I am standing in the hallway outside a large conference room, my heart rate quickened and my thoughts a bit rushed, despite the fact that a mere 20 minutes ago, I was meditating together with my colleagues. But these are good nerves – they tell me that I am about to do something important, exciting even – that I am about to do something that matters. We will have only 10 minutes to set up. Is that enough time? Will we have a chance to really settle in to convey the essence of our presentation to the attendees? Will there be enough time? Or, worse, will there be too much time? Will there be enough safety and space to express what needs to be expressed? Will people participate? Will they walk away with a sense of enrichment or will they be disappointed? Will we leave feeling satisfied? Much of this is so rushed that it barely touches my mind before the next thought races through. When will the previous presentation end, so we can get in there and set up??
I am getting ready to more or less consciously feel vulnerable in front of an audience… and to gain something from the experience, and hope that they do as well. My colleagues and I are about to present at a conference held by the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education (IFPE) (November 5-7, 2015). The conference theme is “Vulnerability and Its Discontents”, (riffing on Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents”) – an entire conference devoted to the enormous, and utterly insurmountable topic of vulnerability. There are panels and papers on the vulnerability of being intimate, the vulnerability of publishing one’s thoughts in writing, the vulnerability of being part of a certain population, and many other angles.
Our panel, titled “The Sound and Color of Vulnerability: An Expressive, Analytic Response” is focusing on expressing one’s vulnerable experience using music and art. The expressive modalities are both tools for expression and at the same time ways of containing the unbearable anxiety and pain of being vulnerable. We are going to offer these tools to the audience of mostly therapists, to use for their own supervision (self, peer, etc) and perhaps even with their clients – creative modalities potentially serving as a bridge to expressing what words fail to capture. But that’s secondary – I think that what’s more important is that we are offering them an opportunity to have an experience with us in the moment – right here at this conference, in this room – rather than only talking about it from an intellectual distance. We are hoping that people will be able to gain something from this on the spot. Standing outside the conference room, we all feel that there is a lot riding on this. Good nerves indeed!
It is vulnerable just being human, interacting with others, living with the unknown of life and death in any given moment. Presenting at a conferences creates a specific kind of vulnerability of having to convey an important message or idea in a limited amount of time to an audience of unknown size and disposition. I wonder whether there will be space to be myself. Unconsciously, I fear there won’t be. My familiar ways of being are more likely to kick in under this stressful situation, where my inner “good girl” might dominate and prevent me from being vulnerable because it might not feel safe. There is a safety in being an audience member and a risk involved in being a presenter. This is true even when you are reading a paper you have written ahead of time. And we are attempting to go even further than that, to try to express the vulnerability of spontaneous expression – verbal, musical, and artistic.
We begin with a meditation focused on the breath, led by Marianne, which both helps relax the body and mind, and also helps establish a sense of safety in the room. Lesson Number One is that in order for one to feel safe sharing her or his vulnerable self, it must feel genuinely safe. One is vulnerable no matter what, but to share it at all (let alone with an audience) takes a special kind of space, and this is what the meditation creates. Since I am the one that has to speak immediately afterward, I find it hard to relax, but I do try… I return to my breath as often as I am able to realize that my thoughts are racing. It helps, a little.
Then I turn to Sunyoung, a music therapist who brought a full piano keyboard to the conference, and begin to speak. I share with her – and with the audience – some feelings I have about my work with a client. I had decided that morning which client I would talk about, but I hadn’t told Sunyoung (or Marianne) about it beforehand… nor do I even know what I’m going to say about her. I’m attempting the impossible and yet desperately needed spontaneous free-association. I hear my voice through the microphone and feel kind of small and nervous. I sound calmer than I feel, but to my own surprise, the sound of my own voice helps me feel a little more grounded.
I share very little about the client herself (being extra careful to also preserve confidentiality and anonymity). Mostly, I speak about my own experience and how I have been processing and understanding our relationship and our work. A few minutes later, I decide that I’ve shared enough, and Sunyoung closes her eyes. Her face shows a struggle and I can tell that she is feeling my words deeply. Well, she is feeling something deeply – and we’re off! She begins to play jarring, loud, and dissonant, but deeply coherent and powerful music. Part of me resists it – I’m already kind of tense internally, and the tense music brings up the not-quite realized wish for comfort and avoidance of facing the jarring, dissonant parts of my work with the client. Whew, how much more vulnerable can this thing get? At the same time, part of me knows that the music reflects the core feelings about my relationship with the client, and in some ways, this is a great relief. Now that she is expressing the feelings on the piano, even though they are mixed with her own feelings, I am no longer alone with mine. I feel held.
