Vulnerability as Political

Vulnerability may be very hot right now on many bookshelves and for many audiences, but there is at the same time a rather frightful detachment from the most vulnerable people in our and other cultures. The little immigrant children who come to us in pictures and stories of our major newspapers are not causing rebellions in the streets, and pressure for immediate action. These children, and of course their parents and all the others– in many arguments, are not even a major voting point.

My concern is that when we place vulnerability on the surface of our lives it can become a self-absorbing call to tend to our own wellbeing only. It can lose the feature of real empathy, that of caring about people who are mistreated on what we think of as lower echelons—people suffering from violence in crime infested neighborhoods, homelessness, inequality of all levels and sorts.

If I think of vulnerability as daring greatly, as leading me into intimacy, I may stay on the surface of things, as I call it, on the ceilings. Basement vulnerability can be very raw, stark, chaotic, and pretty crazy. We can be disheveled physically and certainly mentally. We have to face our own brokenness; it is not just about being vulnerable but realizing that inside on some level we are all broken, by our early experience, by the disappointments and losses of life. Often there is a broken and shaky quality to vulnerability. Vulnerability has content, and people in the midst of it often do not feel the stability or clarity to move forward with any speed. They are not ready to show the world a complete or organized experience. In moments of vulnerability we move in halted ways. We need to accept that there can be a broken piece to us. We are not whole and therefore somewhat broken.

There is a political feature to vulnerability. It has to do with noticing the broken and left out people among us and to give a shit. I hear many conversations about the American economy being good and I wonder what people are thinking about the one in five who are poor, about the inequities of our prison system, about the many who can’t pay back their loans and can’t afford health insurance.

The people who vote for Trump are also vulnerable. They yearn for the leader who makes them feel strong, whether or not he tells the truth. They also have trouble contacting the vulnerability inside them so they would look for a candidate that does not toy with their fantasies of grandeur and nostalgia, which is often a longing for things that never were to begin with.

If I fear and loathe the chaos and mess inside me, then I am likely to see chaos and poverty and craziness outside of me as a problem of “others”—not as something that concerns me personally.

I am going to walk by tents of homeless people, feeling that it is very sad, but not untenable. And I am going to read about violence in countries far away and think it has nothing to do with me. I am not going to even ponder that many countries in the West, including our own, have had a part in destabilizing countries in Latin America and the Middle East and Africa, and that we owe them restitution, rather than thinking of laws against the refugees who really want to stay in their own countries, should they be safe enough.

I am going to consider myself liberated, mindful, and vulnerable, but the messier parts I will see only in others who are naked in their needs and inability to cope.

When I recognize my own basements and come to terms with having to deal with the bottom levels of my own trauma, my own weakness and fear, I will recognize the same levels of need in others, even if they look different than me. I will have less of a tendency to feel superior or detached.

I used to think of myself as unworthy of empathy for what felt like trauma in my life when I didn’t qualify in terms of the standards of racial difference, severity of poverty, and crimes like rape or murder of a loved one. I didn’t get scared on the way to school by anything close to gun violence, as a kid even if the boy down the block, who would sometimes hit me out of nowhere, scared me a lot. And yes, I was already overcome by weakness, and after all these years I remember his name was Ira.

Now I feel there is no such thing as being unworthy of empathy. Some of us suffer from emptiness and defeat and others from actual physical trauma. Some people are doing pretty well but we all have a history of helplessness. We were all children once and can knock inside at our own doors and feel what that is like—to feel helpless.

This is political because we need to open ourselves to translate caring into voting for people and issues that exude vulnerability and need to be helped to repair the states of inequality that abound. Again we can only begin to care, to dare to care—greatly and less greatly—if we can identify with the neediness both inside us and out.

These are not statements that are wishy-washy, the meanderings of a snowflake. These are offerings about our needing to face our vulnerabilities also so we don’t project our hatred and weakness onto each other, and so that we don’t take polarization for granted. And so we don’t aim for invulnerability, grandiosity and isolation.


