Part 1 Vulnerability

Coming to psychotherapy for the first time, or connecting with a new therapist, can feel vulnerable and risky for lots of reasons.

The risk is not just that our vulnerability will be exposed but, at the deepest level, there can be fear that our vulnerability may not be met with acceptance, understanding, kindness and welcome. It can feel dangerous to want, and to try and get, connection while feeling vulnerable and exposed.

When we meet some kind of adversity or challenge in our lives which leaves us feeling vulnerable, it is natural to turn to others for support and care - the hope is that there will be people in our lives who can provide the connection, the acceptance and kindness we need.

When the pain is deep, or complex, or the people in our lives are part of our pain, the need to ‘talk to someone’ may arise. It is often noted in research that the relationship between therapist and client is a core part of healing and this is because of the need to feel safe enough with your therapist, to trust them enough to ‘meet’ you as you risk sharing your vulnerability in the relationship.

When small children experience distress, the presence of, and their connection to, a safe care-giver, usually a parent, allows them to settle, to receive what they need to feel safe, to regulate their nervous systems and move back to exploring, playing and creating.

Depending on our early caregivers’ attunement to us, and their capacity to be there for us, we will hopefully receive enough of what we need to allow us to feel secure. When this doesn’t happen, we develop ways of surviving in relationships (and this is a matter of survival for an infant or small child) that endure beyond our early years and that can affect our wellbeing in later years.

So our earliest experiences of relationship are foundational to our understanding of ourselves and others and to the way we are in relationships.

Brené Brown, in her powerful TED talks about vulnerability and shame, speaks of her resistance to opening up to her vulnerability. When she decides to explore her vulnerability in therapy, she begins by telling her therapist: “no family stuff, no childhood shit, I just need some strategies’.

The need to feel safe doesn’t go away just because we become adults. Though our earliest experiences are so powerful and enduring, neuroscience discoveries are confirming and adding to our knowledge that change is possible throughout life by finding and creating relationships in which we feel safe and supported to grow and develop.

As well as our neurobiological need for connection to others, there are other aspects of relating that often appear in the therapy space. Inseparable from our relationship to others is our relationship to ourselves and this will be explored more in Part 2 of this article.

And relationships also include how we relate to wider society, to our physical environment (where we live, our homes, nature) and to our belief systems, including spiritual and cultural beliefs. These relationships may be in the background and out of our awareness until we meet something that unsettles us, makes us feel vulnerable.



Lindsay Mitchell