A friend of mine once wrote, “But being vulnerable is bad, right?” He was making the point that it’s not bad at all, because vulnerability can free you.
What did my friend mean?
Let’s start by looking at what vulnerability is, or, to be a little more precise, what it means to be vulnerable.
The Oxford Living Dictionaries defines being vulnerable as being exposed to harm, either physically or emotionally. Let’s look closer.
Nearly all of the history of evolution or plants, animals and more has been dedicated to just a few things, one of which is protection from exposure to physical harm. There is good reason for this.
Humans are no exception, and indeed civilisation has given us an unprecedented level of safety that our ancestors wouldn’t have dreamed of.
But, there are areas of exception.
Sometimes it might be of your own choosing. Hang-gliding, rock-climbing, boxing — these all expose you to physical harm and danger, and they are your choice. If this applies to you, the sensible thing is to adhere to best safety practices.
Other times, it’s not of your own choosing. Circumstances in nature, like floods and earthquakes; politics and war; ghettos with gang warfare; and so forth. If this applies to you, your best bet is usually to get out if you can.
There is another category, where you are in danger due to an abusive relationship, where someone in your life physically harms you. It could be your mother, spouse, uncle, anyone. Many people are surprised when they discover how much abuse goes on behind closed doors. It’s far more common that most people realise. If this applies to you, please get help wherever you can, including the police if you live in an area where the police will take you seriously.
Everything mentioned about physical vulnerability also applies to emotional vulnerability. You could be subject to emotional hurt of your own choosing. This is rare, and, if this applies to you, please seek therapy.
You could be subject to emotional hurt through circumstances beyond your control; again, natural destruction, warfare, politics and so forth all take their emotional toll.
And, of course, there is deliberate emotional abuse, usually from a relative or spouse. No one is immune to such abuse, and fortunately some countries have enacted laws to make this illegal. I feel hopeful that, in time, all countries will (eventually) follow suit.
This article is mostly about the last category: emotional abuse.
Harms and consequences of harm
The consequences of physical harm are usually obvious: bruises, broken bones, concussion, and worse. There can be emotional consequences, for example PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
The consequences of emotional harm are more subtle, and in some cases might show up only months or years later. PTSD; CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome); phobias; GAD (generalised anxiety disorder); and much more.
Both physical and emotional harm can also lead to long-term physical health problems, such as heart arrhythmia, reduced resistance to illness, and even death.
This is a large area, and has a mix of effective and ineffective treatments. The good news is that if you suffer from any stress-related symptoms, research is finding more and more solutions. Some hypnotherapists and other therapists specialise in this type of area, and you could certainly talk to them.
After abuse: Closing up, closing down
There is another consequence of suffering from abuse: closing up, and closing down.
I was in a long-term relationship with someone who turned out to be an abusive gaslighter. This caused tremendous harm, not only to me, but also (ironically) to her, and of course to other people.
This type of harm is awful, and it happens to a surprising number of people. Because of the nature of gaslighting, the victims often realise that they are in such a relationship only far too late. If you realise that you are in such a relationship, of course, you need to get out of it as quickly as you can, and get as much help as possible.
Deciding to close down…
After the relationship had ended, it would have been easy for me to go into a metaphorical cocoon, hiding my hurt self away from the world. I could have decided that opening myself up to love again was far too risky, and could leave me just as hurt as before — or worse. The questions run through one’s mind: What if I find another gaslighter? After all, I’d done it once, so who says it won’t happen again? What if I find someone special, we fall in love, and later she falls out of love and leaves me? What if I end up abandoned, lost, helpless, alone once more?
Should I decide, in the immortal words of Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a rock; I am an island”? Should I build emotional walls and isolate myself from the world? Should I never again trust, so that I can never again be disappointed?
I know people who have done just this, because they are so scared of suffering again from that ghastly hurt — some of them worse than I ever had.
Closing down like this certainly works. You cannot be disappointed, because you have already settled on loneliness, helplessness, isolation — you are a rock, an island, separated from the rest of humanity. You cannot be hurt, because you are already keeping yourself in a world of hurt and pain.
… or not!
Everyone has heard Tennyson’s words, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Is this true? Am I better off now? Or would I have been better off had I never bothered to fall in love in the first place? Am I happier now, or would I have been happier, more fulfilled, more at peace, had I kept myself isolated?
Looking back on my life objectively — well, it’s impossible to be objective, so as objectively as possible — the answer to that question, “Should I have closed down?”, is most decidedly, “No!” I would not have learned the extraordinary things that I have learned. I would not have found the friends whom I’ve met along this journey. I would never have learned the skills that I have now to help others. I would have remained an insecure, shallow man, striving for purpose but never finding it.
