What I learnt about vulnerability, talking and experimenting with it
Part 1: Understanding vulnerability (DO try this at home)
It’s kind of hard to talk about love without discussing vulnerability. Or so I realised when I interviewed strangers about love. For most people I spoke with, not surprisingly, vulnerability was something that was reserved for their intimate/ close relationships. For anyone who has ever been vulnerable, that seems like an only obvious thing to do.
In the mood to question everything though, I began to question the notions of vulnerability we held and why it was something that was considered so sacred/ personal/ private. That’s where my experiments with vulnerability began and where I learnt all that there was to learn about it.
In my interviews, I would ask questions like: “what does vulnerability mean to you?” “what does it feel like?”. And almost always, there was an image of powerlessness that was painted: most people felt vulnerable when the control for things in their life shifted to someone else in some way. Predictably so. Much like its dictionary definition, which is something like this:
the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.
Not one to be appeased easily, I probed further: “what makes you vulnerable?”.
The answers I received can usually be slotted into the following “categories”: (1) how much access they give someone to their private world — how much information they share, how much of themselves they show to the other person? (here, the handing over the control is in the form of allowing someone to form an opinion/ respond/ judge them, without fully knowing how they will)
(2) how much someone can affect them — affect their moods/ states of mind, if someone could hurt them, if someone’s opinions mattered to them? (here, someone else’s actions, which one has no control over, has the power to affect them in ways that are unpleasant and not predictable because of the lack of certainty about how someone else will act, and thus the handing over of control)
After discussing these meanings of vulnerability, I would lead them into my favourite activity to do in these interviews. I’d ask, “What would your vulnerability scale look like? If ‘one’ was the least vulnerable you are and ‘ten’ was the most vulnerable you imagine yourself to be, what would your ‘one to ten’ scale look like?”
I would then work with them to chart their definitions of vulnerability on this scale and discuss what different places on this scale felt like, also plotting their relationships in terms of their vulnerabilities on that scale. So, questions like: “what is your average vulnerability, with say an acquaintance?” “what is the most vulnerable you have ever actually been (and what did that feel like)?”. And then, I would encourage them to trace what the difference between those two points was: “what is it like to surrender control at the different points on that scale?” “What are the walls that come up as you go lower on the scale?”.
Needless to say, I had first tried all these experiments on my own self and in my relationships. I’d made most of my closest friends do this exercise with me. (Thank God for friends who play along!) I’d sent them a message explaining this exercise and made them all plot their own vulnerability scales and shared my own with them. We had shared our averages and the maximum we have experienced, and plotted where we lay for each other.
This is where it had gotten really interesting. A few of my closest friends claimed that their average vulnerability was about a 1 or 2, that the maximum vulnerable they have been (as against the most they think they could ever feel) was about a 7 or a 8, and that I was a 3 or 4 for them.
On the other hand, my average vulnerability was about 4, my highest was a 9, and they were my 7s and 8s. So, it looked something like this:
Because I was doing this over messaging, I received all of these responses almost at the same time, and to say I was taken aback is an understatement. Imagine finding out that you were “kinda sorta a 3 or 4 to your 7 or 8” — and to find that out all at once. Reminding myself to hold objective distance, I kept all my taken-abackness and disappointment aside for the conversation (after all, I had promised them no judgment) and started to dig deeper. I started having really honest conversations about what these numbers really meant in terms of how we experienced vulnerability and how that shaped our boundaries, the differences between our averages and where we were for each other, and how attachment thus looked different for us. We spoke about how our ways of letting the people in were different, depending on how we defined vulnerability, and that itself made a difference.
For example, for the friend whose chart I have showed above, vulnerability for her had to do with how much she allowed someone to affect her — so the way that I would respond to things in her life, how I was there for her was most vulnerable for her, whereas for me, my vulnerability had to do with someone’s opinion rather than the emotional effect of their actions, and thus what she thought was most important. And technically, that had been staring at us all along, right? Her way of showing and receiving love had to do with certain kinds of actions and responses, which wasn’t the same as the way I showed and received love — and thus attachment itself looked do different. Things that were easy for her and didn’t make her feel vulnerable, did make me very vulnerable — I don’t care about the opinion of people except for the people in my close circles while she can be immune to opinions in a very different way — and thus she could now be more mindful of how she shared her opinions with me; and the same for the things that made her vulnerable that I could be more mindful of.
As an extension to the conversation, we then matched the spheres of relationships (“How did we categorise people in our lives?) with our vulnerability scales (“What are our vulnerability points in these spheres according to our scales?”).