#Vulnerability and politics



Humiliation Interrupted: The Dignity in Being Stuck

We have a culture very big on words; one might say that it is a talky culture. When little children are having a tantrum or having a meltdown, often they are asked to use their words. The problem is that often they don’t have the words or even the concepts. They need grownups to help them translate what can seem overwhelming into words that express possible moods or needs. And sometimes they need holding and patience until the episode passes.

Children don’t automatically express their feelings and needs in words; they need modeling and also a safe enough atmosphere in which to do so. This means their words and needs are listened to and taken seriously, and that upsets that come with confusion are met with comfort and acceptance. If a child learns that his/her words go unheard or ignored, invalidated or even worse shamed, that child may fall short; stay hidden; he or she may become nonverbal or withdrawn—as just some examples.

A child, who withdraws or makes believe only, can’t really have practice in resolving conflicts in which at least two people have to communicate. Then comes a clincher in cycles of stuck-ness of development, which is shame at the lack of social graces. This is often accompanied by becoming lost—slow to launch and unclear as to how to find out what one wants or needs. In a climate in which appearances trump authenticity, one can learn how to look as if smooth or clear. One can learn the lingo of most things, including the language of mindfulness and vulnerability. But if someone isn’t adept at locating an inner stuck-ness it can be likely to that to compromise the quality and capacity of thinking and relating as well.

Renee, a woman in my practice, came into therapy when she was forty and in the process of getting a divorce. A talented researcher, she felt inept at locating her emotions. Her marriage had suffered because, as she told me, she had gone through the motions, done the parenting the most enlightened book suggested, using the dialogue the books prescribed. Her husband was an elementary school teacher and much more in touch with the emotional side of things. As their children were growing he said he wanted more intimacy on emotional levels. She turned inward, not really wanting to reveal what seemed to be such a big lack in her: she didn’t really even know what he was talking about.

Renee felt helpless; she felt weak and she felt vulnerable but it was something she couldn’t put into words. In addition the divorce made her need her friends more and even need financial assistance from her parents who lived close by. She told me she was a loser, that none of her friends needs so much help, financially or emotionally. To contact a therapist made her feel, she said, like a double loser. She saw no way or talking to her parents who had helped her already and enough was enough; she should behave like a grownup.

Renee’s parents had been devoted but on the stern side. She, as a child, was sensitive and particularly sensitive on picking up on the moods and emotional needs of the adults around her. She was smart and had a good vocabulary but held back from expressing any feelings that might upset her parents and thus be controversial. Her parents complained that “Renee is the kid with the brains and all the words but she won’t let us in.”

In essence they were all stuck. Her parents wanted to know what Renee was feeling, but did they? Certainly they didn’t get how indirectly they discouraged her from speaking out by their sternness. Also they did not take the initiative in using their own intuition to help her name feelings she couldn’t do on her own. For example (and this is not a prescription or the only way): “Renee is it hard to talk to us because you think we’ll get sad or mad”? This kind of opening initiates a possible dialogue by having offered Renee an option that would show her they in fact were open to listening hard and openly.

In the therapy our work centered on Renee’s vulnerability and her shame about being so stuck on interpersonal levels. She was stuck; people get stuck. People who are stuck can’t lean into vulnerability or dare greatly. They are too scared and too confused and too lost. The biggest and most crucial intervention includes that regarding dignity. There is, in other words, dignity in finding people where they are stuck.

Renee allowed me to call her parents to invite her parents in for some therapy sessions. She allowed me to interpret to them how she had become stuck, and how they had missed some important interventions that Renee had needed. They had done many good things and also the best they knew how. But now they had a chance to start something over again—a level of attunement to Renee as she was now as a chronological adult and to the Renee she had been as a child.


People tend to hate failure, especially when it is not a one shot deal. They hate being weak, because weakness often comes with bullying that is still a part of school and political culture. They hate being exposed for differences, and they hate being stuck or having need of remediation in any way.

We can teach the language of vulnerability all we want but unless we get to shifting the culture of humiliation as associated with being stuck, we will just be mouthing meaningless phrases and teaching others to do so as well.

