Welcoming Vulnerability

We are born into this world completely helpless. Though optimal development would require the period of gestation to be a total of twenty-one months, human infants, in contradistinction to other primates, exit their mother's womb at twelve months in a state of incompleteness. A human females small pelvis necessitates the prematurity of childbirth as such a narrow frame cannot accommodate the maturation of our large brains. As a result of what the psychoanalyst Charles Brenner called postfetalisation, a term capturing the pronounced helplessness of the neonate, a human infants survival is utterly contingent on the mothers affectionate and tender ministrations. Rene Spitz's psychoanalytic research on hospitalism in the 1940s starkly revealed the necessity of close contact with the mother. Without her physical and emotional care, cradling her child in her arms, feeding him, and attending to his infantile needs, children have been recorded to become listless, and, in the worst-case scenario, will die from protracted neglect. During childhood, ruptures in our relationship to our mother are terrifying precisely because our powerlessness vis-a-vis our caregiver severely imperils our physical and psychological wellbeing. It was the work of the late psychoanalyst John Bowlby, and his background in ethology, that illumined the biological rationale behind the importance of forming a solid attachment with our caretakers. The primary dyadic bond is foundational to appreciating the role of this interpersonal relationship exerts on the formation of the personality; particularly when it comes to our attitude towards vulnerability. Whether we can learn from our pain, tolerate its intensity, remain open to the fullness of our experience, understand its meaning, and grow in our interactions with other people, is ultimately dependent on the quality of this interpersonal relationship.

Love from the mothering one is invested with stupendous importance. The near unremitting threat of abandonment, what would amount to being left defencelessly at the mercy of the harsh exigencies of reality, necessitates closeness with the mothering one. The organism is primed to alter his behaviour in order to maintain this dyadic connection. Being the recipient of affection and motherly tenderness creates a sense of existential security that assuages anxiety. In a healthy mother-infant relationship, a momentary upset in the satisfaction of organismic needs is rectified by her sensitive and attuned care. The child's feelings, sensations and behaviours are coequally validated and unconditionally regarded. Organismic responses to socialising edicts can range from despondence, hostility, fear and panic as we struggle against processing acculturating measures that not infrequently contrapose our organic desires. Though it can generate tremendous unease, psychological tension is made tolerable by the mother's sensitive and unqualified acceptance. If the infant cries, interpersonally communicating his distress and protestation, she embraces, consoles, and conveys the unmistakable message that it's both okay to feel and express this pain.

Some children will learn the opposite. Rather than being affirmed and embraced by their caretaker, children can face reprisal for voicing or vocalising their anguish and objections. These parents will actively compound their children's agony by heartlessly belittling such unbecoming displays of 'weakness' and furiously enjoin he suppress his pain. In this regard, there is an evidenced disparity between the way that mothers customarily treat their sons and daughters when it comes to the attendance of physical and emotional injury. While mothers and fathers have been repeatedly observed to offer prompt comfort their daughters in times of stress, assuring them that their upset is valid and deserving of expression, boys, being socialised under the myth of male power, are traditionally conditioned to deny or minimise their own. In order to adhere to the entrenched gender stereotypes that his caregivers communicate, boys will feel obliged to fulfil this imposed role and live by this contract by shaking injuries off as a matter of psychic survival.

Acculturating boys in this climate entails the internalisation of an abstract construct of masculine power that entails the unbending repudiation of femininity. A young boy learns that he accrues approbation by denying or distorting his emotional or physical distress as quickly as possible - thereby inheriting the toxic ideal of manly imperturbability. In this world, where power is denoted by emotionlessness and formidability, vulnerability, particularly its unfiltered admittance, is tantamount to castration. In the eyes of the 'strong', emotional openness is maligned as something irredeemable -- a sure sign of feminisation -- in the eyes of those around him. He is a 'big boy' and crying is a sacrilegious display of unmanliness. He is expected to 'man up', compartmentalise his distress behind macho puffery, and reject vulnerability with unconcealed contemptuousness.

The boy's response to this cultural indoctrination is to mercilessly persecute his true self. His organismic self, being so at variance with his manly self-construct of unemotionality and dominance, risks undermining his positive self-regard. Following the capitulation of his true self to exogenous constructs, the trajectory of his life thenceforward commandeered by the compulsive need to fit into an image collectively sanctioned by society. His only means of preserving his shaky psychic equilibrium lies in amassing the cultural and material symbols that are concordant with abstractions denoting male superiority. These metaphysical ideas are constituted of imagery venerating the virtuousness of power; power measured by material and fiscal prowess. His openness to the sphere of feeling is immaterial as feelings such as joy, empathy, compassion, as well as despair, helplessness and illness, are closed off and driven underground.

In person-centred psychology, externalising our locus of evaluation means handing over our inborn compass and directionality. By externalising our locus of evaluation, we relinquish the authority of our own organismic valuing system - subsuming our values within externalities. Our sense of right and wrong, rooted in our innate capacity to assign psychological valance to experience in relation to the maintenance and enhancement of the organism, is thence determined by sources extraneous to our autochthonous equipment. Far from being a source of enrichment indispensable to our complxification, what is otherwise indeed an inexhaustible source of growth and discovery--a veritable reservoir of creativity--our true self transmogrifies into a troublesome liability. Our internal world must be punitively governed in the most authoritarian manner conceivable so as to seal off our fear. If left unattended, thoughts, feelings, and emotions dystonic with the internalised construct of power would be given free rein to sabotage our artificial prestige; endangering self-worth.

