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Robert D Stolorow Ph.D.
Robert D Stolorow Ph.D.


Vulnerability is constitutive of our finite existing.

I have characterized shame and its variants as an experience of being exposed as flawed and defective (…). It is pervasive in our cultural meaning-making to equate vulnerability--whether physical, emotional, or existential--with something shameful, an abhorrent weakness to be kept hidden and evaded, or counteracted through some form of reactive aggression and destructiveness. Vulnerability, in other words, is regarded as an aberration, a contemptible anomaly to be expunged from our experiential world.

Existential philosophy, by contrast, teaches us that the various forms of vulnerability are constitutive of our very existence as finite beings. Because we are limited, finite, mortal beings, vulnerability to trauma is a necessary and universal feature of our human condition (Stolorow, 2011;…). Suffering, injury, illness, death, heartbreak, loss--these are possibilities that define our existence and loom as constant threats. To be human is to be excruciatingly vulnerable.

Poet David Whyte (2015) captures this existential truth compellingly:

"VULNERABILITY is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice , vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding under-current of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to be something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

"To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is one of the privileges and the prime conceits of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath. The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant, and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door."

A relational context, such as that exemplified by Whyte, in which our inescapable existential vulnerabilities can be accepted and shared, held and integrated, would make less necessary the destructive evasions of them that have been so lamentably characteristic of human history (…).


Stolorow, R. D. (2011). World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge. Link:

Whyte, D. (2015). Consolations. Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press.

Copyright Robert Stolorow

About the Author
Robert D Stolorow Ph.D.

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D., is one of the original members of the International Council for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, which stems from the work of Heinz Kohut.

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