I cannot remember now where I read or heard it, but a certain adage has always stayed in my mind and impressed me: to be intimate is to be vulnerable. The intimacy of the psychotherapy relationship comes about from the experience of vulnerability. In therapy, one comes to experience that softer, more open side of oneself.
Often people come into therapy because this experience is missing and has been missing for some time. Such clients often have a history where as children they had to in fundamental ways care for themselves. And in learning to take care of themselves, to figure out how to protect themselves. Such a situation can come from severe abuse and neglect. But also in less traumatic situations, given the dynamics of family life, of siblings vying for what sometimes seems like limited supplies, or parents overwhelmed and exhausted by responsibilities, a child may be left to his or her own. That child has to figure out how to proceed in life.
It is not uncommon for people to have learned that sharing their intimate feelings, thoughts, opinions, leads to negative consequences. As one client put it, “nothing good comes from that.” In situations where those feelings were not welcomed, a person can feel rejection, criticism, or ridicule. And a person may feel that revealing these feelings only empowers the other person. That to hide such feelings makes one stronger.
When I am working with an adult client, we often talk about such histories. And we often see this harder persona that the person has developed as protection. In the course of our work together, it is not uncommon for such a client to soften and experience his or her vulnerability here with me.
It is only by truly opening our hearts, expressing our feelings, including those gentle and vulnerable ones, that we most connect to another person. True intimacy requires vulnerability. And this experience is not fundamental to the therapeutic relationship. Often a client will report that he or she has taken his or her vulnerable self out into the world, into interactions with family members, loved ones, friends. When this happens, the intimate work of psychotherapy is happening.