Human existence is vulnerable enough as it is, but this past year was different. For most people, the pressure of the pandemic brought out anxieties, coping mechanisms, and yearnings. The year’s significant shift in collective social justice consciousness, too, instigated inner reflection and change for many. Facing our pain, and our privilege, is a vulnerable and vital venture if we are to grow as individuals and as a society. Fortunately, a space exists to do all of this: therapy. In a recent study by Very Well Mind, 90% of people reported they believe seeking out mental health support is a sign of strength.
I’ve always promised my patients vulnerability is intrinsic to power. In fact, preaching the perks of personal vulnerability is one of my primary agendas as a psychotherapist. I believe our softest spots are also our strongest. I have seen, firsthand, the great transformation that can occur when someone feels safe enough to name and share their deepest hopes, shames, and fears. It is often that simple. Honesty about the hard stuff can cultivate unforeseen and robust resilience.
And still. Nobody could have emotionally prepared for the obstacles posed by this year. While 2020 may technically be behind us, many of us are still reeling from its impact.
"I lost my job," Erica*, 29, tells me. "It doesn’t get much more vulnerable than losing your livelihood." Erica was forced to move into her partner’s studio apartment; she found herself in the exact economically-depressed and dependent setup she'd worked her whole adult life to avoid. Self-effacing thoughts, restless sleep, and reduced appetite took hold; she entered therapy for the first time and began a course of anti-depressants to stabilize her mood. "It was a dark time. Literally. We didn’t have much natural sunlight, let alone literal space."
I believe our softest spots are also our strongest.
Yet, to Erica's surprise, new depth was uncovered in her relationship; she learned to lean on her partner in ways she'd never considered before. Motivated by her job loss, she began taking online classes to pursue the career shift she'd always meant to make. "I feel pretty different now," she explains. "I'd still prefer all that hadn’t happened. But I did realize I can be scrappy and adapt. And my partner is way more able and willing to be a rock in times of stress than I ever gave them credit for."
I can’t help but recall Carl Jung, who said: "find out what a person fears most and that is where they will develop next," which is basically a more poetic way of saying "the hardest things are the most worth doing." Erica discovered previously untapped parts of herself that she might never have come to know if she’d remained in her comfort zone.
Vulnerability can be a vague concept to unpack due to its very definition: The quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. Predisposed as human beings to try to survive, we are disinclined to do things that pose emotional or physical danger. Experiencing harm, after all, often induces shame, because we feel knocked down and overexposed. Many psychotherapists agree shame is one of the most difficult emotions to cope with. Michael Lewis, the author of Shame: The Exposed Self, once wrote: “The experience of the person having shame is that of a wish to hide or disappear… It is a painful state which results in the disruption of ongoing behavior, confusion in thought and an inability to speak…a shrinking of the body as though to disappear from the eye of another. The emotional state is so intense that individuals attempt to rid themselves of it."
We might argue any defense mechanism a person possesses is actually an effort to evade shame. Thus, this vulnerability business—however great the gains may be—often induces a murky mist of distressing feelings that many people prefer to bottle up and bypass. How to stop bottling up and bypassing?
Externalizing our fears. Looking at them. Feeling frightened. Remaining in the here-and-now. Tolerating the discomfort. Learning our capacity for self-soothing and survival. We can exercise these skills most effectively when we’re in a controlled environment and in the company of supportive, non-judgmental people. This can be achieved by cultivating healthy friendships—and it’s also where psychotherapy comes in.
Psychologist Brene Brown, who incited public fascination with vulnerability about ten years ago thanks to her viral TED talk and bestselling book Daring Greatly, once wrote: "Vulnerability is like being naked onstage and hoping for applause rather than laughter." In ethical, effective therapy, you are able to experience that healing applause—and never the toxic laughter. The more this feeling of acceptance is experienced in therapy, the easier it becomes to announce our authentic selves to others in the world. The idea isn’t that others will always accept us the way our therapist does. But that we are more comfortable standing in our truth regardless of the reaction.
I've been privileged to witness exponential growth in my patients anytime they’ve decided, for themselves, the time was right to come out about a long-hidden habit, belief, or feeling. In turn, I do my best to create those crucial aforementioned conditions of acceptance. Then, together, we look at whatever it was they’d externalized. The once-immense power of the previously internalized thing gradually shrinks as the patient and I stare it right in the face. Anytime these moments happen with patients, it feels like I’m watching their emotional resilience grow fast-motion, Popeye-style.
Honoring the experience of falling down is just as important as the celebration of getting back up. Doing this is a daily practice.
While we’re on the subject of Brene Brown, I should mention her work is not overrated. Brown is a great resource for anyone interested in the scientific underpinnings of vulnerability, the reasons why it is a "precursor for courage," and all kinds of tips on how to strengthen our own tenderness.
Vulnerability can help us know ourselves better and—because we all experience it—it can connect us to other people. Honoring the experience of falling down is just as important as the celebration of getting back up. Doing this is a daily practice.
As Jerry Seinfield told Chris Rock in an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: "One of the great activities is skateboarding. To learn a skateboard trick? How many times you got to get something wrong until you get it right? You hurt yourself and you learn that trick, and now you got a life lesson. Whenever I see those skateboard kids, I think, those skateboard kids will be all right."
*Erica was an anonymous interviewee, not a counseling client of mine.