Amir Levine Ph.D.
A newer clinician I supervise recently asked me, “What do you believe is the most important quality a therapist should have?” Reflexively, I answered, “Access to our vulnerability.”
In all my years of supervising clinicians and observing my own process, I have found that our ability to tap into and move from our vulnerability is the keystone of an effective and powerful therapeutic relationship and paves the path for our clients to do the same within themselves.
The clinician’s awareness of and ability to relate to their feelings of hurt, pain, fear, anger, and doubt, as well as their inner critic—all universally experienced human phenomena—is essential to sit with others and provide a safe and nurturing holding environment to help them along their unique life journey.
Note, I didn’t say clinicians should overcome or triumph over such feelings. It is the ability to know and experience the depth and difficulty inherent in working with such feelings that is necessary. It’s not uncommon for people to forget that therapists are perfectly imperfect human beings, too, making their way through life in their own right.
The Importance of Therapist Vulnerability
Clinicians who may neglect, judge, or hide from their own vulnerability may unintentionally project such mishandling tendencies into the treatment with their clients, or they may struggle with relating to their clients in an authentically present and helpful way.
In my experience, it seems that clinicians who are disconnected from their most vulnerable feelings tend to seem detached, anxious, impatient, or agitated. Therapists who are connected to their vulnerability tend to be more present, warm, engaged, and accepting. As such, clients feel more ease in developing a sense of attunement with a therapist who is connected to and attuned to their own challenging feelings.
Teaching Vulnerability to Clinical Supervisees
While there is a great emphasis on developing clinicians’ knowledge base via discussion and teaching of theories, models, and evidence-based practice, I believe it is absolutely essential that we help our clinicians in training attune to and create space for their vulnerabilities. And, as clinical supervisors, we can do this in four ways:
- First, it is important to create a culture of safety in which our supervisees are permitted to access their vulnerability in order to grow and learn. We can do this organizationally by establishing procedures and systems showing clinicians where and how to reach out for support and utilize organizational and team resources when needed. As direct clinical supervisors, we create a safe space for our supervisees through our authentic, attuned, and welcoming presence and by normalizing the challenges inherent in this work.
- Second, as clinical supervisors, we need to step out of our comfort zone and model vulnerability. I frequently self-disclose and discuss struggles I’ve experienced with certain clients that may mirror the struggles that my supervisees are presenting. By sharing with my supervisee such instances of struggling with doubt, inadequacy, fear, shame, and/or frustration, I am giving my supervisee permission to do so themselves and modeling and encouraging vulnerability as a positive attribute.
- Third, during supervision sessions, I ask supervisees to arrive prepared to discuss instances in which they are feeling stuck, triggered, or doubtful. While I want to hear and celebrate my supervisee’s success stories, I emphasize the importance of asking for support in those tough and tricky areas. Asking for support is a muscle that, if we don’t use it, may atrophy.
- And fourth, I constantly encourage and reinforce using our vulnerability as an act of courage and note the humbling nature of this work and how often as therapists we may not have all of the answers or know exactly what to do or where to go with them. Also, I always thank my supervisees for sharing their vulnerability with me and reinforce it as an act of strength, power, and health.
Not attending to our own vulnerability may not only impact our ability to be effective but may also result in burnout and compassion fatigue. Attending to our vulnerability is vital for our work. Brené Brown describes vulnerability as an act of courage that can directly enhance our ability to connect with others. For me, a true, wholehearted connection would be impossible without it.
Brown, B. (2015) Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. Gotham Books.