Don’t Pity Me! Thinking Differently about Vulnerability

17 October 2022


Graphic of speech bubbles, hearts, outlines of faces and puzzle pieces

Retired teacher, adoptive parent and blogger David Woodier explores the misuse of the word vulnerability and wonders if we need to look a little deeper at what this means.

Several years ago, I was teaching a child who was going through a very difficult time. He refused to work or stay in class, and he frequently hurt other children. He was tearful and yet inconsolable. He had experienced bereavement and abuse. He needed additional support in school, but how could he get that extra help without going into his experiences in detail, and how could I involve him in that decision? Talking to him about his needs at that point was likely to increase his sense of shame and distress. I asked a much older pupil who was care experienced but in a much more stable place in life: “When you were younger and things were difficult, would you have wanted me to talk to your teachers about the things that were happening in your life, in order to get your more support?”
This older teenager paused and answered with just one word: “No.”

I had felt compelled to share with other professionals intimate details about a child’s life in order to fight in his corner and access precious resources, and I struggled to find words to describe the shocking impact of what had happened to him. But the use of words like vulnerability raises important questions: How do we as teachers, social workers and carers, strengthen what connects us as human beings without defining others by their weakness or victimhood? How do we help young people recover their agency, some control over what is happening to them, without also overwhelming them?

When we speak of vulnerability and suffering, we need to respect the complexity that defines us as human beings. Dependency is not necessarily a sign of weakness, and we should be careful that descriptors don’t become totalising labels. As one care experienced person told me: “Being vulnerable now is not a death sentence to be vulnerable forever.” Neither should we abandon empathy as a way of connecting with others whose experiences are very different.

At every stage in life, but especially in childhood, we are all dependent on our experience of another person’s sensitive care and loving interest in us. If I am deprived of that significant and loving relationship at one of those critical times, it may be hard to recover my capacity to believe that the world is benevolent and others can be trusted.

The suffering that comes from being maltreated arises from that same loss of meaning and coherence. It drops a why question into life: Why would someone not take care of me, when I was dependent on them? However, suffering can also be a sign of a healthy relationship. It can be the result of the vulnerability that comes when we love and when the object of our love suffers. This other kind of suffering, rooted in empathy, expresses solidarity and may even help restore meaning.

Empathy doesn’t come without risks, not least that it might be confused with pity. If I fail to recognise my limitations to know you completely, I may think of your difference as something inferior; you become an object of pity in the sense that I believe you are intrinsically different. At the same time, empathy is a wonderful gift that can restore and strengthen relationships. I recently met with a young person who was becoming increasingly involved in criminality; I had known him for many years, and I felt disappointed and frustrated. The young person wanted me to listen to his music, and as he talked about his playlists, he began to share something of his outlook on life.

As I listened, I could imagine what it is like to be a teenager struggling to get motivated in the morning and wanting to escape from the pressures of school life. Instead of feeling disappointed, listening to him and understanding where he was coming from moved me to compassion.

Being compassionate toward others, especially when they appear resistant to our efforts to help, isn’t easy. When a young person’s life history and behaviours make us aware of our own vulnerability, there is a strong chance we become detached, protecting ourselves rather than empathising and being there for a young person.

In a meeting about the same young person, one professional commented, “He is not making use of the supports we are offering him.” My response to this didn’t seem to help: “He told me that he doesn’t trust us. He doesn’t believe we care.”

No one seemed interested in understanding why this was hard for the young person. Not being trusted made us feel vulnerable. We felt powerless; we may even have felt that our role as rescuers was being threatened. The result is that we painted a picture of a young person who could not be helped and who would be better served somewhere else. The outcome could have been different, if rather than feeling that our care and competency was being judged, we could have recognised how we were being affected by a young person’s distress and supported each other. We wouldn’t have lost sight of the young person and his needs. Even with the best intentions, describing someone’s vulnerability probably feels intrusive and overpowering. Rather than accentuating our perceived differences, our goal should be to share meaning, express solidarity, and gently lead a young person toward their own agency (see the full version of this article for a discussion about the importance of agency). Coming to accept our tendency to feel vulnerable may also be the key to being able to empathise even while a young person is learning to trust our help.

Questions for reflection

If this blog post has given you pause to reflect on and question your own behaviour, or perhaps the behaviour of others, you can use the questions below to consider your own practice individually or as a team.

How do I protect the dignity of a child when I talk about them?

Have I become insensitive to how a young person would feel about their details being shared with others?

Am I still able to see the person in the midst of the complexity of their situation?

If I need to communicate to others how a relationship may be causing distress, for example, meeting with a family member, can I do this without making it sound like the young person has a deficit and without blaming the young person?

Can I normalise what I am saying about a young person without being dismissive of the trauma they have experienced? For example, preface discussion about a specific child’s need with: “All children need this kind of love and security and not least...”

When I describe a young person as vulnerable or at risk, what exactly do I mean? It may be more helpful to highlight the cause and effect nature of what I am seeing, rather than labelling a child.

The full version of this article can be accessed at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09PFKLPHV and https://scottishattachmentinaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Dont-Pity-Me-Thinking-Differently-about-Vulnerability-and-Suffering.pdf

© 2022 David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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