Vulnerability is an inevitability in human relationships, and the therapeutic relationship is no exception. If relational depth is to be achieved in therapy, both parties must bring something of themselves to the relationship – to put trust in each other and the process – to become vulnerable.
As well as being a building block of relational depth, therapist vulnerability can also model an acceptance of feelings, and a sense that it is possible to meet one’s own needs. I remember an occasion when my therapist said to me “I felt vulnerable. But that’s okay. I like that I can be vulnerable, and I can take care of myself.”. Here was somebody sitting in front of me expressing vulnerability and I did not have to rescue or protect them – this was a big moment of learning for me and has changed the way I view vulnerability, in myself and others. It was a huge step on my journey towards acceptance of all feelings.
Recently though, I felt jarred by hearing from a tutor “I am a vulnerable practitioner; if the client doesn’t want a vulnerable practitioner, they can find another therapist.”. For me there are a few questionable things about this statement. Primarily, I do not believe there is such a thing as an invulnerable practitioner, and I think this hypothetical client would probably spend the rest of their lives searching for such a person. I believe the tutor was really referring to the means by which he expresses his vulnerability to the client. The statement in question came as part of a debate about self-disclosure, and self-disclosure is one means by which a therapist may express their vulnerability to a client. The tutor did point out that he wouldn’t self-disclose to every client and he would make a judgement in the moment, which seems to me to show a willingness to adapt to the needs of the client. I believe that if the therapist is willing to put the needs of the client first and to express their vulnerabilities in ways which do not unsettle, antagonise or trigger a vulnerable client, then the need to find the mystical invulnerable therapist should never arise.
Some therapeutic relationships may be very delicately balanced, and if copious expression of therapist vulnerability in any way threatens the safety of the relationship from the client’s perspective, I would argue such exploration is better reserved for supervision and personal therapy, at least until the client’s needs have shifted. My first question, as I consider the appropriateness of any intervention, is always: “Who does this serve?”.
But I do want to celebrate vulnerability. It is what makes us human, it is the seed from which empathy and compassion can grow. It nourishes all of our most intimate human relationships. To love vulnerability is to love ourselves – it is a part of myself I would not wish to be without.
3 thoughts on “The Vulnerable Therapist”
Great article, great thought piece. We all are vulnerable. The therapeutic skill is about being aware of our own and making choices about when it is helpful or detrimental to the client’s (and our own) wellbeing to self-disclose or not. How we deal with vulnerability can be helpful modelling. Think of the wounded healer… If in doubt, chat it through with supervisor. Very best for your studies and practice. Karin Sieger
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Thank you so much Karin. You have articulated my thoughts about self-disclosure so well. We must make considered choices taking our clients’ wellbeing, our own wellbeing and the therapeutic purpose into account. Yes, supervision is key. Thank you for your good wishes, it has been a wonderful journey so far.