December 20, 2021

VULNERABILITY

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My next Barrier to Compassion is vulnerability, often associated with dependency. Compassion is an inherently connected state, and as such may be difficult to risk. When I search with patients into the sources of their fears of connection with others, I often find that they have a sometimes well-earned fear of being vulnerable to others. Most of us have suffered at the hands of careless or even ill-intentioned people in our lives. We might feel well justified to pull away, close our hearts and turn inward. Often though, our resistance comes from a very Western cultural value of independence. Broadly speaking Eastern cultures are more comfortable with recognizing the truth of our interdependence on each other. In the East, extended families commonly live together, local ties are valued. Here in the West we approach life with the attitude of “I can do it myself”, we tend to our own needs the best we can, and try not to risk letting others see our vulnerabilities, much less depend on them to be met by anyone but ourselves.

Taken to an extreme, stance puts the others in the category “source of threat”. We automatically shut down our full range of perceptions and reasoning when confronted with sources of threat. We literally use less of our brain, and focus only on that which may be dangerous. Stimuli are filtered through the lens of danger, and we may miss signs that do not fit that category. This is why paranoid people always see signs of danger where more optimistic people do not.

Naturally, it is difficult to be compassionate toward a source of threat. Seeing another’s needs may nudge us to being more aware of our own. If we value an identity of independence, this will be experienced as a subtle, perhaps even unconscious source of threat. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, “I did it, so can you” are the sort of internal dialogues that might result.

On the other hand, if we are in touch with the fact that somehow, somewhere in our lives we had to have benefitted from the care and concern of others, and that even if we don’t feel it was sufficient to our needs, we all long for such care and concern, our response may be different. If we can recognize human vulnerability as a fact, and not a flaw, we can be more forgiving of our own and others needs. From that stance we can be open to the truth of our interdependence, and to giving and receiving care, concern, compassion and all the richness this world can give.

These barriers to compassion are present to some degree in most of us. Please continue to follow me through my exploration of these common barriers, and perhaps join us in my course, Resilience Through Compassion Training, where you can learn how to work with these fears and become more compassionate toward yourself, and others. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about compassion, what it is, and what blocks you from it.