The Cost of Seeking Invulnerability to Pain


chart of fears, from this earlier post

Nick Smith recently pointed me to a short article by Turil Cronburg, which in part read:

The way I’ve found real safety, even while being held captive in jail and in homeless shelters (run almost like a jail) and mental institutions (again pretty much like a jail) has been a combination of realizing that safety is really all about freedom, and finding clarity of my own purpose in life. And by freedom I mean freedom to be oneself. To react to life’s complications in a way that is honest and true to what one’s deepest self is – one’s highest ideals of what one wants to contribute to the world, one’s purpose in life.

If I am trapped physically by a violent individual or group – the shelter system, “legal” system, or “health care” system or any other forceful agent – I might not be especially free in a physical sense, which certainly sucks, and is something a healthy society will avoid at all costs, but on a deeper, more meaningful sense I am very much free to make at least some choices about what I do and say such that they help me make progress on my life’s goals…  Real safety comes from finding the most effective way of expressing your true self – what you want and what you have to offer – in every situation you come across in your path.

This is what ee cummings was saying when he wrote about how hard it is to be “nobody-but-yourself” in a world where everyone (the media, advertisers, peers, others trying to influence and/or control us, and even that small self-critical voice inside us) is trying to make us “everybody-else”.

The day after I read, Turil’s post, Mireille Jansma pointed me to this TedX talk by psychologist Brené Brown, in which Brené says something quite similar:

Whenever we’re on the verge of bliss, we picture something horrible happening… I blame this in part on the media… This is a symptom of an issue that is both universal and profoundly dangerous, and that is: We are losing our tolerance for vulnerability, which we see as synonymous with weakness, and which is at the core of our fear and anxiety and shame and other difficult emotions, but which also is at the core of joy, love, belonging, creativity, and faith.

When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding, disappointment, disconnection, perfectionism, [political, religious, and ideological] extremism, and most of all self-numbing, [mechanisms by which] we try to protect ourselves. What is driving this intolerance for vulnerability?… [I think it’s] scarcity. We live in a culture that tells us that there is never enough [time, money, security etc. and] that we cannot ever be good enough. [We are inundated with hugely exaggerated messages of ubiquitous danger.]…

We numb vulnerability. We are the most addicted, the most medicated, obese and in debt cohort in human history. And we stay busy, so that the [feared] truth of our life can’t catch up. What are the consequences of numbing ourselves to vulnerability? You cannot selectively numb emotion. When we numb the dark emotions — vulnerability, fear, shame of not being good enough — we by default numb joy.

After this intriguing diagnosis, alas, Brené falls victim to the tendency of most ‘experts’ (and self-help book writers) to prescribe a cure for the malaise they’ve just identified.

How do we embrace vulnerability? Practice gratitude… Honor what’s ordinary about our lives… Play… [Appreciate] nature… We want more guarantees. We we want to believe that we we’re not going to get hurt and that bad things aren’t going to happen and they are. But if we don’t allow ourselves to [fully] experience joy and love we will definitely miss out on filling our reservoir with what we need when those hard things happen.

“Practice gratitude” is a nice phrase, and maybe whatever it means it works for her, but it’s not at all clear how this is supposed to help us “embrace vulnerability”. The advice, in any case, violates the corollary to Pollard’s Law: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, first be sure you understand why it is the way it is. To tell us essentially the way to overcome our fears is “don’t be afraid” is not useful, or actionable, and the struggle in vain to try to follow this advice is likely to lead to even more feelings of “we can never be good enough”, and more retreat to numbness.

I am a fearful person, and I have become as a result of trying to cope with these fears and anxieties somewhat emotionally flattened, if not numbed. But I have come to accept myself: We cannot be other than who we really are. I aspire to liberate myself from civilization culture, and hence become less fearful and more present, more “nobody-but-myself”. But I acknowledge that this will take lifelong practice and may well be a fruitless pursuit.

As a result, a far more interesting approach, I think, would be to ask ourselves these questions, and come up with our own answers, coping practices, and self-acceptances:

  1. Who is “nobody-but-myself”? If I lived in a cultureal that didn’t try to make me “everybody-else”, what would I be like? What’s holding me back?
  2. What am I afraid of, and why? How do I cope with these fears (avoid, vent, condition/desensitize, learn, accept, detach/let go)? Why aren’t these coping mechanisms fully effective for me?

The ultimate question stemming from these is What can I do with this self-knowledge? And the answer may be: nothing. It may be enough just to understand ourselves a little better, to know why we are the way we are.

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10 Responses to The Cost of Seeking Invulnerability to Pain

  1. Dear Dave,

    You wrote :
    Who is “nobody-but-myself”? If I lived in a cultural that didn’t try to make me “everybody-else”, what would I be like? What’s holding me back?

