We Build Vulnerability With Certain Safe People
In my NYC therapy practice, I find that so often vulnerability is talked about in the abstract, as a thing people are good at, not good at or could get better at. But with whom? We build vulnerability with particular people. There are a few essential conditions for that to happen with a given person. One of them is that person is safe and we go through a process of discovering that person is safe in direct proportion to how vulnerable we allow ourselves to be. In other words, if we get the sense that someone is a bit safe, we allow ourselves to be a little bit vulnerable.
The Work Of Vulnerability Is Dialectical: Learning Trust And Distrust Simultaneously
A whole lot of people come to therapy in the aftermath of having allowed themselves to be vulnerable with the worst kind of person. They’ve had their butt kicked, their heart broken, beat up or ripped up by someone they were vulnerable with who they should never have been.
The work of vulnerability is dialectical. You have to learn how to distrust and trust simultaneously. You can become better skilled at discerning who is safe and who isn’t, and as you get better at shutting off vulnerability, you can feel more confident turning it on.
How Can You Learn Who Is Safe To Trust And Be Vulnerable With?
There are a few key points that are important when learning who is safe to be vulnerable around. First, we need to learn more about blind spots. Often we’re too tolerant of certain kinds of people. The smoke alarm is unplugged so to speak, but in a particular kind of way–the mechanism that detects smoke is working, but there’s no power to the alarm function. There are usually parallels to past experiences that form the sort of DNA of unsafety, meaning certain unsafe people or circumstances that needed to be adapted to. If someone is unsafe, but you’re stuck (as is often the case with kids), you detach from the unsafety and deny it. This can affect how you discern safety or unsafety.
On a related note, some people need to learn to show some teeth. Many people I work with in this area tend to inadvertently say things that convey weakness such as apologizing a lot. Some folks have a fear of confrontation–walking out of a scary date, telling a creep to fuck off or even, telling a friend that they’re tired of always meeting up in his or her neighborhood. Often we work on this by helping them express their wants, needs and frustrations with the therapist, meaning speaking up about the things the therapist does that are frustrating. Of course, any safe therapist is going to do pretty safe things, but therapy is a relationship and like any, things come up that are disappointing. We help people learn to talk about these things and get angry.
We Learn Trust And Vulnerability Through The Relationship With Our Parents
It’s important to note that we learn trust and vulnerability in our relationship with a healthy parent or parents as children. You learn what safe feels like. You learn how to speak up and negotiate when something isn’t safe. And you see safe responses from people who are open to being challenged, are responsive and welcoming of feedback, and can tolerate hearing when they’ve hurt you (which helps bring clarity when someone isn’t responding that way and is irritated when you set a limit or push back)
Sometimes, though, there’s something missing in these parental relationships. Maybe a parent has his or her own struggles that makes it hard for them to give us all we need in our relationship with them. In other cases, things happen later on to disrupt our trust. Both the successes and failures in vulnerability happen in the context of these relationships.
Vulnerability Is Relational And We Build It In The Therapeutic Relationship
Vulnerability is a relational phenomenon–you can’t get better at being vulnerable without getting better at being vulnerable with particular people. This can be especially tough if someone has been wronged by an otherwise safe or would-be and should-be safe person. In our NYC therapy practice, we help patients build vulnerability in the context of our therapeutic relationship. We build safety very slowly, starting with unsafety. While I know myself to be safe, the patient doesn’t know that yet. We have to get there step-by-step.
In this sense, therapy is a sort of testing lab for vulnerability. In learning some things with the therapist, you can then do them elsewhere.