#Hating failure

#Vulnerability as weakness

I Thought I Was Failing at Vulnerability, Until…

I’d been stuck in my emotional basement for several days, feeling less than. Although I have a great deal to offer on the topic of vulnerability, my experience was that the charismatic presence of Brene Brown, now on Netflix, had cut my wings. First I had been avoidant, kind of scared of watching. It was a feeling I didn’t like and I didn’t like following my own advice either, which was to slow down and let the feelings be and then move.

Her phrase “daring greatly” as in having the courage to “lead with vulnerability” is one she took from Theodore Roosevelt, commonly known as “The Man in the Arena”. If you go down as in fall down, if you don’t win and often you won’t, at least put yourself out there in life, let yourself be vulnerable, dare greatly in so doing. That is what Brene champions. It rang hollow for me as in too smooth, it rang glib and too easy and way too simplistic. The Ted Talk audience loved her in what seemed an unconditional almost worshipping way. It provoked, not doubt in me at least a sense of failure in not being good at what seemed, coming from Brown, to be so clear-cut and direct.

I didn’t want to hate her; that was not the point and I didn’t want her to be the point. I just wanted to feel in touch with the integrity of my way of seeing and of being, and get through the onslaught of what both she and I might call a shame attack.

I was pluck in the middle of my own basements, a term I use for the lower levels of messiness, chaos, lack of clarity, impulsivity and the like. She, to me was coming from the ceilings, by which I mean the clouds, the upper crust of language and smooth appearance. My take had been for some time that much of the advice we get and sometimes give comes from the ceilings, the fancier places where things are made to seem both sophisticated and authoritative.

Being a kind of basement oriented therapist, writer and person, I had been working on an idea I was calling “vulnerability protected”. By this I meant that vulnerability in and of itself is not necessarily a form of courage, but that first it needs protection and safety in order to be a gateway to courage. I saw vulnerability as often very messy, not at all or certainly not always poetic. But if we are intimidated by advice that comes from the ceilings and seems grounded in absolute wisdom, we may be prone to play the part, to act the role of courage and of daring and to use the language that has been assigned us by what are either celebrities or experts or both.

Fortunately at a certain point in a humiliation cycle (we can call it trauma as well, it’s the same to me) I don’t tend to be addicted to humiliation. In fact at a certain point anger arises within me, towards either external or internalized forces that are squashing me and pushing me towards fakeness or judging me for the lack of it. Some five years ago during my course of chemotherapy for breast cancer, I encountered a good deal of optimism, which rubbed me the wrong way. At first I felt inadequate and ungrateful and then I contacted my anger for being pushed to be grateful when I was not, to be cheerful when it was the last thing available. I got pissed off, and blogged about it in Huffington Post in a piece I called “Cancer Comedy”. I also realized that many witnesses need an ill person to assure them, and that some optimism is a kind of forced and fake positivity.

In a sort of similar experience, I began to feel in touch with my anger at forces that would push me or anyone else to see vulnerability in any one way, and to “do it” in any one way either. I’m not sure that this was daring greatly. It was, in any case, my budding determination to own what I have learned and what I know, about myself and about others. I remembered, if you will, that I, and many people I know (friends and patients), have histories of trauma that make following even good advice a slippery slope. And as we can get depressed about being depressed, we can feel vulnerable about feeling vulnerable or even about not feeling or acting vulnerable in the “right” way. We may need more time; we may need to locate where we, and others near us, are stuck. We may need to be found, whether by a friend or a guide or a therapist, or by ourselves. Most of all, we may need help to turn our assumptions about conforming to the status quo of any given time, on their head, something also much easier said than done.

There is a path to be found for the people who don’t fit right in to the trends that become massively popular and at times consuming. Are you mindful enough; do you meditate well and often enough; did you avoid being a “helicopter parent” without allowing your child to be bullied or ouch—worse—to bully? And then of course comes the question, “Did you “dare greatly today”? Are you current on all the social media at our command or the social media that seems often to be commanding us?