That sounds weird, doesn’t it? Having an awkward, difficult and treacherous journey somehow leads to a life more fulfilling, more meaningful?
Yet, I have seen this in many people. People who would never have grown out of their youthful insecurities, uncertainties and self-doubts without the journey. Many of my clients leave my therapy room with the realisation of life-learnings that they never knew they had; wiser, richer in emotions, and indeed stronger.
Shutting yourself into a cocoon might shelter you from someone else’s emotional harm — but it simply exacerbates your own unintentional self-harm, leaving you more and more lonely and insecure in life, until you end your days wondering where life has gone and wondering, “What was the point?”
The harms of closing down and closing up
Closing down and closing up shelters you from harm, but it also shelters you from growth. It blocks you from finding true friends and new love. It leaves you unable to process and cure the side harms that come to you, such as PTSD — and loneliness, a way of ostracising yourself. You cannot mature and find contentment or peace.
It is absolutely true that, having been through a hard relationship, whether it an abusive parent, lover, spouse, business partner, or whoever, it is possible that it could happen to you again. Yes, it’s true.
This will happen again and again…
…. only if you refuse to learn from your mistakes.
If you don’t have therapy to sort out the confusion in your mind; if you assume that everyone is untrustworthy, and life is a long unremitting risk; if you decide, like an isolated country, that you must always be self-sufficient and self-contained, accepting help from no one else… yes, it will happen again. Maybe it was your mother before, and next time it will be your wife, who knows? But as long as you keep the faulty habits, beliefs and traps in your thoughts, you will continue to attract the same types of people.
Opening up after hurt
If you open up after you have been hurt, maybe desperately hurt, won’t this leave you vulnerable to being hurt again? As I already wrote, yes, it’s true: it could happen again.
There is a risk that someone else will see your vulnerability, and instead of being a decent person, will attempt to take advantage of you.
I can only repeat that having therapy, learning wisdom, and gaining new life skills will make you stronger and resilient. Learning to trust again is a process, but when you do, you will be in a state where you can better recognise these behaviours, and swiftly act when you do.
So, let’s move on with how we learn.
Physical vulnerability — and learning
When you run, jump and climb trees as a child, falling down and falling off, you learn how to use your body in different and more effective ways. You gain skills, speed, and knowledge.
You gain the confidence to try new and different things. You learn how to learn; and to do more and more activities, while learning how to be safe.
As an adult, with all these lessons on board, you might try climbing mountains, going down caves, hang-gliding, running a marathon, playing a new team sport. You will do them wisely and sensibly, keeping yourself safe.
When you make a mistake and hurt yourself, you know that it’s just part of life. You pick yourself up again, pop off to hospital if it’s bad, heal, and try again.
You continue to hone your existing skills and to learn new ones.
But, what if if you don’t run, jump and climb trees as a child? (I genuinely know a mother who won’t let her daughter do any of that, keeping her away even from roundabouts and slides!) You would learn none of that. You grow up insecure, frightened, unable to navigate a normal physical world. When you do dare to try, you trip and fall, maybe cry, and decide that you’ll never do it again. Every physical experience is frightening and upsetting. You’ll never experience the joy of climbing a mountain, hang-gliding, or joining in a new sport.
Emotional vulnerability — and learning
The same applies to emotional skills, except that emotional skills can be harder to learn, and to learn from.
If you had a rough upbringing with poor role models, it’s possible that you don’t know how to deal with, or cope in, a normal social setting. Many people have this problem.
Some therapists believe that this type of early learning problem is what causes people to be attracted to the “wrong” type of person in the first place.
For example, I had a super-strict upbringing, in a school where bullying was endemic and a beating was an ever-present risk of attending classes. I had poor role models to learn from, and definitely didn’t have the right skillset to cope with adult life. It is from this starting point in adulthood that I managed to attract, and be fooled by, a gaslighter.
In a similar way, a relative, brought up in the same circumstances as I was, and who has a heart of gold, managed to attract abusive friends who mercilessly took advantage of him, until eventually he too saw the light and moved on and up. He is now surrounded by decent people who lift him up.
So, yes, the therapists are probably right. But, the fact is that just as a rock might look safe and yet unexpectedly roll out from under your feet, causing you to fall and break a leg, so an unethical person can seem decent and unexpectedly turn out to be abusive. No one is completely immune from the danger of abuse, no matter how secure and rock-solid their upbringing.
