Healthy Vulnerability Versus Unhealthy Vulnerability
Most of us believe vulnerability in intimate relationships is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on whether our relationships with primary caregivers were defined more by love and security or by abuse and anxiety. We must always remember the profoundly powerful psychological and emotional impact the primary relationship has on all subsequent relationships. The primary caregiver is, in the eyes of the small child, God, and God is the measurer of all things.
When the attachment to the primary caregiver is secure, when it’s defined by love and patience, vulnerability poses little risk and is in fact pleasant. The results of that vulnerability are feeling wanted, feeling cared for, feeling understood. When the attachment to the primary caregiver is insecure, when it’s defined by abuse, abandonment, neglect, or other traumas, vulnerability poses great risk and is decidedly unpleasant. The results of that vulnerability are feeling unwanted, feeling exposed, feeling hurt, feeling alone.
But we all have a deep need to feel connected and we all feel an irresistible pull, though not always conscious, to have the godlike figure sanction us as worthy and lovable. So despite the painful consequences of vulnerability in insecure attachment situations children and adolescents keep putting themselves in that vulnerable place, they keep opening themselves up, and they keep paying the price in the form of abuse, abandonment, disinterest, and other traumas, which hurt all the more when they make themselves exposed and defenseless. Sooner or later they decide to do something about it, which results in the compulsive need in adulthood to a) detach from their surroundings b) dominate their surroundings or c) latch on to some powerful entity that will protect them in those surroundings. Of course we all do a little bit of all three but the difference is that when we’re psychologically healthy we freely decide on the course of action that best fits the circumstances we face while when we’re still struggling towards psychological healthy we’re compulsively driven to do one of them even when circumstances call for something else.
Regardless of the route taken, the conscious or unconscious goal is to stop feeling vulnerable in order to reduce painful existential anxiety. When vulnerability was met with unpleasant consequences in the primary relationship during childhood, vulnerability in adult relationships is perceived as ‘bad’ even if people can’t explain exactly why they feel that way. When vulnerability was met with pleasant consequences in the primary relationship during childhood, vulnerability in adult relationships is perceived as ‘good’ even if people can’t explain exactly why they feel that way.
But both attitudes can get people into trouble in adult relationships. This is because the call on whether vulnerability is healthy or unhealthy is dependent upon our own conscious intentions and unconscious motivations and on the conscious intentions and unconscious motivations of the person with whom we’re relating. At its best, emotional and psychological vulnerability leads to a closer relationship where each really knows and understands the other. This understanding bridges the existential chasm, it replaces the unbearable feeling of existential isolation with the lovely feeling of community. At its worst, emotional and psychological vulnerability leads to a destructive relationship where the person in the exposed position is used and hurt by the other.
So vulnerability in and of itself isn’t good or bad. What matters is the conscious intentions of and the unconscious motivations behind both the person exposing that vulnerable and the person being exposed to it. If the intentions and motivations on both sides are productive, vulnerability is healthy. If the intentions and motivations on either side are destructive, vulnerability is unhealthy. As a general rule it’s healthy to try to protect our emotional and psychological systems from those who mean us harm and it’s unhealthy to try to shield our emotional and psychological systems from those who mean us no harm. To know the difference we have to do the inner work, we have to come to terms with how we got to where we are now, we have to understand on a deep level how we arrived at our own current relationship with vulnerability.