• Lisa Paer, LMFT, LPCC

Vulnerability: My Own Story

True story: I never sought therapy until I went to graduate school to become a therapist.


Not because I didn’t want to (I so desperately did), but because years of ingrained shame and self-doubt kept me from reaching out and getting the support I needed.


Throughout my life, there were a lot of things I was struggling with and wanted to improve upon, but it was all so hard to put into words. Let alone say those words out loud! I came from a family where we never talked about our problems, let alone our feelings. Just the thought of admitting I wanted support was shame-inducing. It didn’t help that I was an easy crier, which I had also been shamed for all my life (imagine being someone who feels their feelings super deeply, in a family environment where crying was annoying and very discouraged - oh, wait, this actually happens a lot. This might even be you!). So crying easily + shame for needing help = avoiding the very thing I knew would be beneficial for me.


So, how did I end up here, as a therapist?!


I figured out a creative way around this inability (actually, a self-imposed barrier) to seek help: become the helper! Even before becoming a psychotherapist, all of my jobs were in the helping profession. I loved working with people and helping them become better versions of themselves. I decided that I wanted to learn to go even deeper, and that’s when I decided to go to graduate school to study to become a therapist.


What a shock that was, grad school. The first day, we had to sit in a circle and “share” with the rest of the group of about 30 aspiring psychotherapists what brought us to the field and an area of growth we’d like to see in ourselves. This felt SO THREATENING to me; I’d never been challenged (or, had the opportunity) to self-disclose much of anything negative about myself. I was at about a 10/10 on the anxiety chart, and was even MORE nervous that I’d start crying in front of everyone once I began speaking.


Oh, the shame…


I didn’t cry. I came up with things to share with the group that passed as things I wanted to work on but were actually things that were “safe” for me to say out loud. (This is how, a long time ago, I had figured out how to get through emotional situations: find something that seems vulnerable but really isn't.) I knew I was in for it, though, considering that my very first day we already had a bit of a group therapy experience, and I was going to have 2.5 more years of this! Omg…


In my counseling skills class, we would learn counseling techniques and then practice them in groups of 3. The groups were the same for the entire semester so that we could really get to know each other and continue working on our therapeutic skills without having to build a new relationship each time. In each practicum experience, we’d take turns being client, therapist, and observer, and the professor would be in a "headquarters" where she had access to live audio and video feeds of each of the private counseling rooms. No pressure, right?!


I had stoically made it through about 2 or 3 sessions of me being “client,” finding safe things to talk about and successfully avoiding crying. There were a lot of awkward pauses because I was disclosing very little; in my mind, I was being difficult in order to protect myself. My poor colleagues had no idea I had so many defenses up, but my professor saw right through it. She must have been tuning into our session, because she eventually came into our room and took over as the therapist. She simply pointed out what she was observing in me, and I just lost it. The tears came and wouldn’t stop. My colleagues were speechless; one of them just sat there with their jaw dropped!


“That’s it. I’m done for. I’ve shown weakness and now they’ll judge and reject me,” is what I told myself was certain to happen. But you know what? It was just the opposite. My professor and my two colleagues ACCEPTED ME FULLY, tears, snot, and all.


WHAT?!


I couldn’t wrap my head around this; they must be faking it, right? My entire life, I had operated with this notion that I had to be “strong,” that vulnerability equaled weakness and that if I was “weak” I would be less than…it was something I believed so deep down to my core that I just operated with this belief without questioning from where it came and how it came to be. I held in so much throughout my life so as not to inconvenience or disturb others. This experience completely challenged that worldview.


My colleagues further validated and praised me for showing my emotions. They were so grateful that I was willing to be myself and not just show the parts of me that I had deemed to be okay. They told me that they had thought I was a robot – yes, they really said that! – due to my being so unemotional throughout our all of our practice counseling sessions. For them, we hit a turning point. How awesome that Lisa broke through her wall she’s had up all her life! Woohoo!

For me, well, inside I was so incredibly angry at myself. How could I not hold it together? “You have to keep it in, you have to be strong, you can’t be weak, if you’re weak they’ll think you’re worthless.”


Cue ensuing shame.


Hmm, I'm noticing a pattern...


I sure went through it in that graduate program! To this day, it was, by far, the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. While I entered the program expecting to learn skills to help others, and I definitely did do that, I really learned a lot more about myself. I learned about my faulty core beliefs and beliefs about the way the world works, and how allowing yourself to be vulnerable, while seemingly risky, really allows for deeper connections. And that’s what life is all about, in my opinion: connecting with others and developing and cultivating meaningful relationships.


I realized that a lot of aspects of my life, relationships included, were superficial. I challenged myself to practice humility and relate to others in a way I had never been able to do before. My life feels so much more fulfilling now. And it’s all because I showed up, did the work (even if I didn’t want to), and took the chance of being seen as myself, the true me, someone who I didn’t even really know because I was all about logic and reason and achievements. Now, while I’m still about those things to some degree, I much more greatly understand the value of being vulnerable, asking for help, and allowing myself to experience the full range of emotions. These allow for deeper, more meaningful connections with others, along with being self-aware and kindly and lovingly responding to what I need. It’s still a struggle at times, but it’s getting easier.


The key is to practice. Practice self-compassion, self-love, and forgiveness. There’s no use ruminating over and over about things that could have gone differently, “had I just done x, y, z…” Instead, I try to take the lesson from the experience in order to do even better next time.


One of my favorite quotes: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou


I know now that I truly was doing the best that I could when I’d restrict my emotions and only discuss “safe” topics. I had learned during my formative years that anything different would cause irritation and rejection by those I needed to be close to. So why wouldn’t I run away from my feelings and wish they didn’t exist? They had only gotten me into trouble in the past.


Having new experiences, corrective experiences, where you’re accepted for ALL OF YOU and not just some of you (i.e., conditional vs unconditional regard) can do a number on your self-esteem and outlook on life. Trust me, I know. I’ve been through it. And I’m still going through it. It’s a lifelong journey and I’m along for the ride!


Oh, and I still cry. I just have a lot less shame around it.

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