Vulnera-phobia in Therapists (And How to Resolve It)

Vulnera-phobia is a term we use at Nysa Therapy that means exactly what it sounds like: The fear of being vulnerable. We often think of this fear as something that we, as therapists, are meant to resolve in our patients and clients. But we also see how the fear of sharing emotions with clients in therapy shows up for clinicians, and how it can become problematic for both mental health professionals and the people they treat.

Unfortunately, vulnera-phobia originates in numerous therapist training and education programs, so it’s no wonder that so many therapists are affected by it. These programs don’t create the fear on purpose. The fear comes as a result of teaching therapists to be detached observers of their patients and to believe their personal feelings are a problem to be managed in a therapeutic setting. Such thinking requires therapists to obsessively hold back their emotions, and by extension, to deny the very thing that makes them human.

Therapists are taught they are doing something wrong if they have and reveal their emotions, but what if there was another way of thinking about it?

One of our cures to Vulnera-phobia is Feminist Therapy. Feminist therapy says that the patient and therapist are a couple, a team together. For this team to function, both the therapist and patient must be vulnerable. You can’t be a feminist-informed therapist and be afraid of being vulnerable. You have to jump into the relationship with all of who you are. You must become what Harry Stack Sullivan called the “participant observer.” Of course, you must be detached and objective. You are a clinician, after all. But, you also must be a vulnerable participant in the life of your patient, because ultimately it is emotional connection that heals.

Your patients need the secure attachment with you they did not get as a child in order to get to the root causes of their suffering.

Being a participant observer is, in many ways, simply responding to your patient from both hemispheres of your brain–right and left. Your left brain is a detached and rational observer of what is in front of you. It analyzes. Your right brain engages and connects with what is in front of you. It does not analyze. It has its own intelligence and understanding that require vulnerability and openness to function well. American psychologist Allan Schore notes that the right brain is where psychopathology resides. This leads to a conclusion that going directly to your patient’s right brain is the most effective approach to treatment. Countless cases at the Nysa Clinic demonstrate how critical this type of intervention is to healing personality disorder.

Therapists must be willing to express their vulnerability with patients and clients to engage with that right brain connection. Not only does this lead to a stronger alliance between patient and therapist — it allows therapists to be more of their full selves in practice, rather than stifling parts of who they are or experiencing shame in response to their own emotions.

At Nysa Therapy, we utilize techniques in feminist therapy to meet our patients at the heart of their struggles, and we work thoughtfully to address the fear of sharing emotions with clients in therapy. This training and practice, coupled with ongoing consultation and supervision amongst other Nysa Therapists, leads to a much more fulfilling therapeutic experience that helps patients heal and clinicians thrive.