Can You Make Yourself Invulnerable? Should You Even Try?

What are the hidden risks in striving to avoid vulnerability?

Posted Aug 14, 2019

Pixabay Free Image
Source: Pixabay Free Image

Let’s face it: Total invulnerability is impossible. We’re all subject to disease, death, and taxes. They’re constants, emblematic of the unalterable framework of our existence. And aging goes only in one direction—up. Moreover, no matter how you conduct yourself, it’s impossible to live a life devoid of rejection and failure.

In short, vulnerability is an inevitable part of the human condition.

Still, because feelings of vulnerability are so subjective, there’s a lot you can do to moderate them, or virtually eliminate them. So the real question becomes whether—or how much—you ought to? In addition, if you’re seeking to eradicate feelings of vulnerability, just how might you go about achieving such a far-reaching (and controversial) goal?

To get through life as emotionally unscathed as possible, we all develop psychological defenses. And all such unconscious ploys are designed to tamp down frightful feelings of vulnerability. Without their immediate fortification, we’d feel overly exposed to such agitating emotions as anxiety, terror, humiliation, and shame.

So, what exactly is the downside of such self-protective mechanisms? Namely, that even when we’ve outgrown the need for most of these vulnerability-reducing defenses, by the time we become adults they’re more or less locked in place. And they’re likely to take us over whenever something in the present reminds us (though unawares) of a situation so distressing to us in the past that we really did require their reality-mitigating assistance. For back then, our resources for dealing with adversity were far more limited.

For instance, phobias make very little rational sense. They represent exaggerated, imagined fears. But almost all phobias originate from some painful disturbance in our history never fully resolved. Whenever, involuntarily, we overreact (or, for that matter, underreact) to a particular present-day stimulus, it’s because that stimulus prompts our psyche to regress to an earlier time and place—and so compels us to reactivate a defense that's no longer necessary.

When this outdated defense rushes in to safeguard us from what it’s convinced remains a threat—independent of our more adult reasoning—it automatically takes charge of our behavior. For defenses as such don’t mature; they believe we’re the same age we were when they sprang into existence to alleviate our distress. And it doesn’t much matter whether that self-protective part of us is a people-pleaser, procrastinator, distancer, denier, dismisser, angry confronter, avoider, escapist, alcohol or marijuana abuser, or strident, disparaging inner (or outer) critic. The main point is that whenever these archaic defense mechanisms intervene, they’re not likely to serve our best interests. What they typically do is handicap us.

As I paradoxically put it in an earlier post, “Surprise! Your Defenses Can Make You MORE Vulnerable” (2013). And our supposed vulnerability-defying defenses can sabotage us in a variety of ways:

  • Prompting us to back away from something that would now be to our advantage to meet head-on.
  • Gratuitously picking a fight with someone to counter an imperiled sense of personal control.
  • Needlessly closing us down, or shutting us off from others who, we falsely assume, could harm us or revivify old feelings of insecurity.
  • Making us clingers, self-sacrificial people-pleasers, or excessively dependent on others (vs. developing our own independent resources).

Viewed in strictly relational terms, and based on past experience, we’ll be driven either to shy away from intimacy or pursue it with such desperate vigor that we end up exhausting, or alienating, our partner or would-be partner.

To reduce this to basics, our defenses are all about rendering us less vulnerable. If we were totally enlightened—self-validating, self-soothing, and feeling in control of our life (despite whatever external forces challenge us)—we could relinquish these self-protective mechanisms and courageously face whatever came up. But how many of us ever reach this advanced stage of development? Until we do, we’ll find ourselves in problematic situations in which, as by default, one or more of our unconsciously clung-to defenses overtake us.  

The question is how many of these now outmoded defenses we can begin to recognize and—speaking to them as well-meaning, but now irksome, “sub-personalities”—prompt them to take on a less pronounced (and ultimately defeatist) role? Here it would be useful to explore the burgeoning literature on Internal Family Systems Therapy (or IFS), which explicitly delves into this crucial matter of dialoguing with your so-called "Protectors." I have discussed this issue in a related post, “How Vulnerable Should You Let Yourself Be?” For if we’re to moderate our vulnerability wisely, we must first find non-combative ways of convincing our outdated defenses that over time they’ve become much less of a help than a hindrance.

The general opinion today (e.g., see Brené Brown) is that allowing yourself to become more vulnerable is psychologically and physically healthy. It’s about openness to experience and confidently “going for it”; being more self-disclosing so you can have more meaningful, more intimate, relationships; and not permitting your defenses to get in the way of reaching your full potential. All of which involves the willingness to take (prudent) risks.

But besides educating yourself about the specific defenses holding you back and successfully “negotiating” with them to lessen their control over you, what else can you do to become more, well, “safely vulnerable”? For starters, what if you simply began to accept your vulnerability¸—perhaps something akin to making peace with your mortality. Such acceptance—which needs to be perceived more as an affirmation than a resignation—would reduce your nagging anxiety about not being able to shield yourself from the erratic and unpredictable twists and turns of fate.

By now, so many writers have discussed the value of accepting what you can’t change that it’s become almost a cliché. But it’s nonetheless true that once you’ve done everything you reasonably can to address the obstacles you face, it’s best just to let them be. Once you realize the limits you (and everyone else) must abide by, you’ll free yourself from whatever anxieties might still be linked to your fretful—and futile—strivings. And that’s how you achieve the inner calm, or peace of mind, that will enable you to relax and enjoy life more fully

So remember: The more you can simply accept what’s beyond your control, the less vulnerable you’ll feel. And because your own personal sense of vulnerability is within your ability to command, changing your attitude toward your vulnerability can actually transform your life, in ways, you may long have wished for.

See a multi-part post I wrote on vulnerability, “The Power to Be Vulnerable” (2008), Parts 1, 2, & 3.

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.