Feeling vulnerable vs being vulnerable

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vulnerable as ‘capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; open to attack or damage’. Understandably, many of us work hard to avoid being vulnerable. Why would you want to leave yourself open to being wounded or attacked?

Clients will choose to make themselves vulnerable if they believe that the rewards are worth it. Emotional vulnerability is an essential part of intimacy and feeling truly loved. Everyone has ways to reflexively protect themselves from emotional hurt. For example, your client might be smiley and pleasing (so they don’t offer any threat), or they might be stony-faced and grumpy (so they look tough and dangerous). They are hiding their deeper thoughts, feelings and desires from view so that people can’t use those thoughts, feelings or desires to manipulate or hurt them. They feel vulnerable, so they act defensively.

Remember, the more important someone is to you, the easier it is for you to feel hurt by them. When a stranger ignores, rejects or attacks you, that’s bad enough; but when an Attachment figure does, the pain is so much worse. That pain causes your amygdala to see your loved one as a threat. In a committed relationship, you organise your life around an Attachment figure. A rupture in that relationship threatens not just your feelings but also your living arrangements, your financial security, and your connection with your children (if you have them).

So, when their partner is upset, insincere, grumpy or withdrawn, your client may feel very vulnerable to hurt. Their instinctive response is to protect themselves. But when your client puts up their walls and acts defensively in turn, this is an ineffective way to try to care for themselves. It destabilises the Attachment relationship, making them more open to significant hurt in the long run.

To maintain their connection, they must accept their vulnerability to their significant other rather than fight it. Being vulnerable is part of acting with integrity. Consciously sharing what’s happening inside you does give their partner information they could use to hurt them. It’s a risk. But they are far better to take that risk and find out whether their partner can meet them, as well as whether they can look after themselves when their partner is unavailable.

Being vulnerable requires being Differentiated — knowing and showing how it is for you at the same time as being accepting of and interested in how it is for your partner. Being vulnerable also requires effective management of your neurobiology, i.e. good self-regulation. Your client’s impulse to protect themselves will arise and require managing. Remember, tolerating vulnerability is a hallmark of those who are Securely Attached. If they’re just ‘acting Secure’, then learning how to be vulnerable, rather than focusing on the anxiety of how vulnerable they feel, is a crucial component. The script below offers your clients a structured pathway to being vulnerable with their partner. Feel free to use it in your practice.

Here is a step-by-step guide for how to respond when you feel vulnerable or hurt.

(maybe because I have been hurt)

Triggers reflexive impulse to self-protect or act out, distract, feel numb, etc.

Recognise the impulse for what it is, allow self to feel the VULNERABILITY and don’t let yourself act impulsively

Go slow and self-soothe — attend to VULNERABLE or hurt feelings (including reaching out to friends and other supports)

Organise your thinking — maybe write some notes, or practise talking out loud to yourself or a friend, so that you have clear, non-judgemental language to describe what’s going on for you

Open up to partner about the original VULNERABLE or hurt feelings (use non-blaming descriptions)

Compassionately explore and discuss the VULNERABILITY, focusing on meanings you make, your interpretations and insecurities (not the same as justifying self-protective behaviour)

Be sure to talk about how much VULNERABILITY and hurt is from your upbringing rather than focusing on what your partner did