It has been difficult for me to get myself to write lately. I’ve felt like my walls are up. This experience has occurred in concert with working very hard in therapy to dig into my childhood trauma on a deeper level. I feel as though I can only muster so much vulnerability as an individual, and increasing it in one area has unfortunately decreased it in my writing. As I contemplated my experience for today’s #SurvivinggnThriving Tuesday, I pondered the discomfort I’ve had with the word vulnerability, and saw that it is because I associate it with threat. To be vulnerable means to open myself up to possible attack and harm.
What are we afraid will happen to us if we are vulnerable? By and large, I think one “attack” that we might fear is being invalidated. In terms of traumatic experiences, we might be discounted and told that we are remembering things incorrectly. If our memories are factual, we are exaggerating them. If things are really as bad as we say they were, we must have brought it on ourselves. If we were in fact innocent victims, we need to show signs of “healing” like forgiveness and love in order to have our experiences “count.”
While many factors influence the reasons that traumatic experiences—especially those of a sexual nature—tend to get discounted, one aspect that I think stands strong is the fact humans are exquisitely tuned in to each other as social animals. We may be expected to preserve the “tribe” at any and all personal costs. The pressure to conform to the idea that people get what they deserve and to believe that everyone is trying their best can outweigh our willingness to grapple with evil and with the nuance in the nature of human relationships. We may feel a need to trust in authorities such as political leaders, clergy and parents, even when some of the individuals in these places of authority betray their charge.
How can this focus on our place as highly social beings help us in being willing to risk vulnerability, especially when our trauma has come at the hands of other people? As hard as this truth is for me to accept, relationships are a major healing force, perhaps the major healing force from trauma. All of the evidence-based treatments of trauma include an aspect of witnessing, listening, processing, talking, displaying, feeling or in some way being with our past experience of trauma in the presence of a safe and caring individual. A refusal to be vulnerable is likely to serve as an impediment to healing in therapeutic relationships that are “good enough.”
Being vulnerable presents other risks. We may be rejected, judged, criticized, betrayed or humiliated. I’ve shared previously about strategies through which we might discern if another individual or group is worthy of risking vulnerability. There is no gain in allowing ourselves to be mistreated, even if we may sometimes think we can undo the original trauma by defeating it in an adult form. Nothing feels more like failure to me than realizing I’ve been “sucked in” to an adult relationship that mimics an aspect of my childhood trauma, having mistaken the familiar for the safe.
What, though, can we do if we know deep down that we are in a safe relational space, but our walls are still up? I’m still terrified of having unpleasant reactions to my blogs, but honestly thus far *knocks on wood* I’ve had really kind and supportive readers. In parallel, in many offline areas of my life where I’ve taken risks, I’ve expected to be attacked and instead found acceptance. I believe it takes a significantly greater number of experiences of trust to undo a hurt than it takes hurts to break trust. All I can do or any of us can do is to keep trying, knowing this reality. And I believe empathy is vital—for those who have managed to have a lot of safe and loving people in their lives, know that you are indeed privileged and consider offering support instead of incredulity to those of us who may shrink at the first sign of relational conflict.
How have you navigated the terrain of vulnerability? What behaviors do others do that allow you to lower your defenses? How do you find the motivation to open up again after a relational wound?