The Fear of Vulnerability & Why We’re So Polarized: Fear Divides Us!

Published by Riley on

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This isn’t my usual sort of post. I’ve written a lot of general self help and self care posts, but I haven’t really broached the subject that leaves a lot of us feeling down and thus seeking help.

This will be a longer post, so grab some tea, take a few deep breaths, as I invite you to consider with me why we’re so polarized as a society, and how the fear of vulnerability holds us back.

A big downer on society, a big reason why so many of us feel so low these days, is the polarization in the western world.

We are so divided!

Obviously, we are divided in the way that we view the world, and the solutions we believe are necessary or appropriate to perceived problems within society. That type of intellectual diversity is a given (and, I’m sorry to say, it’s not going anywhere).

But when I talk about the polarization we see in the western world today, I’m talking specifically about the way we handle our differences. The way we talk about each other. The way we treat each other.

It doesn’t take more than a quick scroll through any given social media platform to see examples of how much we seem to hate each other.

On all sides of the political spectrum (though particularly on the far right / far left), there is such a vehement disdain towards those on The Other Side.

Those who aren’t part of our Chosen Group.

A black and white photo of a person putting their hand out to block to camera.
Photo by Philbo on Unsplash

This happens offline, too, of course. Say, for instance, disagreements at the dinner table during the holidays that turn into full on shouting matches.

But the polarization is so much more prevalent on social media.

It’s so much easier to fuel our division when we’re hidden behind a screen.

When someone posts an opinion we don’t agree with, we don’t see the human behind the opinion, we just see the words on a screen.

It becomes so easy for us to dehumanize each other. To label people we disagree with as Wrong, Stupid, or even downright Evil, stripping them of their very humanity out of fear that they’ll do the same to us.

Let’s take a closer look at why we’re so polarized, and how can we heal as a society.

Why We’re So Polarized

There seems to be a refusal to see the humanity in others if we feel like our own humanity is being attacked.


As a nonbinary person, my first instinct when I see someone spewing harmful rhetoric about trans people is to dehumanize them, to wish them ill, to lament that they are taking up space on this earth.

That is a trauma response. A reflection of my fear that I will be dehumanized and wished ill upon.

As though, if I can beat them to it, I win.

No one wins when people are dehumanized.

Why We’re So Polarized: Fear Leads to Anger…

I want to start the real meat of this post off with one of my all-time favorite Star Wars quotes.

(Yes, it’s from The Phantom Menace. No, I will not repent of my love for Episode 1. 😜)

The quote is this:

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.”
-Yoda

It’s the wisdom that Yoda gives to a young Anakin Skywalker… just before telling him that he senses a lot of fear in the kid.

No pressure, Ani!

But, really, imagine if instead of telling little Anakin that he wasn’t strong enough to be a good Jedi, Yoda had encouraged him to express his fears.

To be honest with himself and others about what he was afraid of, and work through those fears with the support of the Jedi Council.

If his fears were cut off and healed at the root, would he have become the rage-filled Darth Vader we see later (er… earlier) in the saga?

Why We’re So Polarized: We’re All Scared

Though I don’t approve of how he handled Anakin’s fears, I truly believe that Yoda’s words were insightful in ways a lot of people seem to overlook.

We all have fears. We all have worries.

Our division, not just politically but in personal relationships as well, ultimately stems from our fears.

I believe that fear is the root of all unkindness, all unpleasantries we so chaotically exchange with one another.

Dig a little deeper than the belief that we’re just angry because we care about justice or “what’s right”, and I believe we’ll find that the real root of our disdain for one another is fear.

In politics, we get so heated and even hateful toward The Other Side because we worry that Those People will make our fears come true.

An Example of Fear Driving Political Tension

Speaking from personal experience, it is difficult for me to engage calmly with people who are anti-choice when it comes to abortion.

As someone with a literal phobia of pregnancy, the idea of being forced to carry a fetus terrifies me. So, when confronted with people who believe abortion should be illegal, I am immediately coming from a place of my fear being triggered.

I’ve found myself thinking utterly ugly thoughts – betraying my own personal values of kindness, compassion, and understanding. I’ve come across pro-life posts on social media and thought, gee, I wish all those people would just drop dead.

(Yeah, I know. Ugly. I’m not proud of that. But this is a post about the importance of being honest with each other, and with ourselves. And it’s an unfortunate truth that I struggle with really hateful thoughts when I’m coming from a place of fear. Can you relate?)

But, y’know, if I just take a step back, breathe, and allow myself to look at the situation from another’s perspective, I might see that they, too, have fears.

Continuing with this example, a person who considers themself pro-life might view a fetus as equal to a born baby.

