Therapy, challenges to therapy, human connection and vulnerability.

There are a few pieces of therapy that are inescapable — very very few people will go to therapy when things are going well, when they are high functioning and overall enjoying life (like “maintenance,” or “a check up” type of therapy). “Doing great” and “I’m in therapy” are a rare combination.

Therapy, for the most part, assumes symptoms, challenges, and a need for change. With EMDR, for example, clients often want to deal with unprocessed trauma. The re-processing can lead to behavioral, affective, relational change. “Motivational Interviewing,” a modality developed in the addiction field, trusts the clients’ ability to move towards positive goals, and positions the clinician as a non-judgmental support who is “rolling with the resistance” of the client’s own change process. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a theory by which maladaptive thoughts, cognitions, etc, can be noticed, challenged, and changed over time to create new behaviors and healthier affect over time.

Identifying, naming problems, and changing is universally difficult. Addictions counseling can be taken as a microcosm of the healing relationship. The addictions counselors on our team may agree, the process by which substance use becomes a problem is often insidious. Problems rarely announce themselves. Sometimes there is a problem with naming a problem (e.g. “admitting you have a problem is the first step”). This can be the case for individuals, families, larger social systems. This sounds like “I didn’t know it was that bad until (fill in the blank)” or “at least (the identified client) still has a job,” etc. Typical of the change process, especially in the substance use recovery community, is omission, minimization, blaming, “I’ll deal with the problem tomorrow,” and “Other people have it much worse than me.” And, of course this is the case. Change, whether it’s addiction, working through grief, adding a healthy habit, is incredibly hard.

Some people just don’t want to name a problem as “a problem,” sometimes people have no trouble admitting a problem but they have limited or no resources, supports available to deal with the problem. And sometimes people have a problem, everyone knows it’s a problem, and it’s still hard to deal with the problem. Sometimes “dealing with the problem” means that the problem is still going to be there. Chronic pain, death and loss, terminal or seemingly terminal conditions sometimes lead people to say, “Yeah, (problem) happened / is happening, what’s talking going to do about it?”

In both the challenge to engaging with therapy and the purpose of therapy is the safety, which leads to healing, which leads to safety, which leads to healing… And these take place within human-to-human connection.

Essential to therapy is connection. Within the connection, the safety is the healing (and the healing is the safety).

The therapeutic relationship is so wonderful because it is a space where one can be connected (understood, seen, known, sensed) in those “problem” parts, in the difficult to change and name and expose ways. This kind of vulnerability is sometimes caught, but for most it is an acquired skill. Vulnerable connections, that are also safe and healing, are rare and hard to find for some — hence, the role of the therapist. Vulnerability itself is incredibly hard.

When I worked in community mental health for several years, developing as a professional and “learning the ropes” of one part of the field, I worked exclusively with clients referred by probation and parole, coming into or out of jails and prisons. There, “vulnerability” was the kind of thing that would get a client killed. Showing weakness, letting down one’s guard, trusting another person, seeking acceptance — the clients I worked with were socialized to avoid these experiences at all costs. Typical of a traumatized person’s experience is rigidity around reactions, protective behaviors, survival skills. “Never” and “always” have a protective function in some family, social, community environments (i.e. “never show weakness,” “always present like you’ve got it together”). Part of the healing process for many looks like my wonderful clients who were re-entering society — flexibility, openness, curiosity, grace, compassion, for one’s self and others. “I can let my guard down sometimes” replaces, at the felt, experienced level, “I will never ever let my guard down.” “I can give up control and be okay,” “I am good enough,” “I am okay as I am,” these adaptive beliefs become experienced in the context of the healing relationship (in the therapist’s office) and then practiced at home.

Being vulnerable can be difficult for a variety of reasons, of which volumes have been written. I’ll touch on them here as an invitation to introspection. What gets in the way for me? What makes vulnerability hard for me? If I could be a little more vulnerable, would it open up the door to some adaptive change?

Some common barriers to vulnerability in relationship:

  1. Fear of rejection: Sharing one’s true feelings or experiences with others can make one feel exposed and vulnerable, which can lead to a fear of being rejected or judged. Sometimes the fear is real (think of that feeling, “I have been told that I can’t show that part of me, they’d cut me off if I did that”), sometimes it is historical (“the friendship ended last time I opened up about that”), sometimes it is a mix (“some people are safe with that part of me, and some people can’t tolerate it”).
  2. Fear of being hurt: Being vulnerable requires opening oneself up to the possibility of being hurt or betrayed by others, which can be difficult for some people.
  3. Shame: Feelings of shame or inadequacy can make it difficult to be vulnerable, as it may feel like exposing one’s vulnerabilities will confirm these negative beliefs about oneself. Being worthy of inclusion is an essential human desire, and avoiding shame (or the feeling of “I am not worthy as I am”) can sometimes lead to dysfunctional or polarized internal, external experiences.
  4. Cultural and social conditioning: Society in general, and more in some communities and social systems than others, often places value on strength and self-sufficiency. This can make it difficult to be vulnerable as it may be seen as a weakness. The political economic conditioning often spill over to family relationships; some people can’t have an “off day” at work, cry when they are sad, and so on. Among those who are in these challenging professional roles, it is often very difficult to “turn it off,” to go home and be vulnerable to one’s family, loved ones, friends, etc.
  5. Lack of trust: Being vulnerable requires a level of trust in others, which can be difficult if one has experienced past betrayals or disappointments.

It’s important to recognize that being vulnerable is a courageous act that requires strength and self-awareness. While it may be uncomfortable or scary at first, it can also lead to deeper connections and a greater sense of authenticity in relationships. It can be helpful to work with a therapist or trusted friend to explore and overcome barriers to vulnerability.

Therapy can be a wonderful, beautiful, and incredibly challenging experience (because change is always hard), but what better place to practice vulnerability, to experience human-to-human connection, than in a safe, healing relationship? For those who are looking to take the next step, please reach out. We have counselors who have a diversity of lived experienced, expertise in a wide range of areas, and current openings. We’ll make the hard part (getting started) as easy as possible so that you can experience the healing that comes from safety, the safety that comes from healing, in that wonderful connectedness that happens in a healing relationship!

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