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How Can You Be Vulnerable As An Adult When You Were Never Safe As A Child?

Do you find being vulnerable very difficult as an adult, due to a lot of unsaid trauma, abuse, and victimization in your childhood?

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It’s no wonder why being vulnerable is so hard for so many.

You learn to feel safe in the families you grow up in. If you were lucky you saw two fairly healthy parents who supported each other’s strengths, who had compassion for one another during their inevitable struggles, and who didn’t weaponize mistakes. You observed that when conflict did arise, compromises were reached, forgiveness was offered, and differing viewpoints were respected.

I hope this sounds like your childhood, but many of you certainly weren’t so lucky.

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The unlucky children of abuse

During my first rotation in graduate school, where I began getting hands-on experience as a psychologist, I was on a children’s unit of Terrell State Hospital, outside of Dallas; our patients were around twenty-five children between five and eleven-year-olds.

They were far from lucky.

They were kids. They laughed and played. They fought and cried. Many had suffered vicious abuse from their parents. Others had little control over their behavior due to severe mental illness. A few had both. So many times, their reactions to adults and to each other was stunted and skewed by the trauma already experienced in their short lives.

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I was given the task of running a group for some of the youngest girls on healthy ways to feel about your body and yourself. They’d all been sexually abused. I listened as six-year-old Josie tried to explain the cruel things that had been done to her, and how sad she was. I watched as little hands were held out in comfort and understanding. It felt surreal, as they nodded their heads and talked about sexual behavior like much older children. I did my best to guide, very aware of the damage already caused to these young girls.

And then there was Max. Max was built like a tank and when he laughed, his whole body shook. When he ran, it was at warp speed. When he drew what he believed his body to look like, it was grossly malformed and resembled a monster much more than a human.

Max had also been abused in every way possible.

We took walks and he very slowly opened up. When he left the hospital, he gave me my first “present” from a patient. It was a painted plaster ladybug. I was heartbroken years later when it fell apart.

I’ve often wondered if Josie and Max would ever heal enough to be vulnerable in a relationship as adults.

How can you risk being vulnerable when your parents didn’t protect you, or worse, brutally victimized you? Or, in perhaps a less dramatic but still very potent way, your parents gave you the message that you weren’t important? If you were hurting, you heard, “Too bad.” If you were frightened or sad, “Get over it.” “Man up.” If you were in pain, there was deafening silence.

Want to know more about how childhood trauma can affect being vulnerable in adulthood? Read 4 Ways That Childhood Trauma Impacts Adults

How Can You Be Vulnerable As An Adult


The story of Jerry…

Recently, I worked with a man, Jerry, whose past was perhaps the most frightening I’d ever heard. Horrific things had happened to him, and he had a past littered with drugs, gangs, crime, and imprisonment.

I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly how Max might have grown up, that sweet giggling boy who made me a plaster ladybug could be experiencing adulthood just like Jerry.

I prayed not.

Happily, having children changed Jerry. Or I should say, he allowed having children to change him. He was fighting huge temper problems and depression, but he wanted therapy. He’d never seen anyone before, and as he began to talk, brief tears that were quickly brushed away came into the same eyes that had been coldly cautious and eerily frightening when I first met him. He revealed not only the cruel things he’d done but what had been done to him. He watched me intently for signs of judgment or disgust, like a thirsty animal finding water but afraid to let down its guard, and drink. His huge frame slowly began to relax.

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Dr. Margaret R Rutherford
Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, has practiced for twenty-six years in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Earning the 2009 Arkansas Private Practitioner of the Year award for her volunteer work at a local free health clinic, she began blogging and podcasting in 2012 to destigmatize mental illness and educate the public about therapy and treatment. With her compassionate and common-sense style, her work can be found at, as well as HuffPost, Psych Central, Psychology Today, The Mighty, The Gottman Blog and others. She hosts a weekly podcast, The SelfWork Podcast with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. And her new book, Perfectly Hidden Depression: How to Break Free from the Perfectionism that Masks Your Depression, is published by New Harbinger and available at Amazon, Barnes, and Noble or your local bookstore.
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