In that context, it is entirely understandable that they would be horrified by the idea of that fetus being terminated.

Moreover, if they’re coming from a religious background, they may fear disappointing their Creator by not standing up for His creation.

Do I believe what that person believes? No.

Do I share their fears, their concerns about aborted fetuses? No.

But I can recognize that fear lies on both sides of the topic of abortion.

There is concern for suffering, from both pro-life and pro-choice people.

No one wants to suffer, and most people don’t want to see others suffer, either.

If I were to sit down with a pro-life activist and explain my concerns surrounding the topic of reproductive rights, and they were to be open and honest about their concerns…

Well, we may not come out of that conversation on “the same side”, but I would hope that we would come out of it with a respect for one another’s experiences and concerns.

And I do believe there’s value in that.

An Example of Fear Driving Relational Tension

A photo of a pink paper heart on a string that is torn in half, amidst a black background.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Politics aren’t the only place we see division as a result of fear.

In personal relationships, with family, friends, coworkers, and so on, we get upset with each other and create rifts because our fears are triggered.

For example, let’s imagine a romantic relationship between two people.

Let’s call them John and Jack.

John and Jack have been together for years, but John has become distant lately. Jack is afraid that John is pulling away from him; he’s worried that John has lost interest, or that he’s going to leave him for someone else.

In reality, John has become distant because he’s dealing with a lot of stress from work, and he’s also struggling with depression. He hasn’t told Jack about it because he’s afraid that talking about his depression will bring Jack down. He doesn’t want to hurt his partner.

The lack of communication between the two begins to grow into bitterness.

Jack starts making snide comments. Rather than enjoying the moments they share together, he makes a sarcastic remark about how, “Oh, you decided to work me into your day, huh?”

John sees that Jack is upset, and bitterly tells Jack that he’d probably be happier with someone else, so why does he even bother sticking around?

Now Jack’s fear of their relationship ending has become a real threat, and he starts sabotaging the relationship so that he can feel some sense of control over the situation.

He starts berating John constantly, telling him he’s no fun to be around (which, in turn, fuel’s John’s fear of bringing his partner down).

If John and Jack were to actually sit down and talk about their fears, they might come to discover that this whole conflict could have been avoided.

A photo of two men lying down together. One is looking off to the side, the other has his eyes closed, resting.
Photo by Hà Nguyễn on Unsplash

Jack might feel compassion for John when he realizes he’s just been depressed and unsure of how to approach his partner about it.

John might feel compassion for Jack when he realizes that their lack of communication has led to Jack feeling abandoned.

Maybe they can work through it, and support one another, and come out of it with an even stronger relationship.

But they’re never going to get there if they don’t first set aside their pride, and hold space for each other.

How to Heal Our Division: Holding Space For Each Other

The way to heal our division, I believe, is through holding space for each other.

Listening to our fears, our concerns, our uncertainties.

Recognizing the very real and human experience of fear, and meeting each other in that space.

Showing compassion to those whose fears we might not share, and seeking to understand where they’re coming from.

It’s understandable that, when faced with our fears, we cling to any sense of control. Anything that gives us a feeling of power.

Anger is great at making us believe we have power. Hatred, too.

We can call it passion for justice, or righteous indignation, or anything else that makes us feel like we’re Right for being angry.

And, listen, I’m not knocking anger as a concept. Anger is an emotion and emotions aren’t right or wrong.

But anger is a secondary emotion, and it often springs up from fear.

And when our fear leads to anger, and then leads to hate, it most often results in suffering.

Not only the suffering of people whose feelings we no longer care about, but our own suffering.

We’re suppressing our pain, our fears that are begging to be recognized, and covering it up with rage.

It might feel empowering in the moment, but when it comes at the cost of our personal values, the incongruence it creates within us is draining, and ultimately soul-crushing.

To be clear, I’m not trying to be preachy, here.

If I’m preaching, I’m directing it at myself as much as anyone else.

When faced with someone saying that trans and nonbinary identities aren’t valid, it feels a lot more empowering for me to get angry.

As a nonbinary person, when I see someone making fun of people who use they/them pronouns, it’s so much easier to fill myself with rage than to admit that seeing people be dismissive of another’s internal sense of self hurts.

But at the end of the day, after I’ve ranted in the shower about how much I “hate all TERFs”, I kinda hate myself a bit.

I create my own suffering because I’ve neglected my own values in order to cling to some false sense of power over the situation.

When really, I’m just scared.

People Are Mostly Good

Maybe I’m naive, but I like to think that most people, when faced with another human being, don’t actually wish harm on any individual person.

We might get heated about ideas that we find dangerous, and concerned about how someone might spread those ideas or even vote in a way that could negatively affect our lives.

