I grew up in a world in which being vulnerable was a sign of weakness. Something to hide and correct as soon as possible.
I grew up in a culture in which weakness and strength were seen as attributes of the individual. Weakness – a personal problem. Strength – a personal achievement. What was supposed to take you from one to the other was personal will.
I grew up in a family that didn’t know how to deal with vulnerability. The message was that you need to keep your shit together and be strong. You succeed or you die trying.
How exactly you go from vulnerability to strength is something that I never got to learn. Apparently, it should have been obvious and should have come by itself. But it didn’t.
I grew up with a sense of self (and masculinity) that depended a lot on one’s capacity to show strength and stay above water no matter what. If you’re vulnerable you’re weak, and if you’re weak you’re less of a man.
Vulnerability was treated a bit like an STD: pretend you don’t have it and run to the nearest clinic making sure nobody sees you.
Although I never felt comfortable with this and I often failed at “being strong”, it took me a long time to fully realize the toxicity of the whole thing.
Traumatized people will unwillingly pass on the trauma to their kids by acting in the only ways that are available to them – the ones that hurt them in the first place. As kids, we learn mostly by example, by experiencing the way people close to us act when they feel joyful, excited, sad, or angry. These early experiences shape the way our brain interprets situations and reacts to them.
Growing up in a family that doesn’t know how to express vulnerability in healthy ways creates adults who are equally incapable to express it appropriately. It’s not that they don’t want to. They haven’t learned how to do it or, more precisely, they have only learned the types of acting out (such as protecting oneself through isolation or aggressiveness) that they were exposed to.
Of course, our learning is not limited to what we see around us. As we grow up, we become more and more autonomous in how we learn and how we use that learning. But things are different when we’re very young. We depend on others. Our developing brain depends on the adult brains around us to regulate itself, because most of the mechanisms of self-regulation are simply not there yet.
It took me a long time to come to terms with my vulnerability and to stop seeing it as a weakness. I’m still not fully there. Maybe I never will.
Weakness is a lazy label we attach to others because we don’t feel like actually paying attention to what they’re going through, to the causes of their behavior. Weakness is an unforgiving label we attach to ourselves because we are too used to blaming and discrediting ourselves. These are mechanisms of avoidance or denial.
Our actions and behaviors have causes. If we look at all the causes leading us down a certain path, we can find predispositions, habits, traumas, emotional reactions, cognitive models – but we cannot find anything worth calling “weakness”. It is just a placeholder for things we don’t know or don’t care to know.
“Just try harder”, “come on, it’s not that bad”, or “be strong” are meaningless (and often insulting) for somebody feeling vulnerable. They are meaningless because they all reflect the same lack of attention and empathy for what actually goes on.
We need to be seen and held in somebody else’s attention and care much more often than we want advice or material help.