I consider it courageous to show others our vulnerable, less polished and impervious sides, in situations where it is most tempting and easy to be jaded, phony or manipulative. I see this question of whether to connect when interacting with couples, families, friends, politics, and even day-to-day encounters with strangers. While we have exercise caution and care with our hearts and guard against being taken advantage of, we also can act as though we have more to fear than we actually do. How do we decide where there is a real threat of being hurt, physically or emotionally, and where we can let down our guards?
I have met people who were extremely guarded and afraid of being hurt, although they would never admit to this. They hold up their shield of not-caring, or of cynicism or even aggression to keep themselves from being hurt themselves. The world can indeed be very frightening and dangerous, and we have a duty and responsibility to ourselves to accurately assess when to defend ourselves from others.
But when we can’t shift from that state of protectiveness once the threat is over, or can’t tell a truly dangerous situation from one that merely seems threatening, or one that is neutral but reminds us of past hurts, then we become rigid and incapable of opening up when we want to. And that is a sad and lonely state of existence. Even when such people connect, they often do so from a superficial, win-lose stance. By this I mean that the person feels that they must win and someone else must lose to be safe. Are they concerned for the loser? At this point, it’s every man or woman for themselves, and all such people care about is that they weren’t the loser. Empathy is lost at this point, and when empathy lost any kind of dehumanizing, cruel behavior is possible.
I have also met people who are so open and willing to experience anything and everything that they often get hurt in relationships. They tend to attract people like the ones described above, because they are easy prey for cynical, selfish people. They expose their soft, vulnerable sides in hopes that people will take care of them the way a parent takes care of a child. Unfortunately, the world is not made that way. When we reach 18, our society assumes that we are adults, capable of taking care of our own emotional and physical needs. When we depend on others to look after us and protect us from situations where we should exercise good common sense, we run the risk of being treated pretty savagely. We need to balance of looking after ourselves, but not exclude considering others’ needs and wants.
A Balance of Connection
Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, we can meet each other and have a reasonable expectation of civility. Some of what we expect of each other depends on our cultural backgrounds. In some cultures, to leave oneself open for possible exploitation is a foolish act that leads to automatic exploitation. For other cultures, there is a level of trust that favors the tender-hearted and assumes the best in people. I think the United States is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but is edging towards the cynical end increasingly as time goes on.
We have to make choices about how to use our sensitive, tender parts of ourselves with others, and how much to give of our vulnerabilities to others. Unfortunately, the world is becoming increasingly inhospitable to this practice, as violence escalates and we become increasingly jaded and greedy. How do we carve out a space to meet soul-to-soul with others’ vulnerabilities and hold each other, and ourselves, in a tender, careful way? How can we show love, appreciation and kindness to each other even when we’ve been hurt in the past and have doubts about humanity’s worth? These are some of the issues that are especially salient to people who have been in traumatic situations, and can be explored in psychotherapy.