To me vulnerability in and of itself isn’t courageous: it is raw and it is weak. In Merriam Webster’s list of words related to vulnerability include: Uncoveredundefendedunguardedunprotectedunscreenedunsecured. To be vulnerable is to feel or to be weak, and a question here is: What’s wrong with weakness, with admitting weakness and isn’t admitting weakness a form of strength?

My point is that vulnerability does not equal strength in and of it but can become strength when it is protected. In fact it can become part of the road to becoming stronger if we can admit when we are too vulnerable to dare greatly and need help where we are stuck. And that is when sometimes we are in the muck of not knowing how we are feeling and in the shame that comes to us when we are stuck and feel we shouldn’t be.

#Brene Brown


#Pressure to do Vulnerability “right”





Vulnerability Protected



In the blogs that follow I would like to develop a concept that I feel is in need of attention. It involves the subject of vulnerability. Namely it involves the notion that has become very popular in some circles that the show of vulnerability can equal courage. And the notion has included that failure to be vulnerable can be a serious defect.

One aspect of this thinking is that there are some people who feel bullied by what feels like an edict to show vulnerability without fear. What can be overlooked here is that such advice can be intimidating to some since it can be experienced as a request or a demand to produce openness more quickly and completely than a person may be ready for. One thing to consider when this happens with frequency, is that it is as if needing a slower or different pace is taken to mean that the person in question risks being shunned or ridiculed or tending to hide in shame.

For some time now I have focused on the essence of vulnerability as including emotional nakedness, helplessness and susceptibility to danger. In fact, in Oxford Dictionaries online, vulnerability is defined as: “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally”. In my writing I discuss the concept of ceilings versus basements. By this I mean that much advice comes to us from the clouds, the ceilings where things sound fancy but are also made to seem easy to follow. On the contrary many of us spend much time in the basements, where we stumble and fall, where we freeze up– where we feel more raw, more messy, more chaotic.

In the absence of people we can go to, to confide our deepest doubts, especially those doubts that can unhinge us, we risk living in shame or we try to measure up by faking more comfort than we have.

There is a man in my therapy practice whose wife has lately been badgering him about his reluctance to be vulnerable with her. She is upset that he doesn’t show much affection, doesn’t say he loves her, and is reluctant to open conversations that involve emotions.

Even though this can be a serious lack in a marriage, Charlie has felt bombarded by Tina’s frequent criticisms and what comes across as scolding. The emphasis in this example is to point out that the demand for vulnerability on Charlie’s part comes through a hostile and assaultive one. And unless there is room to discuss this piece, there is little hope for a more dignified and respectful exchange.

Of course there are layers and complexities here, but what is striking is that Charlie is immersed in shame for being incapable of what he feels Tina and the culture at large expect from him. He experiences his fears as a sign of his own failure. He feels at times like a deer in the headlights, not realizing that his fears are filled with meaning and validity: if he skips over them there will be no intimacy here or Charlie’s comfort in his own skin.

Vulnerability protected has to do with not assuming that becoming emotionally naked is always a wise or true thing. It is about helping us—not sound authentic—but be authentic on the inside so we can devise ways of protecting ourselves as we expose perhaps the upper layer of our skin so to speak.

We will be called on to navigate, not only our own vulnerability but also the needs and expectations of those around us. The blogs that follow will pursue some of the nuances of vulnerability, its protection, and increasing safety in its wake.


Stay tuned and feel free to share your stories, at Please tell me if you would like them to be printed here as well.


Best, Carol


The Human Climate: Facing the Divisions Inside Us and Between Us is available on






Emotional Literacy in a Leader: A **Charrette, Anyone?

** A charrette: “A public meeting or workshop devoted to a concerted effort to solve a problem or plan the design of something.”

**Oxford Living Dictionaries

Yes, I am referring to politics, and you may have guessed I’m referring to the Democrats. That’s because I am one, if often reluctantly. I say the last because just about everywhere I look there seems to be expediency and opportunism put before loyalty to a real sense of integrity.

As I see it, we in America need leadership to help us in cultivating the motivation and capacity to empathize with others often different than us, by learning their back-story as one avenue. We need tools to listen and to take those different than us seriously—something that for these times seems rather foreign. We need someone who can help us grow in terms of our own emotional literacy—knowing our emotions so we can integrate and tame them and so they don’t overwhelm us and cancel our capacity to think.

