Last week, I saw a client for the first time, and she had a profound experience on the table. Afterwards, she asked me what she could expect to get out of this work, and I answered as best I could. In the moment, though, I was thinking: how could she not see?
That client hasn’t yet been back, and I’ve wondered why. But it may have to do with something another client said to me recently.
He had rescheduled his session and told me that he had a lot of busy-ness coming up and would have to get back to me. It sounded stressful, and so I wrote, as I tend to, “Be gentle with yourself.”
To which he responded, “Be gentle with myself? Seriously?”
My mentor, Joan Brooks, gave me a great insight the other day – or rather, reminded me of something I’d known, but that wasn’t at the front of my mind. I’ve experienced it powerfully myself, especially during the training, when everyone was being all touchy-feely, and my first response was to be incredibly suspicious.
And it’s this: the powerful connection between vulnerability and shame.
If you have a chance, do click either or both of those links and listen to the magnificent Brené Brown talk about these topics. She is astonishing, and the work she is doing is clearly hitting home in a big way for a lot of people, judging by the more than 8 million views.
In brief, though: most people equate vulnerability with weakness when they see it in themselves. Odd, though, as Brown points out: most people see it as courage when others show vulnerability.
So what is that all about? Well, a great many of us are socialized to feel shame when we feel vulnerable. Having feelings – or rather, showing them – is a weakness. Taking emotional risks, being uncertain, being open to others – all of these are seen as shameful. It’s not really our parents’ fault: it’s the world they grew up in, too. Don’t do that, you’ll get hurt. Play it safe. Keep your head down. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself, and so on. What happened to you the first time you opened your heart to a lover? The first time you got up to speak in front of people, or asked someone on a date? The first time you did an experiment, made a piece of art, tried a new sport, wrote a story and shared it? What happens to you at that moment of emotional risk can be its own brilliant reward…or it can be a profound opportunity for shame.
And when people are reminded of that shame, even if the vulnerability and openness feels good in the moment – they tend to close down afterward. It’s the rubber band effect, as Joan says: they’ve stretched, and now it’s uncomfortable.
I know this feeling well. I grew up learning how to be silent, and eventually, how to be hard. As with most sensitive people, I had a crunchy exterior that concealed a squishy candy center, as it were. But it took many years for me not just to be able to take some of those defenses down, but to see my sensitivity as a strength. Later in the training, as I’ve written elsewhere, “it occurred to me, with a painful shock: somehow I had been taught to fear genuine kindness, to be suspicious of sentiment, to believe that if it wasn’t genuine poetry, it wasn’t genuine feeling. When, I wondered, did I become so infected with irony that I couldn’t receive uncomplicated love?”
Be gentle with myself? Seriously?
I’m still working on this, and it behooves me to remember that others are, too. If this resonates – or doesn’t – I welcome your comments as usual.