Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

The Power to Be Vulnerable (Part 1 of 3)

It's common to use anger to deny feelings of vulnerability.

vulnerabilityPart 1--Denying Vulnerability: "You're Really Making Me Angry!"

To feel anxiety and not back away from whatever's causing it requires marked self-control. Resisting the temptation to avoid anything we experience as threatening takes considerable courage.

We humans are so wired that the slightest perception of danger leads to feelings of vulnerability, setting into motion the impulse to flee, freeze or dissociate. And that sudden flash of trepidation can be prompted by anything that threatens our sense of control.

It could, for instance, relate to sharing ourselves personally in a way that exposes us to the other's indifference, disapproval, or anger. When we confide our thoughts and feelings in another, we may also fear that our sharing won't be reciprocated. Or that it could be used against us. Or that it won't be empathized with, or validated. And our deepest sense of vulnerability arises when we find ourselves in situations that tap into primal fears of abandonment. Or evoke its opposite, engulfment--where our personal boundaries feel so threatened that we fear losing our very self.

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Finally, whether our self-protective impulse to escape such situations is blindly followed or consciously withstood depends on our ability to stay calm during periods of emotional imbalance. And such composure isn't at all "natural." Rather, it's a strength--or power--that we need to deliberately cultivate.

Frequently, when we stand firm in menacing situations, we're able to do so only through the anaesthetizing emotion of anger. Getting angry with people who provoke our distress enables us to blame and negate them, and thus neutralize the uncomfortable feelings they're causing us. But reactively becoming angry isn't about overcoming our anxiety so much as covering it up. All we're really doing here is masking feelings of uneasiness or insecurity by summoning up a self-vindicating sense of righteousness.

For example, when a person experienced as crucial to our welfare (say, our spouse) sharply criticizes us, we're likely to feel threatened, our emotional equilibrium suddenly turned upside down. Very few of us can simply "sit" with the criticism, objectively evaluate its merits, and respond accordingly. On the contrary, unless we depressively slink away from our mate, we're likely to experience a strong urge to react antagonistically--attempting to protect against the felt assault to our self-esteem by either strenuously defending ourselves or by attacking them right back. Thrown off balance by the criticism, desperate to restore a positive sense of self, we look for a way--any way--to discredit our "assailant."

But the immediate sense of strength our defensive anger yields is finally much less like bravery than bravado. And beyond allaying our anxiety, it doesn't solve a thing. We haven't coped with the threatening situation by sharing honestly and directly about how it made us feel (i.e., vulnerable), but merely substituted a much less disturbing feeling to camouflage our distress. For the moment, we've successfully resorted to anger to quiet our fears, but this anxiety reduction has been achieved mostly at our partner's expense. And when we get into the habit of alleviating uncomfortable feelings by getting mad at our spouse, we invariably end up creating more discord in our relationship--setting ourselves up for continuing conflict (and of course the need for more and more anger).

Power struggles in relationships are in fact mostly efforts to get our dependency needs met without ever confessing to our mate the anxiety their refusal would cause us. And typically we're not at all conscious of how much our deepest feelings of security hinge on our partner's positive response. Yet even if we were aware of the primal source of our relational fears and frustrations, it's unlikely we'd be willing to take the risk of straightforwardly admitting these unmet needs--whether for attention, reassurance, empathy, support, validation, or simple warmth. The readiness to honestly and unashamedly admit these needs simply calls for more psychological courage than most of us have available.

To betray just how dependent on our spouse we were (with all the vulnerability such dependency implies) would likely only exacerbate our most secret fear that we couldn't be sufficiently cared about--or that maybe we weren't even worth being so cared about. And if we were actually to reveal just how much power our partner had over our feelings, how could we avoid further endangering our sense of personal safety in the relationship?

Along with our fears, most of us also feel a certain shame about divulging our dependencies. After all, as adults it's almost always considered a virtue to be autonomous and self-reliant, whereas the mere suggestion of neediness is generally associated with being weak. So even though all of us may have quite legitimate dependency needs left over from childhood, revealing our hurt feelings when they're not being met would expose our susceptibility to a degree that hardly seems tenable.

And so we're far more likely to criticize our partners when they ignore or deny us--or angrily demand from them what they've already refused--than to openly confess feelings of deprivation. But by self-protectively reacting to them negatively and taking out our frustrations on them, we decrease yet further the chance that in the future they'll be more inclined to provide us with the succor we may so desperately need from them.

Anger is certainly one of the most common ways we protect against feeling vulnerable. But how do we counteract such feelings without defaulting to the pseudo-empowering reaction of anger? When we're feeling accused, devalued, powerless, rejected, or unloved, how do we stay in touch with the anxiety these feelings typically generate and literally think ourselves out of anxiety--eventually getting to the other side where we're able to feel safe and okay? How, in short, can we muster the strength to deal more openly with all the things that imperil our sense of well-being?

Psychologically, accomplishing this feat of staying present and holding onto our emotional poise when it feels under siege may well be one of our greatest challenges in life. But if we can develop this ability, we'll likely discover a sense of personal power greater than any we've ever experienced. And in learning how to share our hurts--and our fears of being hurt--we may at last realize our potential for emotional intimacy, one of the greatest rewards of a committed relationship.

Cultivating such an invaluable personal resource--one that may well represent the ultimate in self-control--lies in our ability to (1) self-validate, and (2) self-soothe.

NOTE 1: Part 2 of this post centers on how we can become more self-validating, while Part 3 takes up the various ways we can learn how to better soothe ourselves.

NOTE 2: To explore other posts I've written for Psychology Today,:please click here.

© 2008 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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