1. Vulnerability as a healthy human condition.
We are all capable of being physically, emotionally and mentally wounded. Some of the major issues with vulnerability are related to non-acceptance and avoidance, which eventually leads to “a void dance” with our suffering, disowned vulnerable shadow.
Exploring our histories of vulnerability we may experience shame and blame, and painfully need to unmask our defensive strategies. Assagioli used to talk about “the courage to be imperfect”.
Vulnerability is experienced on different levels, physically, emotionally and mentally, but most of the times it manifests as an overall painful state, often suppressed, repressed and only indirectly or even occasionally expressed through various symptoms and pathologies.
The exercise that I call “contacting our vulnerable zones” in pairs, offers the group an opportunity to open up to vulnerability through the body first and then through dialogue in a “holding” environment.
We need to allow ourselves to dare to be vulnerable in spite of the collective, individually interiorized, pressure towards perfectionism, functionality, and efficiency.
Even psychosynthesis and psychology in general, if misunderstood and awkwardly applied, may become normative and make us feel somehow inadequate: we feel we are not good enough and always need to fix something, we are not properly dis-identified or might have too many disfunctionalsub-personalities, our will is not really working and so forth.
On the other hand, a normative spirituality may also become guilt inducing, and again we may feel that there is something wrong with us.
Someone in the United States coined the term “New Age guilt”, and naturally a substitute religion isn’t any better than religion.
2. Vulnerability and the Shadow
In such a context it is understandable how our vulnerable zones are often disavowed and unconsciously tend to form our shadow. We may intend the shadow as an archetypical sub- personality, representing our dark side. Dark just because it is in the dark, out of our sight, not because is bad or perverse. The shadow may appear in dreams and fantasies through images and symbols and mostly through projection in relationships. Our areas of vulnerability often hide in the shadow, which is a precious energetic source within.
From a psychosynthesis perspective, I make a distinction between a “lower- unconscious shadow” and a “higher -unconscious shadow”. We may also speak of a positive and negative shadow, without any moral judgment, neutrally, just in terms of polarities. Even our negative traits hide a positive kernel that can be alchemically transmuted. I would define our vulnerable shadow as our unacceptable greatness.
A poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) beautifully describes this idea of the “higher unconscious shadow”:
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies—
The Heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King—
So we need to address our fear to be a Queen or a King exploring our vulnerability hidden in the shadow.
Shadow exercise: find three positive qualities you strongly admire in a person of your same sex, and three personality traits you intensely dislike again in a person of your same sex. Working in pairs you may unmask some of your projections and find the positive kernel in what you may deem your negative shadow and become aware of your “higher unconscious shadow”, your unacceptable greatness.
3. Areas of vulnerability
Relationships of all kinds, love and sexuality are among the major areas of vulnerability. Interestingly, according to Plato, in the Greek language, the words Eros and Hero are deeply connected, and the erotic and heroic dimensions may merge. Somehow in order to truly love we need the courage to be vulnerable and this is actually heroic, and also very risky sometimes.
In mythology even the most invulnerable heroes have their areas of vulnerability, just consider Achilles’ heel.
Most of us have been wounded in intimate relationships, and contacting our areas of vulnerability might be very painful. Our old wounds have been processed somehow, but may still hurt and we might consequently get into a defensive mode. But let’s remember, “ The wound you don’t feel will never heal”. “Watching the movie of the history of our sexuality” is a visualization exercise I’ve been developing over the years and might affect the participants in different ways and on different levels, no sharing about the contents is requested, though everyone is free to bring up whatever she/hefeels.
At this point the whole group, leader included, may encounter an actual living experience (Erlebnis) of strong vulnerability and the dynamic might be very intense and enriching, beyond defense and avoiding strategies and roles. It is all about energies, contents and conscious discourses are only a pre-text and a con-text.
The cradle exercise, adapted from Joanna Macy’s original model, helps the group to hold and restore a basic trust and gently close the session.
4. Vulnerability in Psychotherapy
The “wounded healer ” is a well-known Jungian archetype, and much has been said and written about it.
I’d rather speak of the “wounded healing healer”, emphasizing the ongoing healing process the therapist goes through with every person and group in the therapeutic situation, which is sometimes very challenging for all. In order to stay in this process the therapist needs to find the strength to accept her/his vulnerability.
I find very appropriate on this regard to tell the group an old Jewish Chassidic Story by Rebbe Nachman from Breslov:
Once the king’s son went mad. He thought he was a turkey. He felt compelled to sit under the table without any clothes on, pulling at bits of bread and bones like a turkey. None of the doctors could do anything to help him or cure him, and they gave up in despair. The king was very sad… Until a Wise Man came and said “I can cure him.” What did the Wise Man do? He took off all his clothes, and sat down naked under the table next to the king’s son, and also pulled at crumbs and bones. The Prince asked him, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” “And what are you doing here?” replied the Wise Man. “I am a turkey,” said the Prince. “Well I’m also a turkey,” said the Wise Man. The two of them sat there together like this for some time, until they were used to one another. Then the Wise Man gave a sign, and they threw them shirts. The Wise Man-Turkey said to the king’s son, “Do you think a turkey can’t wear a shirt? You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey.” The two of them put on shirts. After a while he gave another sign, and they threw them some trousers. Again the Wise Man said, “Do you think if you wear trousers you can’t be a turkey?” They put on the trousers. One by one they put on the rest of their clothes in the same way. Afterwards, the Wise Man gave a sign and they put down human food from the table. The Wise Man said to the Prince, “Do you think that if you eat good food you can’t be a turkey any more? You can eat this food and still be a turkey.” They ate. Then he said to him, “Do you think a turkey has to sit under the table? You can be a turkey and sit up at the table.”
This was how the Wise Man dealt with the Prince, until in the end he cured him completely.
The group contribution is essential; each participant may share her/his personal resonances with the story and cast new light on the therapeutic process and nurture her/his imagination, through personal anecdotes and new metaphors.
Then the group may share on a deeper level clinical experiences of vulnerability and possibly cocreate an ideal model of the vulnerable psychotherapist.
The vulnerability of the therapist allows her/his partner in therapy to embraceher/his own vulnerability. It is important to point out that a major obstacle to contact our vulnerability is the victim attitude that might sometimes be unwittingly fostered in psychotherapy.
The victim is somehow a modern hero, but she/he is passively bound to the past, suffers life instead of living it, and is too wounded to be vulnerable, so she/he needs to wear armor. True empathy and compassion have the power to heal the victim within and without and help her/him to dare to be vulnerable. To be truly vulnerable in all our imperfection allows us to be strong enough to open up to the future.
Let’s embrace vulnerability wholeheartedly; it is worth it.
This is a summary of a seminar from the EFPP Summer School in Sweden 2014 from Gianni Yoav Dattilo.