One of our Gestalt elders directed me to a TED talk on the theme of vulnerability which is not a word we use in Gestalt, but which underlies the foundation of what we do. We don’t use the word in class because in the popular understanding it means to be wounded. What we teach our students is to be “porous”, meaning to let the other’s responses to us get beneath our skin, even if it hurts, without defensiveness, which is our protection from hurt.
The TED talk speaker knows that vulnerability is not about allowing ourselves to be hurt by another but rather that it means being honest about our human frailties. Why do we fear so much being honest about what we don’t know, can’t do, what we are embarrassed about, from the gaffs of being human to the exposures of self that burn us to the bone? To Fritz Perls, our belief that to be loved we must live up to others’ desires for perfection creates inside us a double voice – he called these the inner top dog and the inner underdog.
The inner top dog agrees with the demand for perfection as the key for love and belonging, which in turn creates the pain of self hatred when we cannot live up to family and social standards of appearance, performance, success. The inner under dog knows that until we can be loved for everything we are – especially those aspects of ourselves that must be hidden because they are “unloveable” and “unbeautiful” – we will resent the top dog demands, whine about them, and sabotage them at every turn. Fritz described this battle as the way we drive ourselves crazy but it is the way we try to belong and to be valued, when in fact we remain isolated and alone.
True belonging happens when we make space for one another’s world view – the gift of being heard is a greater gift than being told. Defensiveness is always the protector from the truth of another. We can learn to catch ourselves when our voice is suddenly high pitched and our breathing is constricted or any number of indicators of defensiveness. We are protecting the underdog in its fear of being vulnerable. In our training groups it takes years of developed self awareness to be able to admit to one another moments of shared shame, thoughtless disrespect, invisible biases suddenly exposed, features of our own lives hidden from you so that I can seem the way I imagine you want me to be.
What does exposure of our humanness bring? Relief. For a therapist it is so important to be able to be led and corrected by the client – you who are clients know how right that feels. It is a skill that trains us to be humans and once we get the hang of it we can demand it of others, even our parents, even our teachers. Be real with me. It builds the human to human alliance that crosses all boundaries of difference. It is a skill that does not require any of us knowing any more than we already know. I think I will return to using the word vulnerability thanks to the TED talk because it is a harder word, fraught with negative associations and it belongs to the underdog, the voice of our very human heart.