It’s no wonder why being vulnerable is so hard for so many.
You learn to feel safe in the families you grow up in. If you were lucky, you had two fairly healthy parents who supported each other’s strengths, who had compassion for one another during their inevitable struggles, and who didn’t weaponize mistakes. You observed that when conflict did arise, compromises were reached, forgiveness was offered, and differing viewpoints were respected. Love was a constant even when anger was present.
I hope this sounds like your childhood, but I know many of you certainly weren’t so lucky.
The unlucky children of abuse… Josie and Max
During my first rotation in graduate school, which is when I began getting hands-on experience as a psychologist, I was on a children’s unit of Terrell State Hospital outside of Dallas. The patients there were children between five and eleven years old, and they were far from lucky.
They were regular kids. They laughed and played. They fought and cried. They played pretend and took naps.
Yet they were far from the typical child in that most had suffered vicious abuse from their parents, while others had such severe mental illness that they had little control over their behavior. A few had both. Their emotional reactions were stunted and skewed as a result.
I was given the task of running a group for some of the youngest girls on healthy ways to feel about your body and yourself. They’d all been sexually abused. I listened as six year-old Josie tried to explain the cruel things that had been done to her, and how sad she was. I watched as little hands were held out in comfort and understanding. It felt surreal, as they nodded their heads and talked about sexual behavior like much older children. I did my best to guide, very aware of the damage already caused to these young souls.
And then there was Max. Max was built like a tank and when he laughed, his whole body shook. When he ran, it was at warp speed. When he drew what he believed his body to look like, it was grossly malformed and resembled a monster much more than a human.
Max had also been abused in every way possible.
We took walks and he very slowly opened up. When he left the hospital, he gave me my first “present” from a patient. It was a painted plaster lady bug. I was heartbroken years later when it fell apart.
I’ve often wondered if Josie and Max would ever heal enough to be vulnerable in a relationship as adults.
How can you risk being vulnerable when your parents didn’t protect you, or worse, brutally victimized you? Or, in perhaps a less dramatic but still very potent way, your parents gave you the message that you weren’t important? If you were hurting you heard, “Too bad.” If you were frightened or sad, “Get over it.” “Man up.” If you were in pain, there was deafening silence.
The story of Jerry…
Recently I worked with a man, Jerry, whose past was perhaps the most frightening I’d ever heard. Horrific things had happened to him, and he’d lived a past life littered with drugs, gangs, crime and imprisonment.
I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly how Max might have grown up, that sweet giggling boy who made me a plaster ladybug could be experiencing an adulthood just like Jerry. It’s a horribly sad notion to contemplate.
Happily, having children changed Jerry. Or I should say, he allowed having children to change him. He was fighting huge temper problems and depression, but he wanted therapy. He’d never seen anyone before, and as he began to talk, brief tears that were quickly brushed away came into the same eyes that had been coldly cautious and eerily frightening when I first met him. He revealed not only the cruel things he’d done, but what had been done to him. He watched me intently for signs of judgment or disgust, like a thirsty animal finding water but afraid to let down its guard, and drink. His huge frame slowly began to relax.
He came to therapy only a few times. He thanked me for listening. He thanked me for caring about his world, his reality.
I was just as grateful for our time together; Jerry showed me, once again, how courageous people can be. No matter how much hurt there is, no matter how victimized you’ve been, no matter how guilty you are of creating pain for others, you can find trust. You can reach out. You can try to connect, and succeed at doing so.
You can risk being vulnerable. While it is incredibly difficult when you were taught not to trust as a child, allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the surest way to find peace.
Being known, all of you, the good and the bad, and still being accepted? That’s a wonderful and healing gift you can give to yourself.
Jerry gave me hope for Max. And for Josie.
If you find yourself in their stories, I hope it gives you hope as well.
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Originally published February 15, 2020; updated and republished on January 28, 2022.