Symbol Heartby Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

Recently, I embarked on a new adventure to strengthen marriages in my church.  I was driven by three thoughts:  I want to serve my community in the best way that I know how with my skills and talents as a marriage therapist; I want to dispel the current belief that marriage is no longer relevant to our culture; and I want to bring people together  and build what I crave in my world – connection.   I want a place to share honestly and authentically the trials and tribulations of being a faith-based couple  raising a family.  When people can risk vulnerability in a safe environment, they become transformed. I want that!

The hard part is where to find a safe environment?  (Besides a therapist’s office!) The definition of vulnerability is “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or open to attack or damage”.  Yikes!  The journey to be authentic with others is like getting pricked by a thorn as you pick a beautiful rose.  The thorn can appear as the red flush of shame, a thought of unworthiness, or the discomfort of a childhood wound getting ripped open again.  Sometimes it can be all three…

My first task in the church was to facilitate a ‘”vision session” with couples.  It was a fun evening with food, wine, ice breakers, and entertaining exercises designed to promote connection, vulnerability and the birth of new ideas to support marriages.  I was on top of my professional game and the energy in the room was palatable.  I  hit a “nerve” in the church members.  They were all longing for this greater connection too. There was only one problem.  As the facilitator, I was an observer of the intimacy that engulfed  the room rather than a participant.  It reminded me of growing up in my navy family, moving every two years and feeling like the outsider, excluded.  Ouch!

When people provide their core gifts and talents to our world, they are confronted by their old wounds which can leave  a feeling of vulnerability.  What was my  wound still communicating to me?  ” You have to earn the right to be accepted.”  That manifested in different ways as a child in the different places we lived – smart, funny, troublemaker,  good girl.  I adapted as necessary.  Unworthiness says, “There are conditions for my  acceptance of you.  You have to be a certain way.  Therefore, how you are is not good enough.”

This vulnerable feeling grew inside me as I continued to facilitate.  I waltzed from table to table attempting to connect,  both  as the “all knowing” facilitator and the “new girl” fending off loneliness.  At the end of the three hour session, the bonded couples did not want to leave. They demanded to secure a calendar date to come together again. They chose a date when I would be out of town.  I shared, “I won’t be available on that date.”  A woman hollered out, “We don’t need you!”  Others rushed to my emotional rescue. They picked a new date, but it was too late.  My heart was bleeding all over the floor and I quickly disappeared.  Although as a professional, I could not physically leave, I left emotionally and mentally for a few moments as I attempted to put my pieces back together.  “Retreat!  I will not let you harm me!” I screamed through my skin as anxiety swallowed me up.

A midst the shame, unworthiness, and scattered pieces of my heart, I put myself back together again.  I have learned that emotional pain presents us with opportunity.  I want to continue to risk and grow, and you can too!  Begin by asking yourself these questions:

1. What was the internal and external setting?  I was tired and drained from the stress and energy that it takes to facilitate for 3 hours   Everyone else was having fun and I was “working”.  I was craving for myself what I  observed others get, connection.  I met most of the people for the first time which is always more anxiety provoking for me.

2.  What was the antecedent?  (the trigger that came before)  The experience  of being excluded as the particpants at each table experienced greater inclusion with one another.  This left me vulnerable to attack.

3.  What was the behavior?  The woman hollering, “We don’t need you!”

4.  What was the consequence?  The initial consequence was  feelings of shame, non-acceptance and  retreat.

What are the take-aways from this experience?

  • We are all susceptible to vulnerability
  • We need to self protect our vulnerable wounds with healthy boundaries, rather than avoid being vulnerable.
  • Using the above behavioral formula, we can gain self awareness and take responsibility for taking care of ourselves.
  • Vulnerability provides us with great opportunity to grow, heal, change and connect with others.
  • If you resist and fear vulnerability in your relationship with others, we could conclude that you equally struggle with self protection.  Boundaries do not keep people out, but invite them in with less risk of further wounding.  They are porous and flexible.
  • To invite people into our “inner world”, it helps to know where the wounds are – what hurts, what feels good, what do we deserve, not deserve, what we like and what we don’t like?
  • You see, the safe environment is created within each one of us, through deep decisions that we make about our lives.

Although I do know that meeting new people can bring out greater feelings of vulnerability for me, I mistakenly assumed that I would not need my “psychic armor” at a church gathering!  Wrong!

On a sunny day, you might don a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen to enjoy the sun, but avoid a burn, boundaries help us to risk getting close to people without being damaged.  The moon is a hazardous environment, yet with a space suit, an astronaut can walk all around this hazardous environment and be protected.  I neglected to bring my space suit to this session!

What settings or situations make you feel more vulnerable?  In your marriage?  In your friendships?  At your job?  How do you respond to vulnerability?  Is it stopping you from living up to your full potential and loving with your whole heart?  Join with me to embrace our “soft white underbellies”, our imperfect, human selves and shared human conditions.  Rejoice in our vulnerability!




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