“Do you know what it’s like? Has that ever happened to you? Have you experienced it too?” Your client sits across from you, disclosing some of their most personal experiences in a desire to connect and be seen. In a genuine effort to maintain rapport, you nod your head, agreeing with them. You think to yourself, “Yes, I can connect with just about everyone! This is such meaningful work!” But then it happens, they’ve sensed something and they begin to pull back, both physically and emotionally as they sit in your office. They are shutting down and you can feel the energy shift in the room as they begin to disengage, to retreat. What will you do?
What would it cost us as mental health professionals to be transparent and thus more vulnerable in session? Is your client seeking an expert, a confidant, a compassionate ear? Or perhaps they want someone to hold space, to witness their pain. Research tells us that the most important and meaningful indicator for progress and healing is the therapeutic relationship, that the best fit relationship catalyzes positive change. We as mental health professionals desire to help others, to support them in their journey to self-awareness and growth, yet there are times we will witness their story and wonder if what we provide is enough. Our ability to be human and connect can help.
Back to our scenario. You sense your client is pulling away, disengaging in an attempt to protect themselves. Can you name that in the room, support them in acknowledging what is happening for them in an effort at self-awareness and retained connection? Can you ask them to help you understand what just happened for them in their experience? The client responds by saying, “I just feel like I can’t trust you, that you are judging me.” So, you respond by acknowledging how important trust is and how you want to understand where they are coming from. They share more information, disclosing how they need you to hold space for their processing and truly connect with them. You agree to the importance of connection and ask for feedback on how you can support them in building trust for the work you will do together. You offer a genuine apology for any misunderstanding and resulting hurt. Your client visibly relaxes, feeling seen and heard by you in this moment of vulnerability. You continue the positive momentum, supporting them in exploring other times they’ve felt this way in their community and bear witness to their experience.
Asking a therapist to be vulnerable with a client in session can be intimidating and anxiety provoking. Depending on our own background, experiences, and training, we may feel uncomfortable connecting in this way. There are therapy modalities that deter us from showing emotion or advise against self-disclosure. Yet when you ask therapists in the field about how they use emotion or self-disclosure to connect and support their clients, there are those of us who can recall vulnerability leading to some of the most powerful and meaningful work of our career. As Brene Brown states in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Become Vulnerable Changes How We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” Our vulneratbility and truth can show up in the room with our clients in the following ways:
- Admitting we can’t fully understand their experience as they know it but want to know more what it was like for them.
- Admitting we don’t understand slang or other word choice and can they educate us so we can best support them.
- Acknowledging their pain and the tears that show up in our eyes as we witness it.
- Apologizing when we misunderstand or unintentionally offend.
- Accepting responsibility for our actions and showing their concerns are heard and can be addressed in our work together.
- Self-disclosing with the purpose of connecting to their pain, providing validation or humanity, and not for our own gain.
- Rescheduling due to illness and letting them know we want to give them our best.
- Recognizing our own triggers and how they show up in the room.
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” Brene Brown in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Become Vulnerable Changes How We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Transparency and vulnerability interact in developing a human connection. The art of showing up and staying connected can be further defined as the concept of holding space, written in detail by Heather Plett. Heather writes, “holding space means we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.” As therapists, let us support transparency, vulnerability, and holding space to best serve our clients in being their own agents of change, thus engaging in a process of healing we are fortunate to witness.
For more information on vulnerability, visit brenebrown.com. For more information on holding space, please visit heatherplett.com.