The Wisdom of Vulnerability - Blog#23 - 23 August 2019
It is natural to avoid pain, because it is, well, painful! When we experience emotional pain, it is natural to try to eliminate that pain from the mind so that we can feel happy and pain free. None of us enjoy feeling sad, guilty, ashamed, anxious, fearful, etc. Who wants to feel vulnerable? We typically seek out positive feelings, wanting to feel happy, excited, joyful, humorous, content, serene, and untroubled. In our zeal to create positive feelings while minimizing negative feelings, it is easy to perceive negative feelings as enemies to be neutralized as quickly as possible. By suppressing negative feelings, we can banish them from our conscious mind, and thereby regain a more positive or neutral emotional state, at least temporarily. But that’s the rub: the benefit is temporary. By suppressing negative feelings, we add to a natural divide in the mind, conscious versus subconscious. If the mind were simply a bottomless pit, we could discard negative feelings like garbage, dropping them far enough below consciousness that their stinking fumes never touched us again. Unfortunately, the mind is not a bottomless pit, feelings do not disappear forever, and the problems that generate such feelings are not resolved by suppressing them from consciousness. Feelings resurface when they are triggered, or when the problems that generated them reappear. Eventually they must be dealt with. Otherwise, the subconscious mind resembles a toxic waste dump whose fumes repeatedly poison our well-being. And the poisonous subconscious mound grows as we disown and discard more emotional “garbage,” creating an increasing emotional stench and threat below the surface, until these feelings are addressed and resolved, or we explode emotionally.
Examined from another angle, our minds want to resolve and eliminate pain, both at the moment, and permanently. The problem is that these two goals conflict, and often require opposite approaches. On the one hand, we want to eliminate pain at the moment, and suppression, as well as other numbing techniques (e.g., distraction, substance abuse), are often quite effective for immediate pain relief. However, permanent pain relief requires an understanding of the problem that creates the pain, and a strategy for resolving that problem, both of which require us to approach, experience and explore our painful feelings, as well as the thoughts, memories, and events associated with these feelings. In other words, temporary pain must often be tolerated in order to reduce and prevent more lasting pain.
Furthermore, emotional pain can even be considered our friend, in the sense that it provides abundant feedback regarding the nature of our problems, which can potentially lead to solutions for such problems. When you accidently touch a red-hot stove burner, the alarming, painful burning sensation alerts you to quickly pull your hand away to prevent more severe injury. Likewise, listening to our painful feelings helps us understand the nature of our emotional problems and the solutions needed to allow us to feel better in the long run. Feeling and exploring our sadness helps us understand the nature of our losses, inviting us to explore what needs to be done in order to grieve and/or replace these losses. Listening to our fear and anxiety allows us to understand external and internal dangers and threats, real and imagined, that need to be examined, as well as obstacles to be courageously overcome in our lives. As John Bradshaw noted in Homecoming (1990), “To put it very simply, our emotions are our most fundamental powers. We have them in order to guard our basic needs. When one of our needs is being threatened, our emotional energy signals us” (p. 68). Negative feelings are the source of useful feedback, as well as the source of significant pain in our lives. By mindfully approaching yet containing such emotional pain, we can achieve a healthy balance, minimizing both temporary and permanent pain, rather than sacrificing one for the other.
Thus, while emotional pain may often feel like an enemy, it is likewise our friend. In a way, it is our immediate enemy and our long-term friend, as negative emotions are painful at the moment, though an awareness and understanding of such emotions can lead to steps that reduce our pain in the future. There is wisdom to be found in vulnerability within relationships as well. One cannot be emotionally intimate without being vulnerable. Allowing oneself to love requires allowing oneself to risk being hurt. We all want safe love, but we must risk safety in order to obtain love, or risk lack of love and loneliness if we demand too much safety. Sharing uncomfortable feelings with a partner or friend helps develop emotional connectedness. Indeed, emotional intimacy could be defined as shared vulnerability. Without risking vulnerability, we remain armored, safe at the moment perhaps, but distant and disconnected. As with other psychological dimensions, it pays to develop skills at both ends and in the middle of the safety/vulnerability dimension, so we can adapt to any situation or relationship by choosing the right mix of safety and vulnerability at any given time. One would not want to be permanently vulnerable, nor irreversibly safe, armored and untouchable. There are times to be vulnerable, and times to protect yourself, and the ability to do each, at the time of your choosing, depending on your needs at the moment, is adaptive. But if we cannot safely share our more vulnerable “negative” feelings, our sadness, fears, guilt, shame, and frustrations, with a partner who understands, validates, and supports us, we cannot have true intimacy. And if we cannot take the risk of being rejected and hurt, we cannot open ourselves up to the love that magnetically attracts us all. Thus, we must balance our needs for safety and love by wisely determining which situations safely allow for vulnerability, and which ones require self-protection. Wisdom is essential in determining how much vulnerability is appropriate in particular situations and relationships.
Thus, there is wisdom in selective vulnerability, both in our relationships, and when dealing with nonsocial issues involving strong feelings. We must learn to approach, experience and express uncomfortable feelings, and to control and manage them, both in good measure.
Bradshaw, John. (1990). Homecoming: Reclaiming and championing your inner child. New York, NY: Bantam.
To read more about emotional wisdom, control and expression, check out Ed Chandler’s Psychomechanics – Tools for Self-Regulation of Emotions, now available in Print and e-Book on Amazon. Or, if you are interested in secular approaches to spirituality, the chapters of Psychomechanics are also included as the third/final section of Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, also available in Print and e-Book on Amazon. Or explore this website (edchandlerandbeyond.com) to see Ed’s photography and stained glass, in addition to his writings on psychology, spirituality, anthropocentrism and prejudice. Thanks for listening.