When we hear the word “vulnerable,” we automatically think of weakness, exposed, at risk, even helpless. Can it also, however, be a source of strength for someone?
Alice is 26. She’s a college graduate and has a good job in sales with a software design company. She’s been in counseling for the last 4 months for, as she put it, “low self-esteem, terrible confidence, and generally feeling like I’m a big loser. It seems I take everything to heart and it makes me so emotionally vulnerable to any guy who comes along. Any guy who says he likes me, enjoys being around me……well, I’m just a puddle of jello in his hands. Forget it. I grow so dependent on him that he finally gets disgusted and drops me. Like I said, I’m the queen of rejects.”
There’s a positive side to Alice, though. She’s a popular employee who is described by her supervisors as “loyal, and someone you can count on to get the job done.” She has a wide circle of friends who are always there for her – as she is for them. She does charity volunteer work, and is extremely well-liked. As one of her close friends puts it, “Alice is a joy to be around. She’s really modest…almost to a fault, and she will walk through fire to help a friend. Alice’s problem is when some guy comes on to her. When that happens, he becomes her world. We warn her how she gets too involved too fast, but she can’t help herself. So, we kind of wait for the rejection and try and be around to help her pick up the pieces. One of these days she’ll meet a real guy who is interested in her, not in what she can do to keep him happy.”
Alice’s counselor points out one thing to her on a regular basis: Her vulnerability gets her into emotional turmoil in her romantic ventures, but in most other aspects of her life that same vulnerability is the source of her empathy toward others, her amazing ability to understand their ups and downs, and how she can be with them in a positive way in both their emotional highs and lows. In short, her vulnerability is one of her strengths because so often it directs her to act in positive, constructive, and socially helpful ways.
Bridget is 29. She’s a college graduate and has a good job with a company that designs websites. All her work is done at home online. That’s probably a good thing because Bridget has poor interpersonal skills. She is harsh, tough, unemotional, guarded, and untrusting. She cuts off relationships – whether they be with a potential friend or a romantic interest – before they get serious. Bridget fears exposing herself to others because she believes they will use her and take advantage of her. Not surprisingly, she has no real close friends
Unlike Alice, Bridget is not at all vulnerable to emotional entanglements. When it comes to emotional expression or involvement, she has the ultimate weapon: Avoid, avoid, avoid. Bridget has never been emotionally scarred because she keeps her emotions hidden away in a psychologically defensive vault.
Alice and Bridget represent to some degree extremes of the emotional spectrum, one at the neurotic end (emotional Alice), the other at the sociopathic end (emotionless Bridget). Everyone occupies a position somewhere between those two extremes. One thing to take away from this example is the fact that being at either extreme end can be fraught with danger because the person is less likely to adopt more moderate actions to satisfy their emotional needs. Alice has successfully done so with her other-directed social activities. Her behavior is fairly flexible – unless men are involved. Then her coping strategy is rigid and unchanging. Bridget’s lack of flexibility, on the other hand, is not limited to a particular type of social interaction; her inflexibility permeates all her social interactions, which makes her coping skills limited and unsuccessful. She has only one strategy in her interpersonal relations – avoidance, a strategy that brings her isolation and few opportunities for psychological growth.
Another lesson in this example is that emotional vulnerability, per se, need not make you weak when it comes to coping with stress. One of Alice’s close friends was killed in a car accident. Alice was grief-stricken. A friend was trying to comfort her and said, “Don’t you wish we could avoid grief.” Through her tears, Alice answered, “No. That would mean I had never loved.” Bridget would probably find that answer difficult to comprehend.