Taking these abstractions into our concept of self, and turning them into conditions of worth (qualifications conferring self-worth), results in what person-centred psychology calls intrapersonal incongruence. Our internal world ceases to be isomorphic as a consequent of our self-experiences being alienated from our falsified self-image. The concept of maleness is an entrenched cultural abstraction that deplores anything indicative of powerlessness. Growing up in a society that reveres irreal concepts of power contradicates optimial psychological development.

Warps in masculinisation invariably culminate in social exclusion as boys enter adolescence. The late American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan dedicated considerable attention to this social period of the organisms psychological development. Sullivan posited that the epoch of adolescence is especially crucial in the evolvement of being able to competently navigate our interpersonal relationships with our compeers. In a society that extols the qualities of power, competition and aggression, with our cultures heroes oftentimes exemplifying characteristics associated with ruthlessness and the demonisation of emotivity, boys who've been improperly acculturated with the mythology of male power will find themselves ostracised by their socially adjusted peers.

The veneration of powerfulness promises tremendous emotional suffering, for, despite our best efforts at foreclosure, we can find ourselves reduced to a position of subservience in a moments notice. When our organismic feelings are dismembered from our phenomenological field, we become hypervigilant; perpetually on the lookout for dangers in our environment. If attaining a position of authority is the only means to accrue approbation from the inhabitants of our social milieu, generating the approbation we crave, we're invariably seduced by the allure of power that promises to protect us from succumbing all that has been deemed unacceptable in ourselves.

Fitting in, adopting the mantle of masculine dominance, and hardheartedly oppressing the weak, becomes a favoured method to suppress of our own self-hatred. This self-hatred is fuelled by the raged engendered by the strangulation of our autonomy. Instead of directing this resultant derangement at our oppressors, those acting as representatives of apotheosised societal fictions, we displace this hostility onto ersatz objects. Those presenting conspicuous deviations from gender norms act as a receptacle for boys to augment and preserve their own falsified self-image from disorganisation. Flights from themselves in the aforementioned form of egregiously tormenting others is an invariably outgrowth of a culture that places the concepts of power above and beyond the fullness of our humanity.

Indeed, it's not a boy's openness to the full range of his emotional, intellectual and sensual potentialities that is advantageous in our culture, but whether or not he has acclimated to the cultural mandate of encapsulating what it means to embody masculine strength. Boys falling short of this ideal are targeted precisely because they exude a constellation of personality traits anathematised by the predominating hegemony of male power. A boys acceptance into popular social groups requires opportunities to convincingly demonstrate his masculine prowess to his commensurately intrapersonally and interpersonally incongruent peers, and this is often done at the expense of those whose emotional openness disqualifies their acceptance in society.

A boys self-experience situated outside the boundaries of masculinity is defensively split off and projected onto misfits that uncomfortably emblematise and mirror their own loathed selves. Weakness, a trait that culturally connotes womanliness, will, without the slightest hint of mercy, be ferociously attacked in another. What these boys are really consigning to merciless dehumanisation in their savage maltreatment is their own despised true self; a loathsome appendage haunting their waking hours and nightmares. The more children are persecuted by their peers, subject as they are to repeated humiliation and degradation, the further estranged they become from themselves and the people around them. Authentic relationships predicated on mutual recognition are contraindicated with boys vying for reputations that cement their coveted manhood.

As we grow up, transitioning from the tempestuous period of adolescence into adulthood, we carry these personality malformations with us in our romantic relationships. We cannot afford to open ourselves to unrestricted intimacy as our self-worth is contingent on maintaining and affirming our self-concept of manliness. Instead of permitting those closest to us to see our vulnerabilities in pure culture, vulnerabilities culture typically associates with weakness, we strenuously work to conceal these self-experiences from ourselves and others. Women are sought solely to bolster a self-esteem consistent with enhancing an image of masculine aptitude. Men seek women not for genuine intimacy, love or companionship, but to uphold their self-concept of being a powerful breadwinner whose partners submission affirms his conditional self-worth. Animosity between men and women is not infrequently generated by partners failing to support each others unspoken conditions of worth. Any threat to our positive self-regard can produce copious amounts of rage; rage that must be denied or distorted to protect the relationship from disintegration. If our partners contravene these tacit mechanisms, doing whatever it is that deprives men of feeling powerful, psychosomatic symptoms begin to proliferate. However, the possibility of defeat is too much for some men, and, despite some men's best efforts, their rage gets the better of them and the repercussions are deadly.

Failures in empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard from the mothering one precipitate the curtailment of our ability to feel and express compassion. An infant's wholeness is subverted as he progressively learns that select portions of his organismic experience endanger his conditional self-regard. The organisms organismic self is severed from consciousness by the myriad introjected values espoused in his circumambient reality - a reality that values reputation, image, ruthlessness, competition and other psychotoxic qualities above and beyond our humanity. Many of us are conditioned to value the curation of a pristine image and reputation above working at tapping into our autonomous potentialities. We cannot extend compassionate understanding to another person's pain if we have erected insurmountable barriers against our own. When we see another person in the midst of suffering, rather than such a horrible sight arouse concern, we're painfully reminded of the repressed victim in ourselves.

This enormous retrenchment of the self amputates our emotional life and leaves us unable to tolerate vulnerability in ourselves and in other people. It is in our ability to be open to the vulnerability that we're able to relate wholeheartedly with other human beings; relating to their suffering as we too can empathise with failures in our environment. We can draw on our experience of emotional pain to help ameliorate the distress of another. Our vulnerability is a means of connection, strength and growth, and its dismemberment leaves us emotionally crippled. The capacity to be vulnerable is perhaps one of humanity's greatest assets and its impairment a grave threat to the wellbeing of us all.

© 2020 by Dominic Hamilton-Leathart, BA MA MBACP. Proudly created with