When I hear the word vulnerable, certain images come to my mind: A dog or cat, or any animal laying down on its back during a fight. Someone with his or her back to a wall with nowhere to go. Or someone walking down a cobblestone street, in the dark, slightly damp with scary music in the background.
All these scenarios indicated danger or losing to me. And I shied away from using the word. Yet it is the current buzzword in communication/new age health circles. So I decided to look it up.
vulnerable |ˈvəln(ə)rəbəl| adjective
- susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm: we were in a vulnerable position | small fish are vulnerable to predators.
- Bridge (of a partnership) liable to higher penalties, either by convention or through having won one game toward a rubber.
ORIGIN early 17th cent.: from late Latin vulnerabilis, from Latin vulnerare ‘to wound,’ from vulnus ‘wound.’
What!? Susceptible to attack! Harm?! Of course it is hard to be vulnerable. Of course I hear people say I don’t want to be vulnerable.
But what does that have to do with saying the truth? Why do we think that telling others what is really going on for us will make us susceptible to attack? I’m sure it is an old story. Parents and society in general not being able to communicate their needs without squashing the needs of the children? Possibly going to school for 12+/- years sitting in straight rows, competing with the kids next to us for the approval of the authority? Thus making ‘all others’ our enemies? Yes, we do have a lot to get over.
And is there a difference between being susceptible to attack and being harmed? I think yes. And it is a big difference. If someone doesn’t like what you say or do and they tell you (yes, even in ways you do not like, for example yelling or poking fun) which may seem like an attack, still really what is the harm?
So I looked up harm.
harm |härm|: noun
- physical injury, esp. that which is deliberately inflicted: it's fine as long as no one is inflicting harm on anyone else.
- material damage: it's unlikely to do much harm to the engine. actual or potential ill effect or danger: I can't see any harm in it.
verb [ with obj. ]
- physically injure: the villains didn't harm him.
- damage the health of: smoking when pregnant can harm your baby.
- have an adverse effect on: this could harm his Olympic prospects.
Talks about physical injury only. Most often when the discussion of vulnerability comes up, it is emotional harm that we are talking about. “I don’t feel emotionally safe.“ And that, my friends, is an inside job. What I hear when you say ‘emotional safety’ is that you are not willing to bear the feelings you have because of the meaning you make about what someone says to you. You are mistakenly giving your power away. Maybe that’s why you might say you are vulnerable. But, as it turns out, it isn’t true.
The consequence is to continue to outsource your emotional safety, and wait til you think you can control what everyone says to you and wait and wait, and hope to get your needs met, so you feel comfortable. Although I am not so sure you are really comfortable, you just prolong the experience of feeling scared. Which is the very experience of not having emotional safety. augh. What a horrifying loop!
What if you took yourself on and remained curious about how and why you feel a particular way? What if when someone said something you didn’t like, you used your uncomfortable feelings to guide you to the very things that are important to you in that moment? It is quite the powerful, resourceful place to be. It is freedom.
You can walk down the dark alleys of relationships fraught with dangerous conversations with confidence, knowing that your emotions (yes, even the ones you have been trained not to like) are your gateways to identifying what’s important to you. And when you know what’s important to you, you can make conscious choices to have more of it – in every moment.