But if we were to actually sit across from each other, to look into the eyes of another human being and be honest about who we are, and where we’re coming from…

I think very few people would actually spit in the face of someone on “The Other Side”.

We just need to take a breath, not let fear control us for a goddamn minute, and connect with our fellow human.

A photo of scrabble pieces on a white background, spelling out the words "listen more".
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

How to Be More Vulnerable About Our Fears

Vulnerability is a practice. It’s a choice we make in each situation – are we going to be real and honest with people, or are we going to pretend we’re “strong”?

To be clear, being vulnerable does not mean not being strong.

On the contrary, I believe that vulnerability is a sign of strength.

Being vulnerable can be scary, especially when it comes to talking about our fears.

“What if I share my fears about something, and people laugh?

What if they don’t even care?

Or, worse, what if they purposefully try to trigger my fear to get a reaction out of me?”

Vulnerability will always come with a risk.

But I believe that we will see no progress in the world if we don’t try to trust each other with our vulnerabilities.

We can practice this by first being vulnerable with ourselves.

Being Vulnerable With Yourself

A close up photo of a person's face with their eyes closed, looking peaceful and meditative.
Photo by Dominic Anaya on Unsplash

How can we even begin to be vulnerable with others if we aren’t first vulnerable with ourselves?

How can we open up to people about our fears, our concerns, our passion about a topic, if we haven’t even looked within to discover what we’re really feeling?

I’m starting a practice of looking within when I’m feeling upset, and I invite you to do the same.

The next time I feel myself grow vengeful towards another person or group of people, I am going to try to remember to stop, breathe, and ask myself what I’m afraid of.

By recognizing the fears that are being triggered within me, I can use healthy coping techniques to work through that anxiety, rather than projecting my fear onto other people.

Being Vulnerable in Personal Relationships

Vulnerability is key to making any relationship thrive.

Lack of communication and a failure to be open about our feelings is what drives us apart.

If we just sat down with each other when tensions arose, how much conflict could be resolved by our willingness to meet each other in our humanity?

To sit across from someone and say, “This is my fear, this is what I’m worried about… What are you worried about? How can we work together to help each other feel assured that our fears won’t come to pass? Or, if the solutions to our concerns are incompatible, how can we cope with not feeling as comfortable as we wish?”

Being Vulnerable in Larger Communities

The above approach to personal relationships can also be used as a model for engaging with larger communities.

We particularly see the need for this sort of vulnerability when it comes to political divides on social media.

My invitation, to myself and to others, is to take this approach when engaging in political discussion (both online and off).

To seek to understand the other person, setting aside the need to convert them to your way of thinking.

To find where we agree, and recognize our similarities despite our differences.

I don’t always have the energy for this. There are times when I am too tired–physically, emotionally, and/or mentally–to engage in deep conversation, particularly if it’s on a topic that can trigger my fears.

I think a lot of us forget that we don’t have to engage!

A photo of a smartphone, showing the icons of the apps Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

When we’re in a place where the only words coming out of our mouths are going to be hateful, we can step back, and refrain from speaking at all.

Depending on our level of familiarity with the people in the discussion, we can say, “Hey, I’d love to talk about this with you at more depth, but I don’t have the time/energy right now. Can we postpone for later?”

Or, “At the moment, I cannot engage with you in the way that’s constructive. Here are some resources to help you understand where I’m coming from: [links, books, etc.]”

Or, we can simply not reply at all! We don’t have to reply to that stranger’s comment! We can simply let it pass us by.

I often have to remind myself that it is not my responsibility to make the world more like me.

We’re Not All Going to Agree on Everything

Dude, it straight up sucks, but like, I gotta be honest with you:

I don’t believe in a Utopian society.

There are about as many ways to look at life as there are people living it.

Intellectual diversity is not going anywhere.

Suppose an atheist and a Christian sit down to discuss their concerns about religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

They’re probably not going to come out of that conversation with the same worldview.

The Christian is unlikely to convert the atheist, and the atheist is unlikely to de-convert the Christian.

But they might be able to enjoy the beauty of connecting with another human being, despite drastic differences in certain opinions.

It’s messy, having all these differences.

Not everyone is going to end up happy.

I would argue that nobody is going to be entirely satisfied.

We often have to make uncomfortable compromises in politics, and in personal relationships, because our needs, our wants, our beliefs are sometimes incompatible.

We’re not going to be cozy and comfy and thriving in (our own subjective idea of) a Utopian society anytime soon (or… ever, probably).

The world, much to my dismay, is not a Safe Space.

