Tuesday, June 24, 2014


How can I become more connected and vulnerable and still feel safe in relationships?

This is a complicated topic with a web of feelings and issues interconnected. Among them are deep emotions and past experiences. When I talk to clients, friends and others I hear about self esteem, shame, courage, wisdom, boundaries, childhood wounds, relational experiences, as well as cultural expectations and messages.

Often I hear things that have a negative connotation attached to the definition of vulnerability. A colleague said, “Vulnerability feels like an open wound”. Someone else said, “I feel weak. It’s like I exposed too much of myself”. Why does vulnerability get wrapped up so much in feelings of weakness?

As I’ve worked on being a healthier person in relationships myself, I’ve come to view vulnerability quite differently from where I began as a young person. I’m suggesting the idea of vulnerability that is associated with high self esteem and confidence - the courage to be seen.  I propose a model of vulnerability as strength of emotional maturity. And that is what we need to love well and to be open to receiving some of life’s most connected relational gifts.

But what gets in our way? And why do women fear vulnerability in special ways that may be different than men’s fears? Because if you haven’t noticed, many men fear vulnerability and some go to great lengths to protect their “soft underbelly”.  Sadly this is what we largely teach men and boys to do. But that’s another story. Thing is, most of us are deeply confused about all of this.

We as women also fear seeming too “soft”.  So how can practicing something so open and as emotionally intimate as vulnerability be a strength?  Because when practiced with personal integrity and self respect, vulnerability is courage, it is compassion, it is wisdom, it can be nurturance and it is being human and real.

So the task is to parse out the difference between for lack of a better term, needy – and being vulnerable. When we are needy, it certainly is a vulnerable feeling. When we seek love for instance, from a place of fear that also makes us feel vulnerable and we are indeed in many way at risk of being taken advantage of, hurts or even exploited.  So we have to learn the form of connection and intimacy that comes from a place of self knowledge and strength. Practicing vulnerability in healthy ways is about sharing yourself and your passions. It is about allowing others to meet us where we are and seeing parts that may otherwise stay hidden. Doesn’t that sound courageous?

Culturally women are often sent contradictory messages that place us in what feels like a double bind around this practice.  One message we get is that as women we should be accessible emotionally, lead the way toward openness and nurturance of others. But we also get messages that we must protect our softer and more feminine selves lest we be exploited in ways emotional, sexual and physical. What is missing in this dialogue (well there is a lot missing) is the factoring in of boundaries.

To be vulnerable in affirming and healthy ways, we need to be able to set boundaries, choose and create respectful relationships. With the basics of this life template, we become free to be open and to do so in appropriate ways with appropriate people and for the right reasons.

So here is my proposal: Connect the goal of healthy boundaries with the goal of empowered openness. This is hard work for most of us. And doing so often requires assistance, good resources, role models and lots of practice paying attention to what we fear and how to move past a need to please and focus on self care instead.

Check in on your motivations for sharing, intimacy, connection and attachment. Look closely at when, where, and with whom you seek to be seen and heard. Why do you want to reveal parts of yourself? Under what circumstances does disclosure feel great? With whom do you find it reciprocated?  Are you able to feel ok about yourself if it is not? What do you seek from different relationships and situations? What do you need to alter or who might you need to limit your exposure to in order to create more health in your life? Might you tell your stories of fear, passion, excitement, mistakes and accomplishments with courage?

Once we have become clear that we deserve respect, and we have become comfortable with our boundaries and willing to be honest and judge the responses of others, we can more easily determine who we allow into our close circles.  With this framework for our social and intimate lives, we will feel much more confident to be open, vulnerable and accessible with the good people we hold dear.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Ties That Bind: How Trauma and Addiction Get Woven Together


When I was a new therapist, I was working at a sexual trauma treatment center in a major city. During that first year I often saw how traumas like rape and child abuse predisposed its survivors toward the soothing relief of drugs and alcohol.  At the same time, I was cautioned by other therapists that I could not treat trauma with a person who was still using. I felt trapped. How could I help people get better without paying some attention to the historical trauma that substances helped cover over?

I saw many substance abusing people (mostly women) come through our center.  Many of the folks I I saw had been through rehab centers had AA or NA experience or had been counseled by addictions specialists. Yet they weren’t getting better. Looking deeper I discovered that many of the women I met had traumatic histories. The specialists with whom they had worked had taken little account of their trauma history. In fact many had never been screened for a trauma experience.  Here were so many women who had spent years battling serious drug or alcohol abuse, but who could not break free from the demons in their mind.  Often those demons were intrusive memories of past abuse and a core feeling of worthlessness or shame. The legacy that childhood trauma left for these women included a life of addiction and lonely pain.

