Risk-in vulnerability

selfworthTwo vital safeguards that counter the devaluing experiences in our society are relationships and inclusion.

Connection with others is part of why we’re here. To love, to be loved in return and to belong.

But the risk here is heartbreak, let-down and rejection.  So strong, caring relationships and belonging keep people safe but they are also a key experience of vulnerability. Many people decide that this is too big a risk to take on behalf of themselves or their family member. How might we find a way forward here?

In my experiences around my brother and with other families and individuals in building relationships within community, I find a common struggle. It is not with the intellectual understanding as to why relationships are important. It is with emotional step to start, to try, to reach out to others, to ask.

So I’m going to talk about the things that get in the way that I think are within us. It is comfortable to think that devaluation is something that the ‘system’ and others create. It means that others are the ones that need to change.

In recent years a personal shift I have taken is to value and focus on my inner self more. If something out there needs to change, what am I doing in myself about it? In my 20s I thought this was a luxurious navel gazing experience for middle class wankers. The world was going to buggery and there simply wasn’t time for this. Action was what was needed. Now I see that, whatever our position – whether we are thinking about ourselves and our own relationships, or whether we are thinking on behalf of another – we can all reflect on our place and our power in our own or another’s life.

What are safeguards?

Vulnerability aheadWe might typically think of them as measures which offer protection against vulnerability arising from devaluation.

A small example: several years ago in checking Matthew’s budget book we discovered a discrepancy between the amount Matthew withdrew at the bank and the amount that would be entered into his ledger. For example, his bank statement would say he took out $160. His ledger would note $120. Small amounts – usually 20, 30 dollars would be missing. And always the same signature of the staff member when this happened. Theft by a known and trusted person in Matthew’s team.

We realised we had little knowledge of Math’s weekly monetary matters. The safeguard we created was that from now on a family member would check Math’s budget each week, create a new budget, write it in his ledger and draw up the withdrawal slip with the amount on it. We’ve never had a problem since. But have we had other potentially negative impacts?

Wounding experiences

This leads into thinking about wounding experiences. Matthew has faced many wounding experiences from people whom he and we trusted, or that the service system supported and trusted. Some of them are still too painful to mention. What happens when trust is broken? What happens when you feel people have let you down? Matthew’s disability is such that he just does not comprehend these experiences intellectually and this makes it all the more painful because his experience is being in close relationship with someone one day and then never seeing them again. He can’t speak so how does his voice get articulated in these experiences? Often it simply doesn’t.

The question I have been asking recently (and no clear answers yet): as a family governed system of support, have we created safeguards from these experiences that come from a wounded place, a place that often finds it hard to trust, a place where we are trying to make up for all that lost time when Math was away from us, a place of feeling let down and hurt by others?

If this is the case, and in a ‘representative system’ (that is where family and others largely represent Matthew’s interests), are we inadvertently adding to vulnerability when we take action from these places? It is only human to find it hard to bounce back from the breaking of trust, from experiences of rejection: to move on and treat the next experience as totally new, without the ‘baggage’ of the past. No-one can be blamed or judgement made about any of these very human reactions and experiences. But in a representative system, because you are acting on another’s behalf, it is always healthy to ask questions and to reflect. A case in point with the example that I have used above. With only family now with authority around Math’s weekly finances, what impact dos this have for others in his system? I have found that we have locked ourselves into a solution that doesn’t give us much freedom. Who do we ask if family members don’t want this role anymore or want to go away or are somehow unavailable. Do we trust anyone else?

My hypothesis

I still firmly believe that relationships, connection to others and inclusion are the strongest safeguards against wounding and devaluation. What ultimately keeps people safe is other people and there are lots of powerful and life-giving examples of this in Matthew’s life. For starters the difference in his life since he came back to us and reclaimed his place in our family. Connection is why we’re here. I believe it is part of our human identity – to love, to be loved in return, to belong. Our identities are relational. I am me because of my relationships to others.

So here we have the block – believing in the power of relationships but having experienced multiple wounds from relationships.

Fully embracing vulnerability

CourageThe bind is that relationships, inclusion, belonging keep us safe, but they are also a key experience of vulnerability. In order for connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

What if we tried to see vulnerability a bit differently; as a human experience?

I would encourage you to take a look at the work of Brene Brown.

Listening to her research into these areas of connection, vulnerability, shame and authenticity changed my whole perspective and was catalyst to me delving into these questions. Check out the fantastic presentation she did for TED Talks a couple years ago.

The risks when we reach out are being misunderstood, being rejected, feeling out of control, feeling exposed, fearing being seen as needy, all our crappy characteristics will become known and then we we’ll be left, being in a place where there are no guarantees …… this list goes on.

As a family member, I think we often take on these fears on behalf of our person with disability. They have faced so many wounding experiences already that we don’t want them to have to face anymore if we can help it. Actually we become afraid to take a risk on another’s behalf.  All the previous wounding experiences pile up and this history makes it hard to take any more risks. Do we then become part of the wounding structures ourselves because we can’t bring ourselves to do this, because we perceive too much risk in reaching out? Because this kind of vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, love and tenderness.

Brown’s research reveals consistently that the one thing that keeps us out of connection with others is fear of not being worthy of it. People who felt they were worthy, fully embraced vulnerability. To them it wasn’t pretty but it was necessary. If I haven’t tempted you to her website, I hope I have now!

This then got me thinking about shame. Do we carry shame about ourselves or shame on another’s behalf? Do we believe that we or the people we represent, are imperfect but worthy of love and belonging? If we don’t believe that people can connect to others in their vulnerable and imperfect state, or that there are some people worthier of love and belonging than others, then we won’t be able to take the steps of reaching out to others, of developing relationships beyond those paid to be there.

Brown’s research over many years has revealed that the only difference between people who have a strong sense of belonging and worthiness and people who wonder if they are good enough is that they believe they are worthy of love and belonging.

We need the courage to be imperfect, compassion to be kind to ourselves and celebrate who we are.


  1. Bronwyn Moloney says

    Thanks for your insights Libby. I have just downloaded Brene Brown’s podcast and hope to listen to it this weekend.

  2. Sarah Forbes says

    Libby your thoughtfulness on this topic is encouraging to me. I’ve recently been thinking about how to best promote the gifts and contributions of people in my neighbourhood, who don’t necessarily have disability labels, but have other labels like ‘poor’, ‘alcoholic’, ‘unstable’, ‘hoarder’ and ‘weird’. The best method I’ve found so far, and leaning heavily on the thoughts of people more clever than me (John McKnight, John O’Brien, Beth Mount), is to seek out their talents, and link them with people who could benefit from those talents. The man who has the ‘hoarder’ label, was able to give very accurate advice to a friend of ours who was trying to lay carpet, and gave him free supplies from his vast collection. Our friend, who began the interaction very dubiously, was thrilled with the outcome. The question for those of us without labels is sometimes, ‘What is the cost of being in kinship with and associated with people who have labels?’.

    Keep prompting us to action! Sarah.

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