Learning what Vulnerability is

It’s not easy going to a therapist.Sometimes us therapists need to really feel what that is like. Being vulnerable and doing some strange in an unfamiliar environment.

That’s a tall order and therapists really need to “get it”.

Last week I finished off the fall teaching with my students at the University of Manitoba. The students read textbooks, listened to lectures, practiced with each other, and generally, made some remarkable progress in learning to listen more effectively, and communicate that improved listening.It’s fun to watch students get excited, and not only realize how these skills will make them better therapists, but change the way they talk to their girlfriends, husbands, kids, and parents.It’s powerful stuff.

These students are in a rigorous course of study…they work hard, with many assignments, and many hours of reading and research.And so much of the learning, while important, is “head knowledge”.The end of stressful term was a good time for a little experiential learning that actually is a whole lotta fun.

We played “Bite the Bag”… (if you are looking for a fun game to play at a family gathering this Christmas, I’m letting you in on a great idea).It’s simple, and deceptively fun…and a profound experience to process.

Take a paper bag (those aren’t easy to find these days…I got mine from the local Chinese take out down the block)—and put in on the floor in the middle of the participants.There are a very few rules…each person takes a turn reaching down to grab the bag with his/her teeth and then stands up.Only the person’s feet are allowed to touch the ground…if anything else touches the ground, the person is “out”. Sounds easy.It is…at first.But when a person has bitten the bag, they rip of where their mouth touched the bag.

Picture that.

It gets shorter.

And the task gets more challenging as the bag gets shorter.

And shorter.

And shorter.

Until the final round when they attempt to pick up a piece of candy from the flat square of what used to be the bottom of the bag.

It’s a game of balance, flexibility, agility, patience, and strategy.And it’s a total HOOT!

So here these students are leaning way over, their butts high up in the air, carefully trying to balance (while many are experiencing the constraints of denim which challenges their flexibility), doing a game they have never done before while fellow budding therapists are watching them.

There’s tentative looks, silent gazing pleas to me to somehow tell them I’m not serious, or that I’ll let someone “off the hook”.

There’s the awkward pulling down of the shirts as clothing starts to ride up—the wrapping of sweaters around the waist to cover up gaps when bending over.There’s nervous giggles with frequent proclamations of “I don’t think I can do this” (immediately prior to successfully biting the bag).

There’s lots of laughter…it is fun.Their classmates are supportive, and students who are pale with the hours of study, start to color a bit with all the giggling.They tease, encourage, cajole, and toss out ideas. And eventually, even the most reluctant are quite caught up in the energy of the room—and those who predicted early failure are suddenly incredibly committed to go “all the way”.

At the end, feeling a little exhilarated, we talk about it.And they discuss what they learned:

  • It’s hard to do something you’ve never done before, and you don’t know how to do it when someone is watching you.
  • It’s not easy to be vulnerable in front of people you’re not used to being vulnerable with.
  • “Performing” something new at someone else’s command is intimidating when others are watching you to see how you do it.
  • It’s difficult to try hard at something you’ve never done before and you’re worried that you’ll fail when someone is watching.

I ask them to remember this when they see clients on their placements in the new year.

I ask them what else they’ve learned through the game and they tell me:

  • Sometimes even when a task seems scary, with support and people who understand the situation, it actually isn’t so bad.
  • When you start something off in a way that’s not too hard, and it gradually gets harder, you can actually go a lot farther and be a lot more successful than you might have originally predicted.
  • A big part of going farther than one would think is possible is having the support and encouragement of people who make it “safe” to try
  • “Risking one’s dignity” isn’t as quite as hard when the people around are supportive
  • The method of success is something each person gets to figure out for themselves…there is no “one right way”.People tried out suggested strategies and figured it out for themselves.
  • It’s actually quite satisfying to try something new and have some success.

All of these are lessons I hope these budding therapists take with them as they begin the task of working with clients.

I suspect that there are some people reading this that sense a need to talk to someone but can’t quite imagine picking up the phone, walking into the counselling office and to start talking.It’s really hard to start counselling.It takes courage. For some, it means bucking stereotypes that have been ingrained—

  • “real men don’t share vulnerably”,
  • “Therapy is for sissies”,
  • “Therapy will just blame your mother”.

It’s not hard to come up with barriers that can seem to legitimately justify not seeing a counsellor.

  1. Please know that if you go to see a qualified counsellor (do the research to make sure you’ve got a qualified one!), s/he will be aware that this is new for you, that you will likely want and need to start off tentatively to feel it out.
  2. Please know that as you become more comfortable, it is likely that you will be able to talk more freely about more things in a deeper way than you could anticipate prior.
  3. Please know that it feels good to work some things out in your own way, to develop strategies and ways of relating to others that are effective.

If you are experiencing challenges and someone has suggested counselling and you’re thinking about, “give it a go”.

Please know that your therapist will know that this is hard for you, and will honor your efforts. If you’re not convinced…print this out, and show it to them on your first visit…and tell them that you’re swallowing hard, breathing deep and taking the risk—and you need the support to do it.

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