One-Way Vulnerability

Arrow painted on a concrete wall with the words "one-way"

Esther Perel once said, “Sometimes when a person doesn’t feel worthy of love, they replace it with being needed.” And what better way to ensure being needed than joining the ranks of helping professionals like doctors, nurses, and therapists? I imagine electricians, drug dealers, and funeral directors are in similar demand, but one interesting outcome of being a caregiver of some kind is the supply of what I like to call “one-way vulnerability.”

Every day at work people are confiding in you, literally trusting you with their lives, sharing fears and intimate details of their inner worlds. Wow. So much vulnerability! But at no point are you required to be like, “I feel you… I’m going through something very difficult as well, and I’m afraid it’ll lead to being rejected and feeling unlovable.” Haha.

It’s like a steady supply of vulnerable connection that you don’t have to make any emotional investment into whatsoever. What a safe way to create the illusion of intimate relationships and emotional connectivity, yes? It really is a brilliant strategy for getting your emotional needs met from behind a wall of cordial professionalism.

And don’t get me confused, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a doctor or psychologist, nor am I insinuating all medical workers have complex relational trauma resulting in avoidant attachment patterns. But if being needed in your profession is a synthetic substitute for love, belonging, and authentic human connection, then we may have a problem.

Helping as One-Way Vulnerability

Even if it isn’t literally your job to take care of other people, you can still take advantage of the one-way vulnerability inherent in being a compulsive fixer, helper, people-pleaser, or codependent.

Do you have a really great friend that you feel a deep, genuine connection with, who is always there for you? Has sound advice. Excellent listener. Someone to lean on, a shoulder to cry on, always happy to help out with something or other. Now ask yourself, how often does this friend reach out to you for help? If the answer is seldom or never, you may be looking at a case of one-way vulnerability.

Also… are you that friend who doesn’t ask for help?

When Vulnerability Feels Threatening

There are innumerable ways in which people learn that vulnerability sucks, especially during their formative years. Probably every experience of rejection, loss, bullying, criticism, and failure has something to do with the emotional exposure of sharing our true selves. For some, these experiences are more painful and impactful than they are for others.

A completely understandable adaptation to traumatic experiences of unsafe vulnerability is to find suitable alternatives. And one-way vulnerability more or less gets the job done. However, I’m pretty sure that strategies for human connection rooted in maladaptive coping mechanisms will always lead to self-perpetuating emotional deficiencies.

Because you can never get enough of something that almost works (to paraphrase Dr. Vincent Felitti).

When Self-Worth Is On The Line

Aside from not feeling safe, many people employ one-way vulnerability tactics because they don’t feel worthy of sharing their authentic self with others (harkening back to Esther Perel’s quote).

If you surround yourself with tons of achievements, accolades, and trappings of success, there’s no need to even question your self-worth because you’ve amassed so much material evidence. It’s a clever way to evade the topic of worthiness altogether.

But what would you do without that so-called evidence? You’d have to decide for yourself if you were valuable or not. You’d have to write your own price tag, as opposed to assuming the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price that society issues on “being a doctor” or whatever. (This is often the driving force behind relentless perfectionism and workaholism, btw).

In this way, self-worth is like an STD screening that most people would rather not know the results of. It’s way easier to get other people to value you than come to believe in your own inherent worth — especially if it was stripped away by childhood abuse, neglect, or abandonment and replaced by toxic shame.

Unfortunately, no amount of other-worth can fill a self-worth-shaped hole in your chest.

Becoming Conscious

In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker wrote:

“To become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life. Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem. This is why human heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog.”

This book was written by a dying man who obviously hadn’t a solitary fuck left to give. But aside from any nihilistic or cynical themes in this literary magnum opus, I believe Becker vividly articulates the compulsive nature of trying to “earn” self-esteem, love, acceptance, worthiness, etc. Simply becoming aware of these habits is remarkably difficult because all compulsive behavior is driven by impulse or dissociation (both of which preclude your conscious participation). But I do believe that awareness is the only way out of this mess.

And I wouldn’t say ignorance is bliss necessarily… but that shit is certainly less work.

Becoming Vulnerable

If you see one-way vulnerability as a problem in your life, leading to feelings of isolation, disconnection, self-abandonment, inauthenticity, imposter syndrome, or the like, I’ve got news for you. One-way vulnerability isn’t your problem, it’s your solution. It’s a workaround to a much deeper problem that some part of you was probably hoping would never see the light of day.

And if you wanna heal and grow out of that habit, you’re probably gonna have to excavate that thing with the help of a trauma-informed coach or therapist. One-way vulnerability is a definite reaction to relational trauma, which can only be healed relationally. Meaning you won’t be able to fix it by reading, journaling, meditating, and saying positive affirmations in the mirror. You have to ask for help.

In other words, you’ll need to get vulnerable.


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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

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