More on the spheres exercise later — but here’s what this matching revealed about vulnerability: often, the scales itself that we were plotting our vulnerabilities across the spheres on were different — for example, the way we divide our friends, might have to do with how much and how often we share our information with them, but some of the people in our intimate spheres might be plotted according to affectability (I don’t think that’s a word, but I am going to use it anyway). My family was super high on affectability, even though I wasn’t sharing all my information with them. My spheres, thus looked like this (the numbers on the line depicting the points on the vulnerability scale).
Seeing the spheres like this really changed how I saw the relationships between them. For me, personally, that has to be one of the most pivotal conversations that I have had in my close relationships — it gave us the language and space to really delve into the places that we occupied in each others’ lives and made visible the differences in how we let the other in, allowing us to be cognizant of our boundaries and respect them in ways that we might not have consciously done before. (Definitely recommend this activity for everyone. If you are interested in knowing more, write to me and I shall email you the activity).
I also did this exercise in my interviews, and saw similar patterns. I often also took this activity a step further there — I would delve into why that feels vulnerable to them; why their vulnerability scales looked the way they did. I’d ask about the experiences that had evolved the scales in the form that they were now: the times they had been “burnt” and when they had been “applauded” that changed how they shared information about themselves, how it led to them being comfortable sharing certain things and decided never to share some things again. The additional checks they started to put in place before they shared to check for trustworthiness. The way they made themselves harder to be affected by people, the ways they learnt not to care. The games the played to protect themselves, right from the “don’t double text rule” to the deeper running “I don’t date anymore”s. You’d be surprised how predictable these patterns seem when we organise them like this — and at least with the people I was speaking to, we were all experiencing this in very similar ways, just in different degress.
There was one thing that stuck out closely: with time, most of us had shrunk on the vulnerability scale, becoming more closed off and cautious rather than the other way round. In many ways then, the stories that came out of the conversations was also a reminder of the porcupine/ hedgehog dilemma — we crave to be closer, to find warmth in our winters, but trying to do that only leads to the danger of hedgehogs poking their spines into each other — a dilemma that Schopenhauer says relates to intimacy too. When we seek the intimacy, we are bound to be vulnerable, and then get hurt. Right?
However, what surprised me in the conversations, what shone through in all of this is what has stayed with me the most: vulnerability, like other things we feel, have culturally/ socially come to be termed in the language of good and bad, with deeper underlying notions of how that makes us feel about ourselves. When we as a culture, for example, think of “being hurt” as something that not just simply feels unpleasant, but also we also attach the connotation of victimhood to it, we are indicating both powerlessness and responsibility. When we do that, being hurt becomes a “bad” thing rather than just an unpleasant thing: being hurt not only feels unpleasant, but also secretly chips away social points. As a consequence, we then avoid being hurt not just out of emotional self-protection but vehemently and defensively to also guard against social consequences: we would much rather not care and suffer loneliness than be hurt, because being hurt means that we are considered to be weak/ victims, and by extension, at some point, not caring starts to be considered bada$$ and cool and everything… and a whole cycle of that social norm gets perpetrated. Sure, Brene Brown and so much of the media lately speaks extensively about that not being true, about the power of vulnerability, but the fears and value judgments that these implications contain run deep, and run wide: Think of the notions of masculinity and femininity hidden in these classifications. Think of the definitions of power at play… Way more powerful than just the sheer personal benefits of vulnerability, right?
And while that is all of this is a deep/ long/ interesting study in itself that I would love to undertake, at a more reality level that I could actually observe, my conversations on vulnerability taught me this: the spheres where we restricted our vulnerabilities, were also spheres that were closer to our cores of who we are. Spheres that are integral and precious to us, spheres where our happiness and growth occurs were also where we were most vulnerable. Shrinking vulnerability also shrinks these spheres. Closing off these spheres (by closing off vulnerability) because we are afraid, tightens and reduces these spheres, and at least in the conversations I had, that didn’t look like it felt good either, despite how much we rationalise it.
In a phase where I was up to experiment and try out anything and everything, I began to think of how I formed these spheres more deeply, and of my own vulnerability. I wondered what it would be like to be vulnerable to more people, and then, to all people. As I experimented with that, I also began to observe my own vulnerability closely: what closed me off, when did my walls go up, what did that change in me and the dynamic with the other person. More on that in Part 2.
26th Sept, 2017. 10.23pm
PSssst: If you are at all curious/ interested in activities and conversations like the ones described above to do with your friends/ partners, get in touch? I am currently working on building tools for that, and would love to have people to pilot with it.