Vulnerability and the self-care system

Newborn waterbuck in Welgevonden
I watched the video of Brene Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability this week as a friend kindly alerted me to it. The essence of her talk is that we need connection more than anything else and if we do not have it, we are miserable. However, in order to connect wholeheartedly with one another, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. The main problem is that if our early caregiving has been inadequate in some way and not taught us how to be vulnerable or indeed that it is safe to be vulnerable, then it is a real bugger to learn how to be vulnerable.

Our psyches are phenomenally resourceful – if vulnerability was not welcomed or simply too dangerous in our early lives, then the psyche develops a precociously mature part that helps us survive and protects us from the world. However, that “Protector” part of us stays in charge into our adult lives and becomes a “Gaoler” to our vulnerable selves, even when it would now be safe to be vulnerable. Donald Kalsched in his brilliant (although technical) book called the Inner Trauma of Childhood – Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit talks about the fact that children develop a “self-care system” that helps them survive unthinkable childhood trauma, but which also later on stops them from being vulnerable when it is required for connection.

Only a sustained, extremely compassionate and loving relationship with a very patient person is enough to dismantle the outdated self-protective, but ultimately dysfunctional, strategies of a person’s self-care system. And usually, only a therapist is that patient and self-sacrificing. It is helpful if the individual concerned can understand the problem and put his or her own “Protector / Gaoler” gently and gratefully out to pasture. It has taken me twenty years to do that, and I had a lot of help along the way.

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