    I would like to rephrase this question and ask who am I shorn of this societal conditioning. Who Am I when I am not identified with any aspect of the collective unconscious? Since all that the human mind consists of, is cultural and societal indoctrination, if one gets rid of this conditioning and does not identify with the collective unconscious, what remains?

    It is easy to see that when one is not thinking, or when one is not identified with any external object, one still exists. The idea that one is a separate individual, that there exists a separate “I”, a psychological self so to say, is erroneous. According to the Indian saint Ramana Maharshi :

    When the thoughts arise, he said, the ‘I’-thought claims ownership of them- ‘I think’, ‘I believe’, ‘I want’, ‘I am acting’. The individual ‘I’ is the ego mind itself. In reality, there is no separate ‘I’ that exists independently of the objects that it is identifying with, rather, an incessant flow of misidentifications based on an initial assumption that the ‘I’ is individual and associated with the bodily form. He considered this ‘I am the body’ idea as the primary source of all subsequent wrong identifications and its dissolution as the principal aim of self-enquiry.

    Ramana taught that since the individual ‘I’-thought cannot exist without an object, if attention is focused on the subjective feeling of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ with such intensity that the thoughts ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ do not arise, then the individual ‘I’ will be unable to connect with objects. If this awareness of ‘I’ is sustained, the individual ‘I’ (the ‘I’-thought) will disappear. In its place will be a direct experience of the Self. This constant attention to the inner awareness of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ is called self-enquiry (atma vichara).

    Source Wikipedia (

    How does Self-Enquiry help? Essentially when one disidentifies with the psychological self, one is able to get rid of the narrow groove which we have restricted ourselves to. If one no longer identifies with the body and the mind, then the problems of the mind do not appear to be so important.

    What does one identify with, if not with the mind? Buddhism and Advaita hold that one’s true nature is non-dual consciousness (ok, that is not entirely true. We are multi dimensional beings, but in Buddhist parlance one who is identificatied with consciousness can be considered as a stream-enterer).

    Considering consciousness to be the entity that makes us aware of the external world of objects, we can assume anything that can be objectified as separate from consciousness. If consciousness can become aware of the body, the body is a separate entity. Consciousness can observe and become aware of thoughts, hence mind is separate from consciousness. Going further, it is possible for consciousness to become aware of its own light. When consciousness becomes aware of itself, and when one becomes identified with consciousness, identification with body-mind ceases and with it all worldly sufferings also cease.

    This is referred to in Advaita/ Buddhism as awakening/ Self Realization/ satori/ Enlightenment, and needless to say it is a painstaking process which involves several years of sitting meditation or Zazen.

    As you put at the end :

    What can I do with this self-knowledge? And the answer IS: nothing.
    But it is worthwhile to get to know what our true nature is, behind the identification with the collective unconscious.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Well put, Shailendra, thank you. My response to my questions would be, I think, “A creature, part of a much greater creature, which is in turn part of a much greater creature”. I can see myself as primal, feral, acutely aware, and yet at peace. *sigh* So much what I do not see myself as, as part of this strange and confining modern culture, self-exiled inside my head.

  3. Dear Dave,
    It is good to have this conversation with you. Before I proceed, I wish to thank you and to express my profound gratitude towards you. I have been following your blog for almost 2 years now, and you are among the 5 people who have most influenced me in the past few years. I also shared your blog with some of my like minded friends, and they have also become your admirers. If I have to name your most influential posts, the post about the boiling frog metaphor and the post about learned helplessness would rank right at the top. After reading your posts over the past few years, I understood that it is neither possible nor even desirable to save the existing human civilization and I have been much more at peace after this moment of epiphany.

    I want to further discuss with you the question “If I lived in a cultural that didn’t try to make me “everybody-else”, what would I be like”, and your response to my comment.

    This question, about what would i be like if my culture didnt try to make me do its will, is still being asked within the confines of societal conditioning. Society has already moulded me into somebody else as I speak – through conditioning achieved by various means like our upbringing, constant exposure to media, indoctrination by parents, siblings, peers, teachers and everyone else. I am already someone else, even at the time of asking this question, and whatever I try to be within the confines of the mind, including trying to escape this “strange and confining modern culture” I will still not be able to escape my conditioning.

    It is important to understand, I think, that there exists no possibility of escaping the society within the confines of the human mind. Because the human mind and everything that is a part of the mind is an outcome of this same culture. The desire to escape the influence of memes is also a meme. That is why my emphasis upon identifying with a reality that is beyond the mind, that is larger than the mind. The Buddhists refer to it as Consciousness, as something primal which is untouched and unpolluted by societal knowledge. Conditioning affects only the mind, not the consciousness, which exists apart from the mind as a silent Witness.

