I love when something happens in therapy and I gain a new perspective or new insight. I’m fortunate that I often get to do co-therapy with some great therapists. Right now I’m happy to be seeing some clients with my former supervisor. She is someone that I admire both as a person and as an amazing therapist. The other day she reminded me why I think she is. She gave me a new perspective on a situation that I’ve dealt with many times in session.
Vulnerability is a theme that often runs through my posts. I like to talk about how important it is for connection. I don’t believe true connection is possible without vulnerability. What I so frequently see is people that have trouble connecting because they fear being vulnerable. That fear is often a fear of being rejected or hurt. People feel if they are vulnerable and authentic that others may not like them. They fear having their real selves rejected instead of some facade. When it is just a facade that is rejected it is possible to say, “Well, they didn’t reject the real me.”
In hindsight I realize I had developed a default assumption. When I saw someone fearful of being vulnerable I assumed it was fear of rejection. But that isn’t the only reason that people may fear vulnerability.
My co-therapist and I were working with a couple. One of the core issues was a lack of emotional intimacy which the wife expressed as the husband not being willing to open up. He expressed, directly and indirectly, a fear of opening up, of sharing. I admit I went to my default assumption. I talked about vulnerability and its importance. And I talked about the fear of being rejected and how there is so much evidence that his wife is not going to reject him. All good stuff…it just turns out that it wasn’t really on point.
When I was done my co-therapist added something else…something simple. She told him that he also didn’t need to fear being emotionally consumed by his wife. Not only is she not interested it taking away his emotional space, but he had the ability to prevent her from doing that. Consumed? Yes, consumed. If you read my posts you may have seen one on sharing versus dumping. Dumpers are those people that aren’t really looking to share their emotions, their problems….they want to just dump them on you. They want to make them your emotions, your problems. Dumpers aren’t about making deeper connections. They are about trying to get someone to carry the burden of difficult issues.
That was exactly the situation here. The husband had been raised with a parent that was a dumper. He was taught that if he opened himself up that his parent would dump on him….they would make his life their life. He would be consumed by their problems, their issues, their emotions and there would be no emotional space for him to be himself. That was the basis of his fear of vulnerability.
There are multiple reasons to fear vulnerability. Many of the are reasonable fears. But there is one incredibly important reason to be vulnerable – connection. Deep, meaningful connection. And if you fear being consumed, know this – not everyone wants to consume you. There are people that want to have deep connections without hijacking your life. More importantly, you have the strength to not be consumed. You can set boundaries and limits to take care of yourself.
Boundaries are not an all or nothing situation. Boundaries should be flexible. You can set boundaries at different places depending on how important the issues is. For more meaningful issues you may be more protective. With less important issues you may be less so. It can also vary by person. The more you trust a person, the less protective you may choose to be.
Boundaries are not static. Just because you set them once does not mean they have to stay there. As you learn new things…about yourself or about others…you can adjust your boundaries. As your trust of one person grows you may be less protective with that person. Likewise, if they do something to test your trust then you may want to pull back a bit.
Boundaries should evolve. That is how relationships deepen. Changing boundaries, being more vulnerable and creating deeper connections are are inextricably linked. Fortunately the tools to manage that process exist. All it takes is putting them into practice.