Following the music, everyone makes art, with Marianne’s gentle guidance. The audience is palpably excited to participate and starts chatting about tissue papers, glue sticks, and Model Magic (a kind of clay). I, on the other hand, feel anxious and fear I am too disconnected to really be making any kind of links about my work. In my mind’s eye, I see a kind of mushroom cloud following an explosion, and find myself anxiously ripping up a navy piece of paper, hoping that I can make something of it. Is the “explosion” a reflection of just my having shared what I’ve shared, or does it relate to my client? Can the two even be separated? Can I make something that would represent the music and my feelings about the client, or am I just engulfed in my own stuff in this moment? I feel like there is a wrong way to do this, that maybe I am just going through the motions while hiding my anxiety in order to appear like a competent presenter. This feels really vulnerable. Well – mission accomplished! But now the other part of the equation – how to use this creatively and productively? How does one embrace this uncomfortable experience and use it, rather than avoid it? It turns out, while you are actually feeling vulnerable, it’s quite challenging.
Lesson Number Two is that there is only so much vulnerability one can take, even when it’s safe to go to our deeper, more difficult places. Our psyche has a built-in self-protection system, and it can take years to be able to allow ourselves to be vulnerable for even a few seconds before we shut down again. In this presentation, after a while of talking, making art, and hearing the audience’s responses, I felt myself shutting down. The responses were all rich and varied, but there were so many of them, that I couldn’t take them all in.
What I hadn’t realized in my preparing to be vulnerable with an audience, was that we were asking them to be vulnerable, too. They would hear another person’s experience and respond using the expressive and safe tools of art – and then we were asking them to be vulnerable by sharing their experience with the rest of the room (if they chose to). So Lesson Number Three (the lessons are beginning to snowball) is about competing needs… we are all vulnerable in one way or another at any given moment. We all need support. We all need to be held and cared about, to have a chance to express ourselves to an Other to whom we matter. And, at any one given point, one person may have a greater need than another. During this experience, for me there was the dichotomy of the audience’s needs versus my own. Their courageous responses were beautiful to witness – a psychoanalytic audience, readily and gratefully involved in art materials and sharing some wonderful associations and images of their own. In the back of my mind, I felt relief – the presentation was going so well! I didn’t want to upset this deep process.
Still, I felt myself shutting down in order to allow things to continue. But this meant being unable to reflect deeper on what I’d shared, to make connections for myself, and I soon found myself craving for a break, for some holding and support. If at first, I felt some frustration at being unable to reflect on what’s been shared, 15 minutes later I no longer cared and just wanted a break. I found myself feeling too alone with my feelings. I was no longer able to really experience what people were sharing, to make meaning of it at all. I was dissociating, going through the motions. The voice coming through the microphone, as I thanked each participant, began to sound like it was someone else’s.
So I took what in that moment felt like a risk – and something I haven’t felt the need to do in any of the times that the three of us had prepared for this presentation. I shared with the audience that I was feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed by all of the responses. Furthermore, I turned to Sunyoung and asked if she wouldn’t mind helping me with it by playing some more music. I needed to be held and I needed a break from all the information coming at me from the participants. Lesson Number Four is that asking for help feels vulnerable the more urgent it is. I felt the urgency myself, and it felt like a risk to ask for help. But not doing so, would have meant ignoring my feelings and my needs at the expense of other people’s. It would have been unfair to myself, and it would have been inauthentic to continue acting as if nothing has changed.
To my deep relief, Sunyoung began to play before I even finished my thought – and the softness of the music soothed me instantly. From the first chord she played, I felt my very soul relax, like quenching a pained thirst and removing a heavy backpack from my shoulders. Tears came to my eyes almost immediately, no doubt also because of the risk I’d just taken.
In retrospect, I believe that it was taking this risk – asking for help and having my needs met in that moment – was what allowed me to actually integrate what happened during this presentation. Without it, I would have continued to dissociate in order to remain in the role of presenter. Making my needs a priority in that moment felt like a challenge for me and yet more important than I realized at the time. And being able to take in the healing music that followed is what led me to be able to meaningfully use the whole experience. I wonder now if perhaps my client herself felt overwhelmed and dissociated the way I did during this presentation. I wonder whether she has a hard time asking for a break when she feels flooded. I wonder if making her needs a priority is a major challenge for her. (I won’t go into all the relational possibilities here, but I’ll say that the choice of client to present – whether in a supervision group or a conference – as well as the responses and feelings that ensue, are all significant to that therapeutic relationship.)
The “discontents” and the lessons of vulnerability are much more numerous than I can express here. The main lesson for me has been that being vulnerable can be deeply healing, and that it can also be traumatic if it is not carefully balanced with emotional support. No matter how much we prepared for the presentation, we could not prepare for being in the moment, as the presentation unfolded. That’s what’s so vulnerable about it. So I’ll round out my list of lessons with Number Five, although I’ve already mentioned it above: We are always vulnerable in any given moment, sometimes more so and sometimes less so. Sometimes we can prepare for it and sometimes we can’t, and we have to rely on our ego strengths and much-needed defenses to protect ourselves from overwhelm. As human beings, and especially as therapists, we have to deeply recognize our inherent vulnerability of simply being alive.
It was a rich, and important experience for all three of us. I’ve left a great deal out of this paper about the material presented and people’s responses in order to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the attendees. I have shared my own experience, and both Marianne and Sunyoung will have their own perspective on this hour and a half of shared purpose. Ultimately, I feel that we were able to offer people the experience of – and making meaningful use of – being vulnerable on purpose.