Monday, August 23, 2010

A Question of Vulnerability

I did a workshop on boundaries the other day at Awakenings Book store in White Rock. The question was asked: how can I be vulnerable, live with an open heart, and not get walked on?

I think the root of the question here is not so much about being vulnerable but our belief in our intrinsic “right to be”.

I’ve printed this quote before but I find it is fitting once again:

When a rebel army took over a Korean town, all fled the Zen temple except the abbot. The rebel general burst into the temple and was incensed to find that the master refused to greet him, let alone receive him as a conqueror.
"Don’t you know," shouted the general, "that you are looking at one who can run you through without batting an eye?"
"And you," said the abbot, "are looking at one who can be run through without batting an eye!"
The general's scowl turned into a smile. He bowed and left the temple.

The abbot presents himself in all his vulnerability — no sword, no armour —and states who he is. He makes a conscious decision, stating to the general that he can try to walk all over him but he, the abbot, will not be affected. The abbot is basically saying that this bullying behaviour is about the general. It is his need to be in control and that he, the abbot, will not play the game. The general can try to run over, threaten or abuse the abbot but the abbot will not succumb. The abbot is putting up a boundary. He is standing tall and stating his truth — he believes in his right to be.

Let us use the more pedestrian example of love. Letting someone know you love them is a vulnerable act. The object of our love can respond in many ways from returning, abusing or rejecting it and, of course, the many variations between. The thing to note, however, is regardless of how the other person responds, their response is about them, not us. It is about their feelings and/or way of coping with life. If we have a right to state our love, then they have a right to state their feelings … even if it is hurtful to us. Their feelings, including defensive reactions spoken out of fear, is authentic for them at that moment.

It is essentially human that a negative response to open-heartedness adversely affects us. Its hurts to be rejected. However, if we allow that rejection to overwhelm our sense of who we are and to negate the authentic expression of our feelings, we have been overruled by our codependent parts. We are allowing another to walk over us because we are elevating their feelings above our own.

Said another way, it is about self trust. Self trust, as I have noted before, is contingent on an internal sense of safety (and vice versa). If we feel safe in who we are; and trust that our feelings are important, we are more apt to feel okay in our vulnerability. It is about knowing that whatever happens as a result of stating our deepest thoughts or feelings, it is secondary to the fact that we have been true to our self.

In codependence, we allow the feelings, thoughts or actions of another to supersede our own in value. We react to another’s negative response and judge it to be about us. In codependence, we let others not only walk over us but hurt us along the way. Let’s look at some simplified dialogues to explain further:

Ann: I love you
Bob: If you love me you will do this for me.

Bob is abusing Ann’s love. If Ann responds by saying, “okay”, her codependent parts are in control. She is stating that the only way she will gain Bob’s love is by bending to his will. If Ann sets up a boundary, however, she might say: “my love is not contingent on your conditions, my love is about how I feel towards you.”

Max: I love you
Sally: I don’t love you, you are not good enough

Sally is rejecting Max’s love and hurting him with abusive words. If Max believes these words, his codependent parts are in control. He is allowing another’s opinion to be more important than his own. Max could respond with boundaries and say: “that is your opinion. In expressing my love, I am stating my truth, not an invitation for you to abuse me.”

Sue: I am scared
Jim: I will take care of you

Here Sue is being vulnerable in stating her fear. If Sue allows Jim to take control her codependent parts have taken control of her. With strong boundaries Sue could respond: “I did not ask you to take over, I am only stating how I feel. If you want to help, ask me what I need right now.”

We cannot be walked over, abused, and/or controlled unless a part of ourselves, however small, deems we deserve it in some way. Or, said another way, that a part of us feels we are not worthy of respect. (And I am not talking about children or forced confinement in its myriad of physical, financial and emotional manifestations.) The act of putting up a boundary states we do not expect, want or deserve abuse and we will not stand for it.

The strongest boundary we have is the one that comes from the belief that says, unconditionally, we have the right to be. It allows us to be vulnerable, the purest manifestation of that belief. The more we practice it, the deeper we trust who we are and the more authentic our response to life. We may still get hurt by others but the hurt is temporary, and ultimately soothed by our belief in who we are and our right to be.


  1. This is a wonderful response Jo-Ann. It makes so much sense and you have explained it so well it is easy to the examples too!

  2. This is a very interesting topic but I think it is a little simplistic.I don't mean the examples. These discussions are best explained by the type of examples you give.

    There are so many variables that come into play in human relationships
    eg cultural origins. Religious and areligious backgrounds formulate different moral codes.
    Philosophical issues such as the difference between perception and truth,conditional and unconditional love and so on.I agree with the premise of your argument that no one should be bullied and abused but there are well established structures in society which countenance this behaviour, some even enshrined in the law. It takes a brave individual to stand up and fight and we have not even begun to discuss the flawed characteristics of the human condition . After all humans are an animal species.Jungle inclinations seem to be inherent in the species. Thank you anyway for this...a lot of food for thought.

  3. Thank you, Rallentanda, for your comment. I agree there are underlying philosophical issues but its difficult to ponder or discuss (at least for me) without a concrete example. Be interested in hearing from you, Jo-Ann