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When Is Vulnerability Toxic?

How we notice, experience, internalize and project vulnerability are extremely important topics. There is no way we can really come into our own in a strong co-creating way in the world unless we are able to get a handle on this important topic.

Debunking Mono-Vulnerability

According to Merriam Webster, vulnerability is:

1. capable of being physically or emotionally wounded
2: open to attack or damage ASSAILABLEvulnerable to criticism

Merriam Webster

Vulnerability seems pretty clear and simple based on this definition. It is not a bad definition. It is simply not a complete definition. Why? Because vulnerability always has a context. It is how we define the context for our vulnerability that matters not simply the fear we may feel.

The Importance Of Context

There are many different contexts around vulnerability and how we recognize then, acknowledge them and respond to them are critically important if we are to have good relationships and show up in the world as constructive co-creators, a direction that much of the world is moving toward.

Context is a point of focus. So when individuals or groups define reality they also define what constitutes vulnerability. This is important and potentially serious. Humans often externalize vulnerability and can do a lot of harm in doing so. Most harm comes from externalizing vulnerability.

As a sensitive person, it is easy to notice vulnerability, but difficult to understand the context for what we are noticing. So our empathy may push us to act but our incomplete knowledge can hold us back resulting in mixed feelings about our actions and self-doubt about our competence. In addition, noticing vulnerability does not provide us the wisdom to handle it well. So we have several things we need in handling vulnerability: understanding and wisdom.

Different Contexts For Danger

There are many ways in which someone or a group can feel vulnerable:

  • physical danger is one and felt strongly in our bodies. There is generally little ambiguity in experiencing this type of threat.
  • identity is another important way in which we can feel threatened. when roles change and our identity is wrapped up in a particular role, we may feel threatened.
  • when we are different from others, we may feel very vulnerable just being ourselves. The fears we experience are not inconsequential since those who are different are often abused verbally, emotionally and physically even.
  • structural weakness and vulnerability is one of the most overlooked. Cultures generally see themselves as good and strong and attribute problems to cultures that are different. Cultures also place conformity demands on their citizens that may be harmful and raise fears in their citizens.
  • definitions of reality can be threatening as well if someone especially those in positions of responsibility define reality in a way that is off the mark.
  • the terms of belonging can be threatening. If in order to belong, we have to do something risky or be someone we are not then we can feel at risk.
  • change is a huge source of fear. Change always brings us into a relationship with the unknown which is frequently frightening.

There are many ways in which we can feel at risk and many ways others perceive risk. We do not control the perceptions of others, we can only control our own and be constructive and gracious in working with others. Essentially that is our responsibility.

Sometimes when someone is afraid, their vulnerability is a personal growth issue and many times it is not. Being able to distinguish personal vs cultural/structural vulnerability is an important discernment skill but it is not acceptable to use one’s perceived vulnerability as an excuse to bully others.

Two Different Orientations To Vulnerability

Much of our vulnerability occurs at the group level since we live in groups and depend on each other through groups. How a group is formed and structured, the story it tells about the group and its vulnerabilities, and how it identifies and defines danger are all very important to the health of the group.

Some groups emphasize the social side of life in defining danger. You can see this in very traditional societies where more recent ideas about social roles and technology are considered threatening. Without considering the merits of some of the thinking, what is important to understand is that these societies perceive danger as something outside the group. They project their vulnerability toward other individuals and groups and essentially build a wall around a particular way of life. Generally they have more conservative social roles and ideas about life. Conservative social systems are not “bad”. They have been effective in advancing human needs at particular points in human history. The important idea for us here is to notice the externalizing of danger especially a perceived vulnerability created by change. This is where these closed social systems get into trouble. By refusing change they can be in denial about important issues requiring their attention.

There is an alternative approach that is slowly gaining cachet. It is a more open approach to working with our vulnerability that allows and even embraces change. The thinking goes like this: Since change is a part of reality, working with reality reduces risk. This approach does not separate people into Ok vs not Ok people. There is no us vs. them in reality-oriented risk management. So it reduces the social risks and attends more closely to the risks of complexity and change. The reason this approach is getting more attention is because managing increasing complex human systems requires a lot of close attention because the stability of complex systems can be fragile. A more open orientation to life and change allows us to be better informed and therefore better problem solvers. Reality is not an adversary under this approach so there is greater willingness to accept all kinds of information and adapt to changing conditions.

The Benefits Of Reducing Toxic Vulnerability

If you want to handle your vulnerability well, it is a better strategy to be open to change and adapt to changing conditions. That may be easier said than done but it is a strategy that makes it easier to avoid the worst case scenarios created by denial.

It is possible to live in a closed system successfully if you live simply and in a non-adversarial relationship with those who are different. However, the more closed the system the greater the likelihood the group’s vulnerability will become toxic. Closed groups can be very fear-based. That may have been appropriate in the past but today’s large and challenging social systems require a different approach no matter how much we may long for the good ol’ days.

How you structure a group to deal with threats needs to reflect the realities of your current vulnerabilities. Overestimating dangers from others means you can lose allies and potential collaborators. Underestimating dangers can allow an unhelpful complacency to take hold. Closed group systems limit their ability to adapt and therefore increase their vulnerability in doing so. Open systems have their noses to the ground and with good listening and wise decision making can provide more secure and lower risk group arrangements.

Understanding our potential to create harm by mishandling vulnerability is an important step in becoming a constructive co-creator in the world. To learn more about how we work on this in the Emerging Sensitive Program, click here.

About Maria Hill

Maria Hill is the founder of Sensitive Evolution. She is the author of The Emerging Sensitive: A Guide For Finding Your Place In The World. In addition, she has created the immersive Emerging Sensitive Program of "sensory processing yoga" using frameworks to help sensitive people master their sensitivity and turn it into the asset it can be. She also offers the Emerging Sensitive Movie Club focused on movies and discussions about living in the world as a sensitive person and navigating the challenging cultural shifts of our times. She is a longtime meditator, reiki master, student of alternative health and Ayurveda. Maria is also an abstract painter whose portfolio can be found at Infinite Shape and also very interested in animal and human rights and the environment.

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