On Vulnerability

I think a lot of times we use words without really understanding what they mean. I don't mean this in the "here's a new word let's use it" way, but that often the use of a word has more meaning than might be found in a dictionary. "Vulnerability" is one such word.

I started thinking about this word over the summer, when I was having a conversation with a friend. I was sharing a personally-meaningful quote with them, when they told me that I'm making them feel vulnerable. I didn't pursue it at the time, but afterwards I thought it was strange: since it was me who was saying something personally meaningful, how was it that they felt vulnerable?

The dictionary definition of (psychological) vulnerability is the feeling of likelihood of being hurt. While this seems correct on the surface, it is also insufficiently nuanced. We do not, for example, feel vulnerable while succumb to a disease, nor when facing a tiger. (Granted, not having experienced either, I can only speculate; but these scenarios doesn't evoke the description of vulnerability to me.) At least, it's not the disease or the tiger, in and of itself, that leads to the feeling of vulnerability.

I started thinking of instance where we might describe the feeling as vulnerable:

  • discussing personal trauma
  • giving a sincere compliment
  • sharing a secret

Of these three, the second one about compliments needs elaboration. Imagine a friend who has gone through a rough period. You meet up with them after being out of contact for a couple years, and find that they have moved, with a new job and a circle of friends; they seem to have moved pass their previous difficulties. You want to them that you're glad that they're okay, and more than that, that you're proud that they've managed. The latter, in particular, seems to evoke feelings of vulnerability.

Weirdly enough, the breakthrough came for me from considering whether there were people who would never be vulnerable. Specifically, I was thinking those with impaired affect: the sociopaths, the schizoid, and so on. It was a hunch, but it seemed to me that the stereotypical emotionless sociopath wouldn't feel vulnerable, not because they don't feel things, but because they don't care about the reaction of others.

If my hunch is correct, it would mean that vulnerability is not so much about the fear of getting hurt, but about the fear of indifference to some strong emotion. This is what connects the three examples above: it's that the person feels strongly about the subject (trauma, compliments, or secrets), and they fear that this feeling might be dismissed as unimportant.

A more recent experience of mine seemed to confirm this explanation. I was meeting a friend for dinner, someone whom I used to have a crush on; she knew this, but I was rejected, and I eventually got over it. A couple days before, I suddenly learned that her boyfriend (who I also knew) was visiting, and would be joining us as well. Upon learning this, I was suddenly ambivalent about the whole thing, which puzzled me. It wasn't exactly romantic jealousy, since I no longer desired a relationship with her. Eventually, though, I realized I was feeling vulnerable about the dinner and, by the above definition, I figured out that I was afraid she would somehow downplay my previous feelings for her by, for example, openly making out with her boyfriend. Nothing of that sort happened, of course, but I felt better knowing the source of my feelings.

That, I think, is one of the best reasons for figuring out the true meaning of words: it lets you more quickly understand what is going on when you are tempted to describe yourself with it. I'm not sure if this is really a subfield of philosophy or linguistics - the study of semasiology or lexical semantics comes close. Regardless, I've been thinking a lot about what people mean when they use different words (also on the list: "true", as in this "expresses something true [about people]"), and I thought people would be interested in my thought process.

PS. I'm aware I never finished the story about my friend; this is deliberate, as the quote I shared reflects as much about them as it does about me. This makes it somebody else's secret, and not my story to tell.

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