By emotional literacy in a leader, here a President, I mean someone with capabilities in the realm of understanding also how emotions trump (the word just works) facts. I suggest that someone worthy of being a real leader of the US be someone who can help the rest of us get in touch with the fears, as one example, that can crush any hope of change or provoke a desperate need to follow the lead of someone who has little appetite for equalizing the realms of social and economic justice, as one example. I mean to suggest that a true leader for our times could help us by leading a campaign to have psychology and the information it has available, become accessible not only to big corporations and political movements but to the rest of us so we don’t have to constantly be manipulated and frequently manipulated into fear.

Integrity, then, might mean that a person/candidate would care more about the country and its people than about getting elected. I know that this might even seem extreme if not just ridiculous, because the candidates with integrity would conceivably feel compelled to interrupt their own narcissism, never a very popular pastime. They would instead help the public get to know who they are and what they stand for. And they would have to listen to constituents and even those who live among us and cannot vote.

I get several requests for support, political and financial from a few candidates every day. Am I with them? Will I promise my vote and my donations? “We” can beat “them” and we are already dividing into teams, while I for one am not sure about any of them, and am not sure if any of them have this emotional literacy and intention of helping people instead of elevating themselves.

Those candidates that do have any integrity will talk amongst themselves and see what they can do as a group to work together to give the American people an alternative. This would be an alternative to what many of us see as the rampaging and boundless lack of self-discipline of our current President. Before you know it the number of candidates will become obscene, not because diversity is a bad thing, but because demeaning and attacking the other candidates or ignoring them completely, will most likely for many of us provoke a lack of respect for any and all of them. That is, if we don’t get suckered in to feeling pushed into premature allegiances and team sport mentality.

You may think it’s silly, or naïve perhaps to talk about emotional literacy in a Presidential candidate. But unless he/she realizes how there are forces that prey upon us constantly to seduce us to buy their products and religions and votes as well, the candidates will not even know us enough to help us.

One arena in which we need help is in realizing for the first time or again, that to run a country we need to compromise. We need means for—not merely debating and debunking—but speaking in ways that make for civil conversations in which the purpose is communication, not denigration.

A movie that I just about beg you to see is “Best of Enemies”. It brings home the power of a structure designed with the sincere motivation of helping people hear each other out. This promotes empathy, learning, and sometimes the changing of minds. This is a beautiful thing, the changing of our mind, when we have the freedom and flexibility to be moved by points and people in ways that are genuine and not manipulative.

The film takes place in North Carolina in 1971 and tells the story of an integration battle in which a mediator was called in, a black man no less called in by a white man. What seems like an impossible stalemate is interrupted by the hard work, stubborn yet feeling people who allow new ideas and realities come into their own fixed worldviews. The mediator in question introduces the charrette, several days with helpful structure to aid the process of discussing important points without demeaning as the key tool, and also having people sitting at tables for lunch with people of a different race.

I say: let’s try it. Let’s at least not be duped into feeling we have to have decided on “our” candidate for President or anything else, before we have some inkling about the factors that include emotional literacy, integrity and giving a damn about us, by which I mean all of us.

I am a generally unapologetic liberal though I do apologize for making assumptions too often and too many, that I was right (and innocent) and I was enlightened while the other side was not. I know a bit better now that I have practiced and written more about the shadow, the darker sides that all of us have.

Our emotions are killing us, just about literally. They blind us to climate change or make us holler endlessly citing dangers while few are listening. Why are we blinded and/or why are so many people not caring or listening or hearing? These are questions we should start addressing.

There are reasons. And beginning to look at the reasons that problems and people’s humanity aren’t addressed, is as important as anything else. If we ignore the emotions behind the impasses before us that we can ill afford, we will flail around desperately, running on assumptions and superstitions. We will evolve no further in terms of our capacities for understanding more deeply, the conflicts and capabilities of ourselves and others. We will be devoid of curiosity and empathy.

The latter alternative seems the saddest one.