McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
psychotherapists' vulnerability, interpretive phenomenological analysis, vulnerability, Wounded Healer, phenomenology, self of the psychotherapist
In the service of forging a deep authentic connection that has the power to heal and transform, psychotherapists create and hold space for their patients to show themselves in a deeply vulnerable manner so that they can be known and accepted as they are. At the same time, psychotherapists are also flawed and wounded mortal beings who cannot help but bring their own woundedness, personalities, and limitations into the space, and must negotiate the delicate balance between restraint and expressiveness of their vulnerability. This study is a phenomenological inquiry into how psychotherapists experience their vulnerability given the demands of their role. In the spirit of practicing vulnerability as a researcher, this text begins with my personal reflection on experiences that evoked curiosity in me about my vulnerability and expands into an extensive literature review that delineates the physical, emotional, and narcissistic vulnerabilities of psychotherapists. Following that, I explain my use of a phenomenological framework for this project, which anchored my focus on the lived experience of vulnerability, rather than on its technical definitions or theoretical conceptualizations alone. To collect rich, detailed first person accounts about such lived experiences, I interviewed six psychologists at various stages of their training and career individually about their experiences of vulnerability in their role as psychotherapists. I analyzed the data using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), which yielded overarching themes such as the different ways in which psychotherapists may experience being vulnerable, the experience of exposure, and the experience of facing uncertainty, as well as the idiosyncratic theme of vicarious traumatization and vicarious transformation. In addition to conveying the raw, embodied experience of vulnerability, participants touched on the experience of coming to grips with their immense social power and their relational power in the therapeutic relationship. They described their simultaneous awareness of their own and their patients’ vulnerability, as well as their active engagement in complex cognitive and emotional work to make sense of the unfolding therapeutic process and decide every step of the way how to proceed in the most beneficial manner. Participants also spoke about their experiences of confronting their mistakes or limitations and processing their clients’ experiences of those mistakes and limitations, including when there were ruptures in the therapeutic relationship. In addition to discussing how the findings resonate with accounts of psychotherapist vulnerability in the literature, I identify the implications of this study for inviting thoughtful, experientially resonant conversations about vulnerability, particularly in a world where psychotherapists are increasingly expected to be machine-like technicians who deliver results with speed and efficiency.
Chai, K. (2021). An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis of Psychotherapists' Experiences of Vulnerability (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/1968