Without the hurt from past relational harm being addressed, many of these women were not beating back their dependence on alcohol and other drugs.  The substances helped them cope. What was needed was a therapist who understood addiction and also knew how to assess and treat trauma and PTSD. This is what I proceeded to do, against the recommendations of many in my therapeutic community. Luckily today, reputable addiction treatment assesses for trauma and past abuse and offers a chance to talk through those experiences. Unfortumnately for many though, the counselors who work with addiction are not trained in trauma and the therapists who understand PTSD may not understand the tricky terrain of addiction. 

When abuse and trauma are recognized and treated together, along with addiction treatment , years of dependence on substances can lift.   Without the trauma being considered, clients often experience treatment around the addiction that feels alienating and self blame and shame are re activated.  The deeper issues scream for attention. 

Certainly, not all folks struggling with addiction have a trauma or abusive past. And there are other childhood experiences that can be decisively harmful as well and often leave a person with a vulnerability to anything that will block the pain.  Among some of those factors are:  parents, who because of their own addiction,  did not provide their child with the attention they needed;  mentally ill caregivers whose struggles prevented attuned attachment; and  narcissistic or borderline personality disordered parents who confused, frightened and shamed their  child.  These are among the many types of experiences we can have as children that leave us hurting and looking for relief.  The warm buzz of alcohol or the deep alteration of a drug can mask our pain, for awhile.

Whether my client was sexually abused, neglected,  or pervasively shamed growing up  – treatment that helps make sense of these experiences, processes the feelings that were generated and offers new ways of understanding and coping can come to make the substance use less needed.  Of course, caution must be used so as not to overwhelm an already depleted internal  self  that has become locked in chemical abuse.

 Pacing and caution are used by skilled therapists to provide new supports that allow the difficult memories to be processed and contained.  Working with someone who is using is not the same as working with someone who is not…A more sensitive, slow paced and careful approach must be taken when dealing with a traumatic past and and addiction at the same time. But with proper understanding of the connection and the dynamics of both addiction and trauma,  healing of trauma and substance abuse recovery can  proceed together.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Are You as Assertive as You Want to be in Your Relationships?

Are You as Assertive as You Want to be in Your Relationships?

Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable, or just plain afraid to say “No”, or “That is something I am not willing to do” for instance?   Are you concerned that if you set a limit, disagree with your spouse’s decision or voice non-acceptance of a behavior at work that there will be unpleasant and hard to handle consequences? Are their certain people or situations where limit setting or speaking your truth is more difficult?  If so, this is a common experience.

I bet you would like to be able to set boundaries with ease and with an inner comfort from knowing that it is your right to do so.  Most of us do not spend very much time thinking about boundaries, what they mean to us or where out limits are being intruded upon.  We have even less experience or training around how they get communicated. But the problem is, if we ignore them for too long or too often, we get angry. Then we risk lashing out in ineffectual ways. We disappoint ourselves and feel shame. But the problem wasn’t with our boundary, it was with ignoring our feelings and then poorly reacting to the anger that ensued.  Being angry is useful if you can identify why you feel upset and find the communication necessary to respectfully address the issue at hand.

So assertive communication frees relationships to be healthy. And it actually allows you to be more calm and less resentful.  Because by attending to our own limits and needs while respecting the boundaries of others, we will be more apt to communicate appropriately and in a way where we can feel authentic and confident.  Passive aggressive behavior or reactive aggression is often the result of becoming overwhelmed with too many invasions of our time, energy, feelings or rights. 

We prosper emotionally, relationally, financially, and in innumerable ways from the ability to communicate assertively. Your values, concerns, ideas, needs and limits are important.

Women I counsel and speak with in my courses often confuse assertive communication with being rude, unkind, mean or selfish.  And who wants be seen that way? But this is largely an incorrect message we have received from our common culture. Assertive women are often judged as mean or self centered. This is incorrect. Being assertive is about respecting yourself and others. Whereas rudeness is about disrespecting the humanity and value of another person.  More often what I see is that in an attempt to avoid being viewed as “rude” or “bitchy”, we actually become rude to ourselves, by allowing others to treat us badly.  

This shows up in a myriad of ways. It effects our marriages, family relationships, friendships and professional life. Moreover, it lowers our self esteem. Our confidence and self worth is choked by repeatedly discounting our own rights. Becoming aware of limits and boundaries; physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual - to name a few - is the beginning of improved well being.  

So first, start thinking and reading about boundaries. Make a list of areas where boundaries are really important. (It might be that allowing your partner to yell at you is no longer acceptable for instance.) Then start to practice what assertive communication of your boundaries sounds and feels like. Honor your fear. This is often a very hard skill to learn. It helps to read articles or books that give concrete examples of what assertive versus aggressive or passive communication sounds like. Start small. If you would normally say nothing if your chicken was served undercooked at a restaurant, try saying, “This chicken is undercooked, please take it back and bring me another, thank you.” No apologies. You weren’t being rude, so you needn’t apologize for asking for what you deserve.  

Keep up the effort. It takes time for these skills to feel natural. But you will be glad you honored yourself by taking the journey.