The meaning of being vulnerable

What is vulnerability?

Although vulnerability has military and security definitions, in terms of humans, it is best defined as a state which means a person needs additional care or support. In nearly every type of society, for example, children are deemed as being vulnerable and therefore, laws and social systems are specifically made to offer them additional protection. Furthermore, being vulnerable could come about because of other educational or emotional needs or from certain types of medical conditions. In terms of emotions, a vulnerable state is usually defined as one where you are susceptible to outside influence, something that might occur immediately after a relationship breakdown or a bereavement, for instance. Bear in mind that vulnerability is not just about an emotional state and that it means being potentially susceptible to physical intimidation, too.

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 What does vulnerability feel like?

This differs from person to person. In fact, it is not just individual responses to vulnerability that makes it different in each case, but what is causing the vulnerability, as well. That being said, if you feel vulnerable, then you are likely to be more timid in your responses. Crucially, being vulnerable will often mean that you are susceptible to undue influence from others which may be benign or otherwise. In general, a vulnerable person may not be able to make decisions that are in their best interests, and this can be the case whether they realise it or not.

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How is vulnerability determined?

In social theory, vulnerability comes about from something that is referred to as stressors, which create shocks that subsequently make people feel vulnerable. These could be anything from actual life-threatening hazards, for example, to things like social exclusion within a group or community. A lot of research has been conducted into the effects of physical and emotional abuse and how it leaves people in a vulnerable state. Secondly, vulnerability is also a branch of cognitive psychology. Maladapted social responses - for example, as a result of attentional bias - may mean that an individual is more vulnerable than they otherwise would be.

How can vulnerability be reduced?

In order for someone to feel less vulnerable, you should try to get through your current emotional state and start to feel more positive about yourself. Doing anything that improves the state of your mental health, such as self care/self help, taking up sports and physical activity or spending your time in a positive group of supportive people, will help your confidence to grow and make you feel less vulnerable. Social workers, teachers and healthcare professionals need to create care plans that mitigate the vulnerabilities of people in their charge, for example, vulnerable children that need additional safeguards to be put in place for extra protection.

Who might exploit vulnerability?

Some people exploit vulnerable people without even realising it, and any attempts to be helpful can be seen as exploitative in the fullness of time. That being said, unscrupulous people will try to exploit emotional vulnerabilities for their own gratification or to extend control over people around them. Sexual predators, bullies and people who are themselves, in fact, vulnerable in one way or another, tend to try and exploit vulnerabilities they see in others. This might be a way for them to deflect from their own insecurities or perceived vulnerabilities. Manipulative psychopaths are well-known for their attempts to influence vulnerable people.

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Can vulnerability be a strength?

Some people associated vulnerability with weakness, but this is a one-sided view of what it means to be vulnerable. In fact, it is often regarded as a sign of strength or moral courage when being vulnerable is not hidden or shied away from. In other words, if you are able to show your vulnerable side, then you are acting with a degree of confidence, like proclaiming that you have something that makes you susceptible in some way but also saying that it is a part of you. Therefore, if you are vulnerable because you have recently come out of a long-term relationship, for example, it is okay to say that dealing with breakup is having an impact on how you feel about yourself at the moment and any romantic feelings you might have. Of course, being vulnerable will often feel like a weakness rather than a strength, but this is not always a true reflection of the reality of the situation, especially insofar as human emotions are concerned.

Where does vulnerability come from?

The wider definition of vulnerability is something that cannot withstand the environment it is in. So, if you were to put up a building that is liable to blow down in high winds, then you might say that it is vulnerable. This term is also used to convey a sense of emotional, social or cognitive fragility in people. However, unlike a building that might blow down and be completely destroyed, vulnerable humans are often able to bounce back. In other words, their susceptibility is often limited to certain emotive states or social situations. What's more, anyone can be vulnerable at certain times in their lives, no matter how much resilience they might usually have. So, some vulnerabilities are innate or permanent, such as when people with limited cognitive abilities are born or suffer a trauma. In contrast, others are impermanent and come from heightened emotional states, such as the fragility you might feel as a result of a bereavement, for example.

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What is social vulnerability?

