Vulnerability has become a bit of a buzzword in some circles, meaning it is easy to forget the weight and the cost that come with it. Here, Doug Shirley, Assistant Professor of Counseling, reflects on the ongoing challenges of work as a therapist, the end of his first full year as core faculty at The Seattle School, and what it means to remain open to the precariousness of vulnerability.
I was grateful to pick up the April 2017 edition of Counseling Today and see an article on counselor self-doubt and vulnerability highlighted on the front cover. I was eager to turn to the assigned pages to see what honest expressions of felt insecurities might be shared from one counselor to another.
I was mildly disappointed when I arrived at the article and saw that its subtitle was “Facing the Fear of Incompetence.” Now don’t get me wrong; my gratitude persisted as I read through Kathleen Smith’s reflections on and interviews with counseling professionals about their fears of failure, or of being accused or found out as being incompetent. Teyber and McClure (2011) speak to the all-too-common hypervigilance that surrounds a counselor’s self-depicted views of (in)competence, especially in the early days of practice. It seems natural to me that someone learning a new craft will experience the anxieties and self-doubts that come with working to spread one’s wings in a new vocation. What is more, it also seems natural to me that, in a field that abides by a science that is as “soft” (insert personal, subjective, contextual, particular, intersubjective, constructivist, post-positivistic, or any other suitable descriptor) as ours, internal and external finger-pointing around credibility may invariably follow.
But what I wished for in my reading was a taste of the honest confessions I had received at a Family Systems Therapists Northwest training in early March, “The Self of the Therapist Across the Life Cycle: Who Am I Now and With Whom Do I Sit?” The speakers shared honestly of their own felt senses of vulnerability as they progressed through their respective life cycles as people and, therefore, as professionals. It was simultaneously quite lovely and rather sobering to hear a great-grandfather, who had been practicing and teaching in the field for five decades (Doug Anderson, PhD), reflect on his own experiences of cancer and how it impacts the current versions of psychotherapy he offers to and is a part of with others.
Reflecting on my own life-cycled journey, in May 2016 I rounded out a career as a student that spanned 27 years (Kindergarten included, of course) and that saw me earning three graduate degrees, including one here at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology (then Mars Hill Graduate School). Anyone who has been in school for any duration of time knows that one of the primary goals and/or purposes of schooling is not necessarily the schooling itself, but that to which the schooling points. For example, many (if not most) of our Counseling Psychology students have their eyes on the prize(s) of a license as a mental health counselor post-graduation.
As a student for all of those years, I had spent most of my life in places and academic settings wherein the goal was not for me to stay: the goal was progression to the next thing (grade, degree, job, or whatever else might come post-degree completion). But when one finishes a doctorate, doing so often signals the end of one version of a career as a student, to be replaced (hopefully) by another version of a career as a life-long learner with additional letters after one’s name.
And so it goes that I completed my doctoral studies, became core faculty in the Counseling Psychology program here at The Seattle School, and diligently worked to manage and to mitigate the experience of near drowning throughout many of the moments and months of my first full year here in my new post.
As the spring semester has wound to a close and I have come to face a summer semester wherein I will not be in the classroom for the first time in something like 15 years (yahoo!), I find myself more viscerally aware of my vulnerabilities than I’ve ever been. I work actively with my therapist to steer clear of jumping from ledges of self-judgment or from falling in line with my life-long and rhythmic impulses towards catastrophizing. I tend thoughtfully and carefully to my need(s) for love and for someone to tell me “it’s going to be OK.” I press on: I grow, I heal, and I change in the midst of courage and encouragement, and in so doing my Seattle School sea legs strengthen as I go.
I tend thoughtfully and carefully to my need(s) for love and for someone to tell me “it’s going to be OK.”
It was this felt internal sense of momentum that brought me to Smith’s article, hoping for a hands-down acknowledgement that working with people is messy business. Maybe better said: being a person in relationship(s) is messy business. It is scary, and it hurts. Things don’t always work out. People look to each other to heal wounds, solve riddles, and fix the problems that no one else has been able to heal, solve, or fix. Counselors, in particular, are looked to as pied pipers who will lead others to the proverbial promised lands of anxiety-free existence and zen-like countenance. If only that could be so.
Bollas (1987) has argued that counselors and psychotherapists enter the therapeutic frame as “transformation facilitators,” implicitly (less-than-consciously) hoping to bring about the transformation in others that has somehow eluded them for most of their own, personal lives. If we can’t fix or avoid our own pain, maybe we can fix or avoid the pain of others, and in so doing, we can see mirrored back to us a version of ourselves that is then transformed by the therapeutic process. If only that could be so.
Rather, I’d be inclined to align with Brene Brown when she proposes that the antidote to shame is vulnerability, and that there is a significant difference between being vulnerable and using vulnerability. In other words, it is the degree to which one remains tethered to their felt sense(s) and expression(s) of vulnerability that determines their efficacy in keeping the demons (or gremlins, a la Brown) of shame at bay. It is in staying actively tender in such ways that one renounces the objectification—of self and other—that can come in using appearances of vulnerability for personal gain. For, though vulnerability keeps our feet from getting encased in the perpetually near-dry cement of shame, it also costs the bearer a great deal. Vulnerability is never easy, and if one enters a moment of vulnerability with an expectation for gain, the moment will be lost and the vulnerability stymied.
It is in staying actively tender in such ways that one renounces the objectification—of self and other.
So here’s at least one punch line: As counselors and psychotherapists, it is our vulnerabilities that brought us into our work in the first place. We are then granted authority by others who come in asking for help. Client vulnerabilities meet counselor vulnerabilities: Welcome aboard! As the work then progresses, it is the very nature of the work to enter unknowns, to engage relationally, and to come face to face with that which is often avoided or minimized (maybe true for both counselor and client alike). All of this happens behind closed doors and the closed mouths of confidentiality, which adds to the mystery, if not fragility, of the work. Moreover, the work itself is precarious and therefore adds to the vulnerabilities that each constituent brings when they sign on the line of informed consent. Vulnerability (client) meets vulnerability (counselor) meets vulnerability (the work). What a recipe for disaster, however real or perceived!
Although I found resonance with a lot of what Smith highlighted about the trifecta of perceived failure, assessment of (in)competence, and self-doubt, I still wished for a voice to join me in going further to simply reflect on the precariousness of the work, and how it puts or keeps me in touch with the precariousness of being human. If vulnerability never gets easier, then neither will our work. As counselors and psychotherapists, our work will always cost us, and maybe that’s the point of it. Maybe it’s our willingness to continually ante up that matters most in the world of that which is called therapeutic. Maybe willingness trumps ability, and the mutuality of vulnerability and humanness heals most of all. And maybe, then, it’s in the space between Smith’s article and the response I was compelled to offer here wherein vulnerability meets vulnerability, and shared humanity finds a place.