Vulnerability and Safety

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There is a dogma that says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. I think the reality is that what doesn’t kill you can leave you maimed.

In one of the therapy groups I was in one of the therapists running it said, Vulnerability is potent.

The statement struck me then and it has stayed with me ever since.

I think it is true. A number of the most memorable times in my life have been spent with people on the edge of dealing with difficult stuff. Times that are often about mutual vulnerability (like our first kiss) can also have a vivid intensity. Consciousness of our physical mortality (such as a narrow escape crossing the road) can have a similar effect.

Being conscious of the vulnerability of ourselves, and others, can bring intensity to our experience. There may also be a sense of cherishing.

These kinds of experiences, though memorable and perhaps among the ones we value most highly, are not necessarily valued in the public sphere. It is a long time since I have heard any politician (other than Yeltsin) admit to failure. People in meetings are usually keener to talk about their successes than what they learnt from their failures.

I think it makes sense to own our strengths rather than focus on our weaknesses. To have people working on what they’re good at seems a recipe for happiness and productivity. Especially when people have been criticised for not meeting others’ standards (yes, I do mean our schooling system) or for not being perfect, then knowing our strengths, it seems to me, is vital. In this situation a sense of our strengths brings us self-esteem, an ease with others and a sense of relaxation.

The complement to owning our strengths is not denying our weaknesses — and certainly not pretending that we don’t have them. Not acknowledging our weaknesses can lead to things coming spectacularly unstuck.

My preference is intuition, and one of my weaknesses is dealing with details. I am thankful that the software I am writing this on has a spellchecker. I simply cannot proofread my own stuff. I have tried reading over what I have written slowly. I have tried reading what I have written in short bits. Nothing has worked: I cannot proofread my own stuff. I hear my own voice and read what I meant to say instead of what I actually wrote. So I use the spellchecker.

In a team of a reasonable size it will often be the case that strengths are complementary. But this relies on people being able to acknowledge what they are good at and not so good at. The team leader who cannot allow others to do what they are good at is very frustrating — and doesn’t contribute to a productive outcome.

Acknowledging our weaknesses to ourselves can bring us a peacefulness and a sense of relaxation (no more perfectionism). Acknowledging our weakness to others can be a formula for a productive working relationship. Being with others in moments of vulnerability can be intensely satisfying.

But…

Our vulnerability means that we can be hurt. People can be malicious (and there are some situation that make this more likely). And some people don’t know how to care for others’ vulnerabilities — even though they may want to very much.

A part of the story of acknowledging our vulnerability is knowing what is safe for us and what isn’t. This applies to physical risks (in sport for instance) and emotional risks, too (what kinds of relationships suit us).

Some people are very affected by the seasons (such as those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder), some are affected by aesthetics (some people find ugly buildings physically painful), and some are quite affected by relationships, while others are vulnerable to criticism of their performance.

My own view is that it is sensible and healthy to acknowledge and guard our vulnerability. There is a dogma that says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. I think the reality is that what doesn’t kill you can leave you maimed.

In my experience, people thrive in situations of safety and support, not in a threatening environment. Those who grow up in war zones, or homes where they are unsafe, do not usually grow up to be the most accomplished and at ease.

It seems to me that we need more ‘safe spaces’ in our lives — places where we can speak what is in our hearts; situations where we can disclose what is precious to us; times where we can let others know how much we care for them, and what we value and find difficult about them.

Most of us will probably find this most easy to do in our friendships. Others in positions of authority may be able to make these kinds of changes in other situations too. There is no reason (other than habit and expectations) that these times and places can’t be as much a part of a board meeting or a political party meeting as a part of our friendships.

What have your moments of vulnerability been like? Have they been precious or traumatic? Do you feel that you have places where you can be vulnerable in some ways, or is your situation such that you need to guard yourself carefully? What have you learned about yourself and others from moments of vulnerability? I look forward to hearing your experience in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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