The Paradox of Shame and Vulnerability in Counseling

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So you’ve been thinking about going to counseling, but you’re afraid. You know that you might have to talk about the things you’ve kept hidden, those areas of shame, and willingly expose your vulnerability. I have a decoration with these words displayed in my office: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Those who are familiar with the Bible may recognize them as being from 2 Corinthians 12, but I believe these words may speak to anyone, especially in the counseling room. And I put them in my counseling office for a very specific reason.

When I Am Weak

 In counseling, you are asked to embrace what feels like and may even be labeled as weakness. Being open about the dark parts of you, what you’ve done or what’s been done to you, can be hard. And feeling the emotions that go along with these things can feel shameful or even painful, culturally speaking. This is particularly true for men, as cultural expectations dictate that they be “strong” and never show emotion or “weakness.” This is the “men don’t cry” mentality of hyper masculinity. But women have different expectations with a similar result: they are asked to be effortlessly perfect. And when men and women inevitably fall short of these expectations, the result is shame. Brene Brown explains how shame effects men and women in different ways much more eloquently and in greater length in her Ted Talk here .

If perfection and stoicism equals strength, then imperfection and emotion equals weakness; or so our culture says. However, the premise of counseling flies in the face of culture in this way. As a counselor, I am privileged to witness firsthand the power and strength of giving voice to shame. This is called vulnerability, which is likely a word that strikes fear into your heart. Vulnerability, like “weakness,” is not seen as a positive. We feel the need to spare others our pain, to not be a burden, and to never open ourselves up for someone else to hurt us. These are the images that come to mind with the word vulnerability: pain, rejection, and loss of control. To open ourselves to another is to give them the option of rejecting us or using that against us. Again, Brene Brown is helpful here too as she discusses vulnerability in another of her Ted Talks.

Then I Am Strong

Ironically, the only way to rid ourselves of shame is to willingly submit to the “shame” of vulnerability. Our uncontrollable emotions and imperfections, which feel like weakness, will only lose their grip on our lives when we admit that such weakness exists. It feels counterintuitive, and that’s why shame can gain so much control of us, because we are terrified to take the step towards vulnerability.

Once you begin considering the idea of embracing vulnerability, the question becomes: who in my life is safe to be vulnerable with? Even your best friend, spouse, or close parent may feel unsafe at first, because vulnerability itself feels unsafe. But what if you could talk to a complete stranger? Trained to listen well, to be objective, and to provide empathy and support, and one you can absolutely trust to not share anything you say to them with anyone else? That’s counseling! That is the exact role that I love serving for my clients; the role I spent years training to be well equipped. I welcome your vulnerability, and even ask for it. You don’t have to worry about being a burden or being rejected. You are free to be totally and completely yourself, without any judgment or expectations.

Now What?

In the counseling room, or with a trusted friend if that feels possible, your weakness becomes strength. I see people sharing their heart, their shame, and their pain, and I see such an unbelievable amount of courage and strength. It is not easy to be vulnerable, or else we would do it all the time! It doesn’t feel natural either. But like re-breaking and setting a bone so that it heals correctly, sometimes we must willing submit ourselves to a degree of pain, or at least uncomfortableness, in order to really, truly heal. And my hope is always that by giving you a place of safety where you are able to test out and learn the skill of vulnerability, you will slowly feel able to let a friend (or two!) or a family member into your inner world as well. They will likely be in your life for longer than me, and I am all about long-term solutions and working towards the goal of no longer needing to come to counseling, whether it takes weeks, months, or years.

Laura Lanier, LPC Intern under supervision by Christy Graham, LPC S

If you feel ready to take the leap of vulnerability, I would love nothing more than to be there to walk with you through that journey. You can contact me at 940-222-8703 x705 or [email protected], or schedule an appointment online. I can’t wait to hear from you!

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