of our true and individual nature where there is the persistent presence of safe holdings.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including The Compassionate Intentions of Illness which is co-authored with Helen Ruddle.