How much vulnerability can therapists, teachers, mentors and leaders share with us?

Mirrored tree branches on water

I appreciate when I see someone showing vulnerability a lot. It makes me feel safe and more connected with them, and even parts of them I may be finding difficult start to make sense. It also makes me to want to get to know them better. But is it good for teachers, therapists and roles of similar type to disclose their vulnerable parts? Is it helpful for us if they share their feelings? I’m no expert in answering these questions but I what to share some of my thoughts, based on my own experiences.

There was this case for example with a spiritual teacher who I had a few sessions with when I needed some guidance with my meditative practice. Even if I was finding our work together helpful, there were a few things I wasn’t happy about in the way we related. I felt distant and slightly intimidated by them. As we went on working together, these feelings and my need to share them grew. One day I found the courage to bring it up. When I finished talking I was expecting to hear what was their side of the story, but the teacher chose to focus on my experience instead, guiding me through my feelings and instructing me to find ways to breath around them. I was confused and upset. I was feeling too intimidated to challenge them and I was doubting myself about whether it was ok that I wanted them to open up. What I understood later was that we wanted different things from our interaction; the teacher wanted to teach and I wanted to relate.

I’ve been in many different kinds of therapy and in different settings but I never really understood what I could expect from therapists in terms of how open they could be. Some of them were more self-disclosing than others, some shared some feelings while others shared none of their emotional experience at all. I understand now that feelings are a complex thing and that for many different valid reasons it’s not good for therapists to be fully open. I also understand that there’s the issue of boundaries and that therapists do it in order to protect themselves, but also us from getting hurt or traumatised. I found that these understandings were a very important part of my therapeutic journey. They were mostly felt on a deeper and non-verbal level so it would be hard to put them across on here (and even if I could, it would probably take me almost 5 years, which was pretty much the amount of time I’ve been in therapy for).

I remember though this one time that I caught my main therapist – the one I was having the longest relationship with – having a reaction to something I had said. I asked them what happened and after their polite attempt to escape my question and me insisting and becoming upset, they gave in. They explained with honesty that it was something to do with their own process, which was something I very much relate to now, but I doubted back then. How could I possibly not be the reason of them having difficult feelings within the session? How could I possibly not be the centre of their universe?! Even if in retrospect their sharing was one of the most valuable things I got from our interaction, I also see that as much as a part of me wanted to think that I wanted to see them being vulnerable, another didn’t want to accept the fact that they were an imperfect human being like me.

I recently saw this again when my writing mentor posted a couple of articles that were personal and vulnerable. Even though writing vulnerable was a big part of our discussions and I was in theory prepared for it, it caught me by surprise when I noticed I became anxious. Partly this was because the shit was getting real; if they were doing it, writing vulnerable was becoming more of a one-way street for me. But I’m also wondering whether I unconsciously liked to think of them as being perfect and sorted – which meant that there was hope for me to sort my life out once and for all too.

There’s a couple of other past experiences which I think are relevant and worth mentioning here, things I experienced in a magic mushroom trip on a retreat a few months back.

When I was deep in the psychedelic experience facing pretty hardcore difficulty, I thought of some people in my life who I cared about deeply. I wanted to protect them; I wanted to remember to warn them not to ever, in any possible way go on such a trip because they weren’t ready yet and it would be too much for them. But right at that moment I saw how I myself was scared like hell. I wanted to save them from something I couldn’t admit to myself I was finding difficult to handle.

The second thing has to do with the support I got from the facilitators. We were told that they’d be there for us if we needed them during the trip – we just needed to raise our hand and ask for help. And hell I had some difficulties… When I remembered to raise my hand, one of the trip sitters came next to me and held my hand. I expected to feel less afraid and stronger, but neither happened. In the state of oneness I was in because of the effects of psilocybin, the facilitator and me became the same person. She was also afraid. She also had no idea what to do with the difficulties of life and how to cope with them. She also needed help. There was no hope for either of us and there was no one there to save us. All we could do is just sit next to each other and hold each others’ hand, knowing that we’re in this together.

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