trauma informed vulnerability - becoming avery - Avery Thatcher - Inner Stillness Outer Chaos podcast

Trauma Informed Vulnerability

The concept of vulnerability confuses the heck out of me, and maybe that’s because it typically isn’t trauma informed.

When I think about being vulnerable it feels awkward, unsafe, unclear, and I just don’t even know where to begin.

Then I have a conversation on someone else’s podcast and they thank me for being so open and vulnerable. But I didn’t even realize that I was being vulnerable at all. I thought I was just being me.

In my relationship with my now married partner, I wanted to be vulnerable. I was eager to share vulnerably and he did a great job trying to make me feel safe.

But my disorganized attachment style, driven by my past complex trauma made this really difficult for me. I’d waffle back and forth between wanting to be open and craving that closeness, to shutting him out entirely and not being sure how to let him back in.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’ve concluded that the typical discussion around vulnerability lacks trauma-informed and inclusive perspectives, and I believe we need to change that.

The traditional definition of vulnerability overlooks the fact that vulnerability is not often trauma informed and is not always a choice.

The Unsafe Experiences of Being Vulnerable

I think most of us have had some negative experiences when we’ve attempted to be vulnerable in the past. Maybe you’ve experienced:

    • Dismissive Responses: such as being told to “get over it” or “stop dwelling on the past.”

    • Betrayal of Trust: such as having that trust betrayed through gossip, spreading rumors, or using the information against you

    • Rejection or Abandonment: such as having the person withdraw, reject, or abandon you emotionally or physically

    • Blame or Shame: such as being met with blame or shame for what happened or how they feel

    • Gaslighting: such as having your experiences denied or minimized by others, leading to confusion, and self-doubt

    • Exploitation: Being taken advantage of or exploited by others after revealing vulnerabilities, whether through manipulation, coercion, or emotional blackmail.

    • Secondary Trauma: as happens when someone reacts with intense emotional distress or becomes overwhelmed. This leaves you feeling responsible for the other person’s reaction and adding to their own emotional burden

    • Revictimization: including the perpetuating cycle of victimization and distrust in others.

    • Lack of Support: such as being met with apathy, indifference, or minimization of your experiences

All of these experiences can be deeply painful and can contribute to a reluctance to be vulnerable in the future. This further reinforces patterns of avoidance of vulnerability for self-protection. It’s not as easy to just share when you have some or all of these experiences in your past. 

And I think that’s why I really struggle with the traditional definition of vulnerability. It doesn’t have space for the nuance that trauma can create.

Our past experiences can be deeply painful and can contribute to a reluctance to be vulnerable in the future

Why the Traditional Definition of Vulnerability Is Not tInclusive

The traditional definition of vulnerability, as the willingness to open oneself up emotionally, presents a narrow and oversimplified view that doesn’t take the nuances of trauma and diverse lived experiences into account. This definition overlooks the fact that vulnerability is not always a choice, especially for individuals who have experienced trauma and/or belong to marginalized communities.

For trauma survivors, vulnerability can be incredibly scary. Opening up emotionally may not feel safe and definitely doesn’t feel empowering, but instead can lead to anxiety (been there), dissociation (been there too), or emotional overwhelm (have you met me haha). When we say that vulnerability is a willingness, a voluntary act of sharing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, we’re disregarding the nuance.

Then when you look at individuals from neurodiverse, BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQIA+ or other marginalized communities, they may actually not have the safety to be vulnerable, despite the willingness to be so. They might express their true emotions, desires, and thoughts in a way that isn’t “typical” or “conventional,” leading to their disregard, despite the equal validity and deserving recognition of their experiences.

This is why I think we need to expand our definition of vulnerability to bring in the nuance of people who have experienced trauma and/or those who face systemic barriers to authentic emotional expression.

It's important to honour the part of us that feels fear when we're being vulnerable, not brush it aside

The Trauma-Informed Redefinition of Vulnerability

So you see, the definition needs to encompass not only the willingness to share emotions and our true self, but also

  • the ability to recognize and navigate emotional triggers,
  • establish boundaries,
  • cultivate trust in ourselves as well as others,
  • as well as address the systemic barriers that make it harder for us to truly be ourselves.

It’s not as simple as if you want to be vulnerable or not, but also how your experiences shape your sense of safety.

The truth is, vulnerability is always a little unsafe because you never know how someone else is going to respond. But it’s the ability to deal with that uncertainty and the chance that you could get hurt – that’s what we need to work on and strengthen. (which is something that we cover extensively in the Elevate Program)

From this lens, in order to be vulnerable we have to:

  1. Be self-aware of how past experiences, including trauma and attachment patterns, shape our relationship with vulnerability.
  2. Feel confident in boundary setting and maintaining those boundaries
  3. Trust ourselves to know when we can trust others. This can be particularly difficult in cases of trauma, systemic oppression and complex trauma.
  4. Show ourselves self-compassion and non-judgemental exploration into our patterns and habits that make it challenging to be vulnerable. (because these patterns and habits were once there to keep us safe, but we may not need their protection anymore)
  5. Recognizing that vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness, and acknowledge the courage it takes to show up authentically despite past vulnerable.
Vulnerability encompasses so much more than just sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings

Vulnerability with Compassion and Self-Acceptance

Our experiences may have taught us that being vulnerable can lead to hurt, rejection, or further harm. Which makes it difficult to embrace the traditional definition of vulnerability as simply the willingness to open ourselves up emotionally.

Trauma informed vulnerability encompasses so much more than just sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings. It requires a deep understanding of our past experiences, emotional triggers, and the systemic barriers that may inhibit our ability to express ourselves authentically. It’s about establishing and maintaining boundaries, trust, and navigating the uncertainties of human connection with courage. Because vulnerability is scary – and that’s okay.

It’s important that we honour this part of us that has all of the fear around being vulnerable. They may have good reason to be! But there comes a moment when we, our true Self, have to stand up and say “it’s a risk I’m willing to take and I know I can handle” and trust ourselves enough to give it a try.

Absolutely we need to choose our time, person and scenario wisely especially at the beginning. As one person living with a traumatized nervous system to another, if I can do it, so can you. You may need a little support and guidance along the way, but I know you can do it

There comes a moment when we, our true Self, have to stand up and say 'it’s a risk I’m willing to take and I know I can handle it' and trust ourselves enough to give trauma informed vulnerability a try.

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