Do you know what that word means? I’m not entirely sure I understood vulnerability until I began trauma work with my therapist when I was 27 years old. Vulnerability is when we expose ourselves, our inner-most thoughts, emotions, and feelings, opening ourselves up and putting ourselves at risk for being hurt.
Being vulnerable is frightening.
It is scary to open yourself up, and share yourself and your experiences with others. There is a fear of rejection, hate, judgment, misunderstanding, weakness, and embarrassment (to name a few). However, with the negative also comes the positive. Some of the pros to vulnerability are support, compassion, strength, creativity, empathy, love, trust, happiness, relief, and acceptance.
A year ago, when I decided to open up and be vulnerable by sharing my memories of childhood sexual abuse with a therapist for the first time, I remember shaking with fear. I remember worrying that she wouldn’t believe me or that she would be angry with me for not having disclosed the traumatic experiences when I was younger. Instead of those “worst fears” coming true, I was met with compassion and empathy and support for the most difficult moments of my life. Being vulnerable gave me the gift of relief.
Sharing about the details of my abuse for the first time was challenging. Actually, a year later, it is still sometimes difficult to be open and vulnerable with my therapist, even though I know that realistically, I do not need to be afraid of her reaction. However, I have learned that the pros outweigh the cons when I allow myself to vulnerable in therapy.
I’ve had some recent experiences regarding vulnerability and my childhood sexual abuse experiences. A few weeks ago, I told another person, my marriage counselor, some of the details surrounding my trauma memories. The purpose in telling her was really just to “practice” telling someone other than my trauma therapist. As I began telling her, I stopped; I asked her if she was going to judge me. I know this is a “silly” question. She is a therapist and it’s not likely a therapist will judge someone for the abuse that they endured. However, I still felt really compelled to ask the question. Clearly this was a fear that stood in the way of me being vulnerable with her. She quickly assured me that she would not ever judge someone who was severely sexually abused as a child. In that moment, I felt my heart rate return to normal and I was able to continue with the story.
About a week after opening up to my marriage counselor, I had a meeting one night with someone from AA to work on my 4th and 5th step. The first time I went through the steps, I did not address my traumatic experiences. This time, I knew that I would need to. The person I opened up to was aware of the work I had been doing in therapy, although she did not know specific details. As we sat down to discuss my childhood sexual abuse experiences that night, I had this overwhelming feeling that talking to her about it was not going to be ok. I tried to change the direction of the meeting by stating that I just wanted to start slow and maybe just go over some general key points of the abuse and then maybe have another meeting at a different time. Well, that was the first boundary that she didn’t respect. She pushed for details. She pushed hard. She asked an excessive amount of inappropriate questions; questions that even my therapist had never asked me before. By the end of the meeting, she was stating that I did my younger self injustice and needed to make amends to myself for not telling anyone about the abuse that I had endured, even when I became an adult. This (keeping it a secret for so long) is obviously the reason I struggle with mental health issues and loving myself. She was then quick to point out that I would need to tell my mother about my abusive childhood because, according to her, my relationship with my mother is so abnormal because I never told her about my experiences.
I left her house that night in tears, questioning if I was really at fault for all of my mental health issues. Of course, after talking to my therapist, I now know, without a doubt, I am not at fault for what happened to me, how long I kept it a secret, or my mental health issues. People talk about their trauma when they are ready. I was not ready to tell anyone about my experiences until I was older, and I think part of that is because I lacked the healthy coping skills to successfully address those memories and work through them.
When we open up and become vulnerable, we are taking a very big risk. We are laying it all out on the line and hoping for the best. In my year of trauma work, I have learned that vulnerability can set you free from the guilt, shame, pain, and anxiety you feel inside. However, I have also learned that being vulnerable doesn’t always work out the way that you expect. Not everyone responds with compassion and empathy. Accepting that, learning from the situation, and moving on is important for growth and recovery. I have decided that, for now, I no longer want to share the explicit details of my childhood sexual abuse with anyone else. I receive enough support and compassion from those who care about me without being that vulnerable. Maybe one day I will be willing to take that risk again, but not right now. For now, it is ok that those who truly love and care about me just know the general aspects of my traumatic experiences.
My advice for anyone who is put in a situation where someone opens up to you about a traumatic experience:
- Show compassion and empathy
- Be patient – don’t press for more details than are given
- Be understanding
- Know that people talk about trauma when they’re ready
- Meet their vulnerability with love, kindness, and acceptance
Recently reposted on http://bravestep.org/survivor-blog-the-v-word