This time last year, I had a crash course in the impact of minimizing vulnerability. It’s one of the most common protective strategies, and it comes with a cost.

I’d been waiting for a call all week.

Grabbing my robe, I hurried to get to the phone. I sat down on the window seat, listening to the rush of words from the surgeon. When she said, “carcinoma,” I was stunned. Despite the possibility that the biopsy would show cancer, the doctors I’d seen uniformly told me, “it’s probably nothing.”

But it wasn’t “nothing”; it was breast cancer.

The surgeon was reassuring as she told me I would need another surgery and radiation – “caught it early,” “excellent prognosis.” But there was no space, no pause between diagnosis, treatment, and the implicit message that it was “no big deal.”

I understand why she rushed to reassure me, but I learned that her hurried attempt to soften the blow was the beginning of what felt like a concerted effort to keep me from feeling the natural sadness and fear provoked by my diagnosis.

Minimizing pain blocks connection.

Over the next few days, as I shared the news with family and friends, I often heard comments that, while well-intentioned, minimized the impact of the experience. “Oh well, it is what it is.” “At least they caught it early.” Words caught in my throat; it no longer felt like the person was listening. The conversation moved on to other topics, leaving me alone with my experience, feeling self-critical for reaching out in the first place.

Why the rush to minimize something as significant as a cancer diagnosis requiring surgery, radiation, and years of medication and follow-up visits?

Because we fear vulnerability.

Rather than witnessing pain, we try to avoid it by downplaying it.

Like the spines on a cactus, our protectors try to ward off anything that could expose our tenderness. Minimizing blocks the vulnerability of painful emotions like grief, fear, and loneliness. It drowns out the whispered question, “Am I going to be alright?” Whenever something tender surfaces, our well-intentioned protector moves quickly to reassure, rationalize, and redirect our attention. We do this to ourselves, and we do it to others whose pain touches our own.

On what turned out to be the most vulnerable day of my journey, I was alone because of visitors’ restrictions during the pandemic. The emotional impact of walking into a cancer center for the first time took me by surprise. The empty halls echoed; I wandered around, unsure of exactly where to go.

I was still caught up in the wave of emotion when the social worker greeted me with a cheerful smile. Her first words were, “You only have 15 treatments; you’ll be finished before you know it!” No questions. No information. Just the message that my pounding heart and clammy hands were incongruent with the drumbeat of “no big deal.”

Minimizing left me utterly unprepared for the most challenging experience.

The next part of the appointment involved preparation for radiation. I had to lie with my arms over my head for two hours, bare from the waist up, while I was tattooed and measured and marked in preparation for the first radiation treatment. The staff was kind, but they were all men. Their effort to chit-chat as I lay there freezing felt incredibly awkward. It was one of the most vulnerable experiences of my life. By the time I got home, I was physically weak from the intensity of my emotions.

Minimizing is just one of the many strategies we employ to avoid vulnerability. We learn these strategies early in life; they help us survive and adapt. But avoiding vulnerability also cuts us off from our authentic experience and one another when we most need the comfort of connection.

A simple practice for shifting from minimizing to connection.

The first step in our practice is awareness. Notice your hard-working minimizer. It will show up when you’re having a difficult day and when a friend or family member is going through a challenging time. You’ll hear things like, “Get over it!” Comparison is also common. “They have it far worse than you do.” Your response to a friend might be, “That’s tough, but…” The “but” is the beginning of the slippery slope to minimizing!

When you catch yourself, turn towards the part of you who’s protecting you with this strategy. Notice if you can be curious about why it jumped in. When we extend curiosity to our protectors, we begin to develop a relationship with them. We can find out what they are afraid would happen if we are open and curious when confronted by distress. Our protectors don’t think we can handle it, but we can show them, one experience at a time, that we can.