And, as painful as that truth is (particularly for someone like me whose primary motivation in life has always been to maintain a sense of Safety and Security), I believe that accepting it can only make us stronger.

I think a lot of us (all across the political spectrum) have forgotten our own resilience.

A photo of scrabble letters standing up against a blue floral background, spelling out the word "resilience".
Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

We’re so used to the group saying, “Of course you should be outraged by this! Of course you’re crumbling when someone says they believe ____! Come here, come vent about it with us. We’ll talk shit about the other side and you’ll feel better.”

And of course, it’s totally valid to experience any emotion as a result of any stimuli!

That’s how humans work!

We can’t control how we feel.

But we can control how we handle those feelings.

Where I think a lot of us have gone wrong (myself included) is in our avoidance of situations that trigger uncomfortable emotions.

Rather than talking with each other, we shut each other out, to avoid conflict (both internal and external).

Shun the Non-Believer! Shuuuun!

Africa Brooke is one of my absolute favorite people on the internet right now.

I don’t agree with absolutely everything I’ve ever heard her say. (I’m sure she wouldn’t agree with absolutely everything I have to say, either. And that’s okay.)

When did this become a reason to shun someone entirely?

I almost feel as though saying I agree with many of her points could lead to ostracization by my peers. People who would search and find one or two viewpoints that make her Wrong in their eyes.

And then I become guilty by association.

I don’t want to not associate with people just because we hold opposing viewpoints!

I believe that the beauty of humanity is our ability to connect with each other across our differences.

The way Africa engages with people openly, lovingly, and respectfully in her Instagram Live videos is so hugely inspiring, and healing to the human spirit.

She has many lovely posts, but this is one that I think is especially relevant to this conversation:

I’ll be honest, when I first discovered Africa’s posts, some of them (including the one above) made me very uncomfortable.

But I am learning to be comfortable with that discomfort.

I’m becoming more assured of my own resilience and ability to engage with varying viewpoints without internalizing everything as an attack on my personal identity, worldview, or sense of safety.

We Will Always Have Differences, But We Can Love Each Other Anyway

A photo of a painted cardboard sign. The sign has the Earth painted in the middle of it, with the words "One World" painted in white.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

God, I sound like a hippie. Maybe I am.

The point of this post is not to suggest that we all become best friends with people who hold very different worldviews than us.

Boundaries are important!

I’m not going to become buddy-buddy with someone who refuses to use the name and pronouns I’ve asked to be called by. That’s one of my personal boundaries.

I wouldn’t expect a conservative Christian to want to spend a bunch of time with me, either; our approach to life is largely different.

But it is my hope that, however different we are, we will choose to approach life the same way in at least one particular area: how we treat others.

I don’t want to be everyone’s best friend.

But I do want everyone to feel loved when they’re near me. I do want everyone to know that I give a shit about them as a person.

I’m done wishing ill on people who make me uncomfortable.

I’m done dehumanizing people, even if they choose to dehumanize me.

Those are my values, and they extend across political divides.

Perhaps you don’t share those values. But if you do, no matter what else we may or may not agree on, I hope you’ll join me in prioritizing the values of love, kindness, compassion, understanding, patience, and so on.

This is my goal, rather than clinging to a sense of moral superiority or outright hatred for “The Other Side”.

Not to be a complete and utter cheeseball, but I like to believe we are all on the same side: the Human side. (Wow, I really just said that. 😅 )

I can recognize that, particularly in politics, there is a lot of nuance. Things are not as simple as we’d like them to be, and perhaps they never will be.

But I also believe that lovingkindness should always be the nuance with which we choose to view the world.

To end, I’ll quote one of my favorite Star Trek lines:

“I’ll work with anyone who’s interested in peace.”
-Kira Nerys, Deep Space Nine

We’re all scared. Life can be scary!

But life can also be so, so beautiful when we make the effort to connect with those who are different from us.

How sad would it be to deprive ourselves of that beauty by letting our differences continue to drive us apart?

This post has been a long bit of ADHD rambling, but I hope it resonated with you in some way.

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts, whether or not you agree with them.

Much love to you, whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your journey looks like. I wish you a life full of happiness, beauty, and human connection. ❤️

Sincerely,

Signature of the name Riley
Riley, he/they pronouns

Whew, that post was a long, winding road, wasn’t it? If you’re in need of some self care, check out this other post of mine. (I promise it’s much shorter and far less rambly.)

See also: more on personal values as an important part of self-discovery.


Did this post resonate with you at all?
Leave your thoughts in the comments below! ⬇️⬇️⬇️

(Please be kind and respectful to others in the comments; we’re all human, and we all experience fear and pain. Be mindful of that as you engage with your fellow earth-dwellers.)

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