Social vulnerabilities cover a wide range of phenomena that are related to both individuals and wider societies. Sociologists would regard a society's inability to overcome a natural disaster – such as a hurricane strike, for example – as an example of social vulnerability. In the more personal sense of the term, however, it relates more closely to the sort of social stresses that we are all exposed to. This might be the ability to conform to certain social norms or to behave within expected modes of behaviour. Some people with social vulnerabilities might not always be able to meet these expectations. Imagine a child who has suffered from abuse who, then, behaves in a disruptive manner, for instance. Their apparent delinquency would, in this example, be accounted for in a much more deep-rooted way by understanding the origins of their social vulnerabilities which some people refer to as 'a cry for help'.

What is cognitive vulnerability?

Cognitive vulnerabilities take several forms, too. Adults with learning difficulties may find they are more vulnerable than the general population because they cannot always determine when they are being lied to or understand the full value of what they have. Most societies attempt to protect such people and prevent people from abusing their vulnerabilities by scamming them, for example. More widely, psychologists tend to refer to cognitive vulnerabilities as affording certain biases in the minds of people. Stress or maladaptive behaviours can lead to a warped view of the world which – left unchecked – may lead to paranoia, neuroticism or even psychopathy. Some people who have attention deficit disorders may find they fall into the category of having a cognitive vulnerability.

What is emotional vulnerability?

This is the sort of vulnerability that most people are aware of from the experience of their daily lives. As previously mentioned, even the most seemingly level-headed and unemotional people can be susceptible to emotional stress that leaves them feeling more vulnerable than they otherwise usually would. The motions that tend to have the greatest association with being vulnerable include grief, fear and shame. Anyone who has displayed such emotions can suddenly feel as though they are no longer in control of their lives which leaves them feeling vulnerable as a result. Furthermore, most psychologists would agree that big disappointments in life can lead to the same sensation. At the heart of this type of emotive reaction is the sense that we feel more exposed or emotionally on display. However, having the guts to be openly vulnerable is often seen as a true sign of emotional strength, something that can seem counter-intuitive at first.

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Why is vulnerability not always a permanent state?

For some people who have been born without a certain capacity - such as a learning difficulty which means they never acquire the skills to understand money, for instance – vulnerability can be viewed as a permanent state. Countermeasures can be put in place to provide coping mechanisms or support but these vulnerabilities will continue on a lifelong basis. However, emotional vulnerabilities are much less permanent. Although anyone can suffer an emotional blow at any time of their life and feel as though they are more vulnerable as a result, such states tend to pass with time. For example, imagine you are feeling vulnerable as a result of the loss of a loved one. As your grief passes through its stages, you are likely to feel less vulnerable as time goes on and you start letting go. Of course, you may still have certain triggers that can set you off emotionally and lead to feelings of greater fragility but most people recover by sharing, being honest about how they feel, finding acceptance, and from the normal passage of time.

What is a window of vulnerability?

This term tends to be applied to strategic thinking about when the greatest exposure to a threat might be. Military tacticians use it to refer to the time when their forced are most at risk from enemy action, for example. However, it is also used at a more individual level to explain threat risks, too. For example, a recovering alcoholic might feel most susceptible to drinking on the anniversary of certain events, especially if they have an emotional connection. In such cases, the individual concerned might recognise such a time as a window of vulnerability and seek additional support because they know they will be more at risk.

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Vulnerability Summary

In summary, being vulnerable is something that is usually considered to be an undesirable state. It conveys a sense of fragility that should be guarded against. Indeed, greater resilience is often thought to be a powerful emotional tool in the fight against certain personal vulnerabilities. And yet, as you have read, in some senses at least, being vulnerable can be a sign of true inner strength. Few people would regard the greater vulnerabilities that children have as they make their way in the world as a negative thing, after all. It is an inherent part of childhood that needs to be accounted for and even celebrated without, of course, being abused.

And yet, in many societies, vulnerability in adults is often seen as something that is an undesirable trait. Perhaps this is why popular culture is seemingly so focussed on the invulnerable. After all, superheroes like Supergirl or Spider-Man have special powers that make them much less vulnerable than the general population. Of course, well-written fiction will often explore the emotional vulnerabilities of such characters who often struggle with double identities and making themselves heard when they are not in their heroic modes.

So, what is going on? In literary fiction and films, it seems we like to explore our vulnerability as a species through paradoxically invulnerable characters. The same might also be said of another genre of fiction, disaster movies. In them, we see just how vulnerable humans are to natural phenomena like wildfires or meteor strikes. At a deep psychological level, perhaps we all know just how vulnerable we can be, which is why we like to enjoy these forms of entertainment as a means of expunging our sense of human vulnerability? Whatever the true reason, it certainly appears to be something we like to examine in ourselves as a species.

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