As you live, engaging in life and fully experiencing the downs as well as the ups, you learn. Yes, you get hurt along the way — everyone does, to a lesser or greater extent — but you learn. The wonderful thing about today’s world is just how much information is available to us. We have the internet to feed us ideas (not always correct, of course!); we have new therapies, life coaching, and much more. The therapies are all there if you take the trouble to research and look.
We learn how to attract good people into our lives, and to recognise harmful people quickly before they can do much damage. We learn how to deal with trips and falls, how to recover quickly, and often how to save ourselves just as we are about trip, stumbling but not falling.
Life becomes richer, funner, wider, and more meaningful.
This is why it is vital not to close down, not to be a rock or an island, but instead to keep yourself open to people and to trust. You cannot learn how to be resilient to the trips and the falls until you have tripped and fallen. You cannot know the wonder of loving friends and a loving partner if you don’t open yourself to the possibility of hurt.
Meaning through vulnerability?
Let’s go back to my friend’s comment…
My friend was talking about this aspect of vulnerability. It’s related to being, or not being, a rock. I grew up in an environment where people would always present their “best face” to the world. Problems were kept secret for fear of judgement, and no one would ever dare to admit to feeling depressed or — heaven forbid! — seeing a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist!
Naturally, I grew up believing the same nonsense. It took me a few years to start to learn that keeping yourself “safe” from other people by closing down and not admitting your emotions, in an attempt to prevent myself from being vulnerable, led to a different type of vulnerability: The possibility of being harmed by me.
Closing down like that meant that I was always alone in my mind, even when I was with good friends and a loving partner. I always had to be “strong”, never making a mistake, always being “right”.
I can tell you, it was hell. I was happy on the outside, and often truly believed that I was a happy person; but I was unhappy. Although my financial life was good, my emotional life was a constant worry. What were people thinking of me? What if I let my guard down and people found out? The horror!
It took me a while before I learned, intellectually, that this was a dry desert of life, devoid of meaningful interaction, of truly receiving love (I could give love, but not truly accept it), of being a part of society in a meaningful and fulfilling way. It took me somewhat longer to move from the intellectual realisation to actually doing it.
Being vulnerable doesn’t mean making yourself gullible or becoming a fool. It doesn’t mean exposing every innard of your life to every stranger who should happen along.
It means being honest and open about how you feel, and the problems that you have. You start with being honest to you; then to others. You make yourself open to judgementalism. Because there are some good corollaries to this.
When you open yourself like this, exposing yourself to judgementalism, it means that you recognise that this is a normal human experience. You realise that other people also have problems, and those problems might be the same as yours, or completely different.
Taking the first step and opening up to someone for the first time was as scary as anything that you can imagine — like a child who has never been on a roundabout, suddenly about to jump off a small cliff into a pool of water down below!
I was half expecting to be mocked. But quite the opposite happened. I received sympathy, understanding… and the realisation, as the other person opened up to me, that it’s a two-way process! Being open to another human allows them to open to you. By exposing yourself to judgement, they know that they can trust you to expose themselves to yours.
In hindsight, I had started a path that I am excited to still be on.
Way back, while worrying about what others thought about me, someone told me something that has always stuck in my mind. He said, “Other people are too worried about what you’re thinking of them to be thinking about you.” In other words, I was constantly worrying about them judging me, when in reality they were worried about how I was judging them.
How crazy is that!
Here’s something else that I read, which took me a while to understand, and I hope that you understand it. “What other people think of you is none of your business.”
Incidentally, if you should ever open up to someone who then mocks you for it, you realise that you have just found a harmful person. You have saved yourself a tremendous amount of time, effort and hurt, because they have just unwittingly revealed themselves. When I come across a person like this (which is incredibly rare), I simply leave them and don’t interact with them any more. It’s their path that they have to walk, and either learn from it and become a better person (which most people will eventually do), or stay the way that they are and remain deeply unhappy for the rest of their miserable life.
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is ironic in that it makes you stronger and more resilient, and makes you less vulnerable to the people who would choose to hurt you or take advantage of you. It helps you to build new friendships, new connections, new loves.
I have a friend who had a physically and emotionally abusive partner. She managed to get him out of her life. Her next partner was emotionally abusive. But, this friend of mine didn’t give up. She continued to learn; she had therapy; she gained deep wisdom and a new understanding of people and life. Her next partner became her husband, and he is a decent person. Her children have her as a great role model, someone who keeps going, learns, and finally succeeds.
If she had closed up and closed down after her first abusive partner, she would still be wrapped in loneliness and fear, shut off from the world and from love.
Yet another story
Hannah Gadsby talks of how she has used vulnerability to overcome prejudice and hostility.