Your core vulnerability is the emotional state that is most dreadful to you, in reaction to which you’ve developed the strongest defenses. Other states of vulnerability are more tolerable if they avoid stimulating your core vulnerability and less bearable when they don't. For most people, either fear (of harm, isolation, deprivation) or shame (of failure) constitutes their core vulnerability.
Fear and shame are both pretty dreadful, to be sure. Though no one wants to experience either for very long, one is usually worse than the other for most individuals. If fear is your core vulnerability, failure is likely to trigger a deeper and more dreadful fear of isolation, harm, or deprivation. If shame is your core vulnerability, fear will trigger a deeper and more loathsome sense of failure. For the fear-avoidant, failure sounds like this: “If I fail, no one will help, love, or comfort me.” For the shame-avoidant, fear sounds like: “If I fail, I won’t be able to help, love, or comfort myself, and I won’t feel worthy of anyone else's help, love, or comfort.” When the fear-driven fail at work, they want more closeness in their relationships. When the shame-avoidant fail at work, they are likely to fight with their partners or withdraw from them, preferring to be left alone.
People whose core vulnerability is fear of harm, isolation, or deprivation will accept shame, even humiliation if they have to, in order to feel safe, secure, or connected or at least to avoid feeling isolated. People whose core vulnerability is shame (failure or loss of status) will risk harm, abandonment, and resources to feel successful or at least to avoid feeling like a failure.
Which are You?
Try this experiment. Stop reading and write down the things you most dread, no matter how unlikely they are to happen.
If fear is your core vulnerability, your list probably contains items that, at least indirectly, involve the possibility of harm, isolation (no one will care about you), and deprivation (diminished comfort, lacking things that make you feel good, inability to make a “nest”). If you’re shame-avoidant, the more prominent items on your list of the most dreadful things involve a possibility of failure, inadequacy, or loss of status, such as an inability to protect someone you love, missing a promotion, getting fired, feeling defeated, losing the respect of others. The shame-avoidant may seem to have deprivation on their lists—losing sexual prowess or the house or their car or the season’s tickets to the symphony or the NFL, but the underlying dread is this: the loss of things will mean failure or degraded status, not deprivation. The fear-driven will think of the hardship of losing certain things; the shame-avoidant will think of how they couldn’t look other people in the eye if they lost certain things.
Here’s another example. Everyone dreads homelessness, but we especially dread different things about it. The fear-driven cite harm, isolation, and deprivation as their primary fears about living on the street—“Someone would hurt me,” and “No would care about me,” and “I’d freeze, starve, and couldn’t bathe.” The shame-avoidant claim that what they could least tolerate about having to live on the street is being seen as a failure. “I couldn’t hold my head up,” is a common response. Interestingly, younger homeless men will rarely make eye contact when you pass them by, while younger homeless women tend to look directly into your eyes. (The difference is more noticeable in younger individuals because hormonal contrasts diminish with age.)
Law of Attraction?
In general, fearful and shame-based people attract each other. Those for whom the most dreaded emotional experience is fear are likely to cope by forming emotional alliances with others – there is strength in numbers. They are apt to seek partners they perceive to be protective, powerful, and generous. Those whose most dreaded emotional experience is shame are likely to cope by projecting power, protectiveness, generosity, or other visages of success; and they will look for partners who are especially appreciative of those qualities.
Estrogen enhances fear and testosterone blunts it, so generally there will be more fear avoidant-behavior in the estrogen rich. Testosterone increases competitiveness, with its inherent avoidance of failure, so there likely will be more shame-avoidant behavior in the testosterone dominant.
While opposite vulnerabilities may attract, they can also cause major problems in relationships when the differences are unappreciated or worse, invisible. In the latter case both partners are likely to accuse the other of failing to empathize (The term is commonly used to mean the ability identify with the feelings of another - see Limitations of Empathy). A higher order compassion that transcends the limits of one’s own experience of vulnerability is necessary to overcome the problems caused by opposite vulnerabilities in close relationships. (See Overcoming the Limitations of Empathy.)
The exercise below is intended to help make your core vulnerability, as well as your partner’s, more visible and more accessible to compassion.
Briefly describe a problem in your relationship.
How did this problem stimulate your fear of harm, isolation, or deprivation?
How did this problem stimulate your partner’s dread of failure?
How can you show compassion for your vulnerability as well as your partner’s?
Briefly describe a problem in your relationship.
How did this problem stimulate your dread of failure, especially as a provider, protector, lover, or parent?
How did this problem stimulate your partner’s fear of harm, isolation, or deprivation?
How can you show compassion for your vulnerability and your partner’s?
Hopefully the above exercise made it apparent that the more you bring fear and shame into the open, the less likely they are to undermine your attempts to feel close and connected in your relationship.
See the workshop on fear and shame: Finding Love without Words