    You say in your response to my previous comment “I can see myself as primal, feral, acutely aware, and yet at peace”. It reminds me of when I used to have a romantic view of nature and I would feel (and still feel) a very close kinness towards nature, wild animals, forests and mountains. I have been a vegetarian (not a vegan, I still consume milk products mostly for health reasons) for the past 8 odd years because I found it unethical to kill animals for food.

    However, in the recent past, there has been a growing realization that humans don’t have a monopoly on cruelty and viciousness. Animals can be extremely cruel, though their cruelty is instinctive and not deliberately thought out. Chimps have been known to display clannish behavior, carnivorous cats like tigers and leopards frequently tear apart their prey and start eating them when their prey is still alive. Spiders and snakes devour their offspring, while lions maul the cubs of other lions. Cuckoos destroy the eggs of other birds, and lay their eggs in the nests of pigeons and other birds. Hens torture and kill worms and even dolphins kill porpoises even when they do not need to eat their victims. We can only conclude that dolphins and hens do it just for fun.

    I am reminded of a Woody Allen comment to the effect that the world appears to be a giant restaurant in which everyone is feeding on everyone else. IT’s a reductionist view of nature, and meant as a jest, but it’s also undoubtedly true. Everything seems to point towards the conclusion that there’s no escaping cruelty on this planet. There’s something profoundly dissatisfying about this life, this existence. Perhaps this is why the Buddha said “Life is sufering”.

    Coming back to your original question, I would think suffering can be overcome by two means – through Self Trascendence and thorugh artistic pursuits/ creativity. I would not write about artistic pursuits.

    I define self trabscendence in the same way that you do – being part of something greater than myself. When I am amidst nature, surrounded by lush green mountains, and forests, illuminated by mellow sunlight, I feel connected to all of nature. I feel that I am a part of something greater than myself. It feels that I am in a state of kinship with all of nature, and that even the stones and the rocks are alive. If I am a part of all of nature, then even if this body dies, I cannot die. It is through this sense of connectedness that I can achieve self transcendence and immortality. This idea has been expressed by mystics and poets over the ages, but unless one experiences it, it will appear to be romantic and delusional.

    This has turned out to be a much longer comment than I originally intended it to be. And I doubt if I have been able to clarify much of what I think. Part of the reason is of course inadequacy of language to express anything that is intangible. But another important reason is my inadequacy as a writer. All the same, I would love to know your take on it.

  4. Dave Pollard says:


    Thank you for your kind words on my writing.

    I agree that it is very difficult for us to imagine who we would be without our cultural conditioning and experiences, because our culture is so pervasive and is a large part of what makes us us. I’ve read about “feral children”, children who either got lost and were raised by wolves or other pack animals, or who were locked up by abusive parents for their entire young lives, and hence “unsocialized” before puberty. These children, despite obvious intelligence and brilliant, well-honed instincts and non-verbal perceptiveness, are completely unable to learn language — the neural pathways that normally form in childhood synchronously with learning language just form in totally different ways in children not exposed to language. I see in those children the real ‘me’, and I find that when I spend entire days without speaking, hearing, reading or writing language something in me changes, and I think those changes are positive, and take me closer to who I really am.

    I was a very naive young child — pre-school I believed that everyone was always honest, generous and caring, and I exemplified that with my young peers and they came to behave the same way. It was a wonderful time, open and honest and free and aware and relaxed. But then when I went to school I discovered that people could be mean, deceptive and selfish, and my whole belief system was shattered. I withdrew inside myself for many years and only really became re-socialized in high school, thanks to a year of “unschooling”. It has taken me all these years to realize that the young pre-school child was the real “nobody-but-myself” me, and that everything that has been layered on that in the intervening years by our culture, good and bad, is “everybody-else”. So now I’m retired I’m seeking to remove all that cultural gunk and see if there is still an authentic “me” beneath it, or if I have been too long and permanently altered to rediscover that unadulterated being.

    Our mind is part of the problem — it has been colonized by our culture. The path to rediscovering our true selves I think lies not in thinking (though we need a basis of “self-knowledge” of our culturally-induced worldviews, capacities and beliefs to see where we are now, before we can find that path), but in just being. Not judging, not hoping, not expecting, not remembering, not fearing, not competing, not comparing. Just being. It’s harder than it sounds.

    The cruelty of animals to other animals is, I think, overstated by our culture — deliberately, to defend and justify our own. But I won’t deny that it exists. The tribes of Papua Nugini are likewise renowned for their cruelty, though they are almost untouched by global industrial civilization culture. I try not to pass judgement. I can’t see it as ‘immoral’ or ‘evil’. It is insensitive, but perhaps that’s the work of culture too. Much of all creatures’ behaviour comes from mimicking parents and elders. Just as abused children come to see abuse as ‘normal’, perhaps some species of all creatures see some insensitive, violent behaviour as ‘normal’.

