Vulnerability gets a bad rap in our culture; in my experience, it seems to be despised. In our culture, we seem to love the tough, hard, mean, sneering attitude. Vulnerability is perceived as weakness. The cultural message is clear: Be STRONG. Vulnerability is for losers. You can’t hurt ME!
Why is this? How did this happen? Among many recovering people, at least, the answer is reasonably clear.
Many people in recovery were raised in abusive environments. Survival as a child in an abusive environment requires shutting down: i.e. dissociating from our emotions. If a child consciously felt the full brunt of the abuse suffered, he or she would completely disintegrate emotionally or become psychotic. The child’s vulnerable psyche is protected by the defense of dissociation: excruciatingly painful feelings are ‘split off’ and pushed way, way down into the unconscious mind. As this defense becomes a habitual response for survival in a chronically abusive environment, the child effectively turns into stone: apparently unfeeling, flat, distant, sometimes cold and hard. This response is also widespread in disenfranchised, impoverished communities plagued with gang violence and gang attitudes. It is the way of survival in a harsh, punitive, abusive, violent environment.
Turning to stone does help one survive in a dangerous environment. But there is a huge problem: being a stone is a serious impediment to recovery from alcoholism/addiction to living a fulfilling life, and especially to establishing and maintaining loving, healthy, intimate relationships. Let me explain:
Addiction is, to a significant degree, a result of chronic self-medication: i.e. using alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behaviors as a way to anesthetize deep-down psychic pain. We become addicts because we need to dull the pain that’s buried deep down inside – the pain of our abusive childhoods. The pain doesn’t go away, so we need to anesthetize it over and over again, chronically, over a long period of time. Often, the result is addiction. And, just because we enter into some kind of recovery process, this buried pain doesn’t go away. On the contrary, it just sits there, unchanging and unmedicated.
There are several unconscious strategies that some people in recovery utilize to keep this pain squelched, or at least to stay one step ahead of it. That is, to remain “strong” / invulnerable. These include developing secondary compulsions/ addictions such as gambling, sex addiction, compulsive shopping, compulsive Internet use, and other process addictions. Some recovering people compulsively utilize certain recovery tools as temporary “get high” methods. These include the compulsive use of prayer and meditation, which is called “spiritual bypassing” by author Robert Augustus Masters. Another is compulsive Twelfth Step work, which might include sponsoring dozens of people in recovery, speaking in rehabs and detoxes nearly every night of the week, becoming a circuit speaker, constantly leading Step workshops, and other approaches. The keyword here is compulsive, meaning out-of-balance, extreme over-use of these short-term feel-good strategies as a way to “paper over” hidden, buried, unconscious pain and as a means to “feel good all the time.”
These strategies do work – for a while. Then, at some point, like all compulsions/ addictions, they stop working. We hit a bottom with them. No matter how tough and stony we try to remain on the outside, on the inside we remain vulnerable, hurting puppies. And eventually, this buried pain must surface. It may take a year; it may take twenty or thirty years. It must be addressed, or it could lead to relapse into active addiction or possibly even suicide. We must turn inward and face our demons. It’s not optional. And this means becoming VULNERABLE. It means becoming REAL.
Being tough, hard, mean, and sneering are NOT STRENGTH. They are DEFENSES. They are heavy-duty, thick-walled fortresses. They are protections against the possibility of being hurt. That’s all they are. And if you think about it, what is hidden away, deep in the inner sanctum of a fortress? Something WEAK, that’s what. Being tough, hard, mean, and sneering – i.e. being invulnerable – is a cover over hidden weakness. And what is that weakness? It is the unwillingness to FEEL. It is the fear of feeling painful emotions. It is the belief that if I feel my feelings, I will be destroyed, or decimated, or, worst of all, LOSE CONTROL. It is the intense, obsessive need to be in control, to be dominant, at all times.
And that, my friends, is a weakness. If someone is actually a strong person, THEY DON’T NEED A FORTRESS! It takes real, true inner strength to allow oneself to honestly FEEL. It takes real, true inner strength to allow oneself to be VULNERABLE. Vulnerability is simply the human condition. And BEING vulnerable – embracing our humanity – is a sign of powerful inner strength. Being hard and stony is a sign of inner weakness; it is absolutely NOT strength.
The ability to create and maintain healthy intimate relationships depends in large part on our willingness to be and remain vulnerable – to put down our defenses, walls, and masks, and allow the other person IN. If we remain invulnerable, we keep the other person OUT. And that is why many intimate relationships do not last. We refuse to let down our walls because we are afraid of being hurt. The other person feels shut out and eventually leaves because their emotional need for intimacy is not being met. And then, we feel hurt. Our refusal to allow ourselves to be hurt virtually guarantees that we will be hurt!