A Deeper Dive: How Vulnerable Can a Therapist Be?

For as long as I can remember, “Peeling off the layers to reveal the real” has been my credo. In a dream, the words “Bare Boldly,” echoed through my sleeping but ever so active brain.” When messages come through that insistently, they can’t be ignored. My inner and outer work as a hybrid therapist-journalist prepare me to take this on every day. When that happens, I question if I am too self-revealing.

Last year, I penned an article for Psych Central called When A Therapist and Journalist Comes Clean About Her Self Doubt. It takes a confessional tone as I admit that the way I present isn’t always an accurate portrayal of what is going on beneath the surface. With a façade of confidence at stake, I have often acted “as if” and convinced myself that I had what it took to handle any situation, whether on my own or with the support of colleagues. I know enough to know what I don’t know and when to reach out for peer or administrative supervision. So far, so good, after four decades as a therapist in various practice settings.

When it seems appropriate, I do inform my clients about my twin addictions of co-dependence and workaholism. I share with them that my training as a bereavement counselor is both professional and personal, since I was widowed at 40, and became an “adult orphan” in 2010 when my mom died two years after my dad passed. I never tell anyone “I know how you feel,” but do say that I can only imagine what their losses feel like to them and I’m here to walk them through the experience. Some are also aware of my health crises, that include shingles, heart attack, kidney stones, pneumonia and adrenal fatigue. This I use as a teaching tool about the necessity for good self-care. 

I am not alone in my self-disclosure. A few years ago, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) pioneer Marsha Linehan came out as someone diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. She recognized herself in her patients and divulged that in her adolescence, she had spent time in inpatient psychiatric programs. Her fragility became her strength and resilience and she passed that gift on to countless patients. I imagine that she was trepidatious throughout her career as she contemplated divulging her truth. I also am convinced that once they knew, some of them at least, felt a deeper connection and perhaps took her off a pedestal. I have no desire to be ensconced on one either, since I believe that pedestals are for statues and it is easy to get knocked off if you don’t meet someone’s expectations.  

To be perfectly clear, BPD is not a diagnosis I carry. I do admit to being “functionally manic” at times with likely undiagnosed ADHD. I am easily distracted and am grateful for my swivel chair in my office and the squeezy brain stress ball that sits on my desk, both of which help me expel excessive energy and bring me back to present moment awareness. I need to remind myself to be in the here and now when writing, in particular. 

I had another revelation that ties directly into my tendency to engage in “savior behavior.” A dear friend needs a kidney transplant. Yesterday, an educational event was held that brought together at least 150 people to hear a presentation from an organ donor educator and to invite people to be tested as a potential living donor match for her. She is already on the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) list, but a kidney from a deceased donor could take years or may never be available. She is on daily peritoneal dialysis which is temporarily keeping her afloat; a stop gap measure at best. When she tapped me to be on Team Janet, as I refer to it, I gladly said yes and then fear kicked in as I foolishly and erroneously believed that I was responsible for being sure she received a kidney. No one told me that, it was my own doing. Fortunately, that delusion was fleeting as I realized the only thing I was expected to do was help fill the seats. That, I was able to do, with my social media and PR superpowers. I was not alone, as her sister and a few friends were also on board with spreading the word. My thought was that if I couldn’t donate a kidney because of my own health issues, the least I could do was spread the word.

Yet another opportunity to be emotionally naked and vulnerable arose with the publication of an article on the Huffington Post website, called At 61, I Am Coming To Terms With The Possibility That I Will Always Be Single. In it, I speak about my sometimes-dysfunctional marriage, my caregiving role for my husband with his illness that led to his eventual death while awaiting a liver transplant, and the aftermath 21 years later. When it first came out, I wondered if I was being too open about my desires and my embarrassment about my work being all about relationships when I was not in one. I questioned how I would address it should any of my clients happen upon it. Would they be less likely to trust my relationship guidance since I am taking a deep dive into ambivalence? Then it occurred to me that priests and nuns do couples counseling and they are not married to human beings, but rather, to the Divine. It doesn’t invalidate their wisdom, so why should it, mine?

What I discovered, with surprise, delight and a degree of awe, was that numerous people could relate to my story, as validated by emails, Facebook messages, texts and in-person feedback from others who feel as I do. Some love being single, some would prefer it over coupledom, some crave partnership, some fear it, some would rather not even be bothered contemplating it. I am gratified that my act of courage, sparked theirs as they reached out to me in mutual support.

The queen of authenticity and vulnerability, Brene Brown offers her wisdom on the subject, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

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