    I think there are many paths to self-transcendence, and we must each find our own (if we are so inclined). I have no desire for immortality, but I do feel this sublimated ‘biophilia’ connection with all-life-on-Earth, and with the inanimate world as well. My path is to try simultaneously to pay attention, to be really present and a-part-of-the-greater-whole in the moment, and to let go, accept what is (including myself), relax into just being. I reach that state sometimes, often in solitude at night or in the forest or listening to music. But not often.

    Still, it’s worth pursuing. There is no mastery; there is only the practice.

    May you find your path.

  5. Paul says:

    “If I lived in a cultural [sic] that didn’t try to make me “everybody-else”, what would I be like?”: Wow, is that possible? Can a culture sustain itself that doesn’t enforce conformity to some degree? But you probably mean it as a thought experiment, not as a utopia to aim for, and it’s a perfectly good question in that regard. I’m struggling with the paradox: “to let go, accept what is (including myself)”, while simultaneously feeling that something has to change in myself, I have to slough off some conditioning, find new eyes with which to view reality. Arghhh!

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for catching the typo, Paul. Yes, I guess I was positing it as a thought experiment,a prompt for imagining ourselves as we really are. My first real memories of ‘self’ are when I was 5 years old. I was terribly open and believed that all creatures were generous, honest, wonderful (it took me a decade to recover from the pain that occurred when I ‘learned’ otherwise).

    I remember laughing a lot more. Singing a lot more. Exploring and finding everything fascinating from aphids to lilacs to polar bears. Even then I felt sad for the bears in the zoo. I was very sensuously tuned in, and found wonder (and eroticism) in many things. I remember my eyes being always more open than they are now. I remember not liking wearing clothes. And I remember a lot of smells, that even now, buried under everything my culture has made me, instantly bring back feral memories and spark movement in my emotions and body when I smell them now. Every place had a different smell, and I knew each smell. And I remember smiling at bird songs. And my bed was a space ship, with one button that I could push that would connect me to everything and everywhere, bring anyone or anything to me, or me to any place or time (almost a decade before Star Trek). We got our first B&W TV in 1958 when I was 7 and I was entranced — this US grid was pretty much what we got in Canada as well:

    I think the double-whammy of TV and elementary school spelled the end of nobody-but-myself.

  7. Turil says:

    One way to figure out what your true/core self is is indeed writing a gratitude journal. Not only does it make sense philosophically as a way to identify the inputs and outputs you’ve experienced that have made you most grateful for being alive, but it’s also scientifically shown to improve your mental health more than anything else (aside from solving basic physical health problems like deficiencies and toxicities that interfere with the brain’s function). This is why she mentioned this is the talk.

    Now I don’t personally write a gratitude journal, though I have done it occasionally, to great benefit, but I do a sort of meditation practice where I focus on what kinds of things I’ve received (inputs) and what kinds of things I’ve created (outputs) that have made me feel good about myself and my world. My filing system is all in my head, and is very haphazard, but it’s all there. And the more of these “good stuff in, good stuff out” memories I collect, the more I understand my more core self of what I most want to find in life and what I most want to create. Having done this for several years, slowly but surely, a fuzzy, but solid picture of my best self has emerged, to the point where I can be in jail and feel free in a meaningful way.

  8. MonkeyMuffins says:

    for those interested in delving deeper into the Nature of this Truth, i recommend reading, The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), by Alan Watts.

    it’s good for what ails ya.

    > “The more we struggle for life (as pleasure), the more we are actually killing what we love.”

    > “The greater part of human activity is designed to make permanent those experiences and joys which are only lovable because they are changing.”

    > “It must be obvious… that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.”

    > “Running away from fear is fear; fighting pain is pain; trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain. The thinker has no other form than his thought.”

    > “There is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind. Everyone has love, but it can only come out when he is convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love himself. This conviction will not come through condemnations, through hating oneself, through calling self love bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.”

  9. Zombie says:

    I’m personally acquainted with Turil, and being herself has involved assault and battery, restraining orders, jail time, and stalking of people who are desperately trying to avoid her “affections”. Sometimes one’s freedom of expression is necessarily limited because of how it affects the freedoms of others.

  10. Turil says:

    Oh, I just bumped into this old blog post of mine on freedom and how it’s literally what makes us human. It’s not only interesting, but it’s got one of my favorite photos!

    Also, hello to the (pretending to be)Zombie! One of my pet troll~fans. Nice to see you getting out and exploring the internet… :-)

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