A couple is sitting on my love seat in the office. They talk of the ups and downs of their week, how they got some insight in this conversation, triggered by that one, found they started to play “find the bad guy” but stopped… there is a moment where they state they feel stuck in this same cycle and inevitably I ask,
“Were you able to stay vulnerable?”
They look at one another and then at me,
“Kaia, I think we realized we aren’t always sure if we are being vulnerable.”
With a slight chuckle we kinda laugh… kinda.
I see this over and over again where we throw out words but we aren’t sure what they truly mean. We hear something like “vulnerability is key” but then we say to our partner “you make me feel like such a crappy person!” which isn’t actually vulnerability at all.
Many people think that dumping resentments is vulnerable or telling someone what we think of them, or telling our sad story but I would define these as neurotic ways of trying to connect.
In Gestalt therapy, there are six neurotic ways people try to connect but end up disconnecting. We call these contact boundary disturbances. They are -
Confluence, Introjection, Projection, Retroflection, Egotism, and Deflection
I am going to define each one here, give an example, and then give another example of a possible vulnerable statement that is about actually trying to connect to the other person instead of disconnecting.
Confluence is when we can’t see a difference between “You” and “I” anymore and everything becomes a “We.”
“We, this group of people, are mad at you for being so annoying!”
(versus “I am struggling to connect with you when you are saying that you don’t like anyone.”
“We are so toxic”
(versus “I am concerned that we have started to engage in a toxic dynamic here and I would like to try to change that.)
“We think all horse training should look like this, and if you don't agree, then you are obviously wrong and bad.”
(versus “I feel challenged when I meet someone with different views because I am uncertain if I can have different views from them without a fight or I start to question if my views are right.)
There is no accountability for how the relationships are playing out on an individual level.
Introjections are when we “swallow whole” ideas and messages that people have told us. These are very common in therapy because they are often told to us as children and we believed them.
“You are an insensitive jerk”
(versus “I have been triggered by something you said and I am struggling to talk with you about it”)
“You are a spoiled brat… worthless… greedy… difficult… (you get the picture.)”
(versus “I am realizing that I have some tough topics I want to discuss with you about how our relationship has been challenging for me.)
“Horses are just too sensitive and therefore shouldn’t be trusted”
(versus “I have experienced some tough moments with horses where I lost trust in my ability to connect and was was confused with what happened.”)
Projections are when we place what we are experiencing onto someone or something else.
“My partner just doesn’t understand how to be a good partner”
(versus “I don’t always know if I am being a good partner”)
“This horse is just a grumpy horse!”
(versus “I get grumpy around this horse”)
“They are the problem. If only they could be better, I would be fine.”
(versus “I need to take accountability for how much I struggle in this dynamic. So much is coming up for me, I feel hopeless and possibly scared of my role in the problem.”
Retroflection is when one holds back responses or emotions intended for the “other”, surroundings, or other people in surroundings and avoids expression of experience.
“I am ok with how that person treated me and everything is fine” (when this isn’t accurate.)
(versus “I am not ok with how I was treated and I am trying to be at peace with that.”)
Holding back tears while someone tells you that you are a failure
(versus showing them how much they are hurting you by allowing yourself to feel and cry in front of them.) *And no, this isn’t weak! It actually is very powerful! For another blog…
Standing in a horse pasture, trying to act like you aren’t scared when you are
(versus allowing yourself to be a bit nervous and breathe through it, which is much safer around horses than pretending)
Egotism is when a relationship is one sided and only goes one way.
“Well my day sucked and I am going to tell you about it” and not ask about yours
(versus “I had a tough day. Can we talk about it? And I would love to hear how your day was!)
“I need you to listen to me”
(versus “I want to share my experience with you so you can relate to me and I want to hear your side of the story as well so I can relate to you.)
“This is about what I need and want”
(versus thinking about the interplay in dynamics where we can’t connect if we aren’t aware of what others might need from us.)
Deflection changing the subject in a conversation.
“Oh my day? Well, how was your day?”
(versus “I am actually nervous to bring up how my day was because I’m concerned you will try to fix it and then I feel insecure.”)
“You asked me what came up for me but I think you asked me the wrong question! You are incompetent!”
(versus “I am feeling so out of control and upset right now and need help sorting out what is going on for me. This is usually when I lash out at people and then feel terrible about it so I want to try something different.”
“This horse just needs someone to get on it and show it who is boss because they aren't listening to me!”
(versus “I am really upset that I can’t seem to connect to this horse and I am feeling like I want someone to make it better for me instead of staying curious what is actually going on.”
One of my darling mentors told me once that he thought a surprisingly large amount of people have become allergic to vulnerability. When they feel it or see it, they want to run or crush it. It represents something too scary, too wanted, too dangerous, too powerful, too honest. It requires them to have to take a look inside as well and sometimes look at things they don’t want to see.
He mentioned the term “courageous conversations” where two people need to feel brave and heartfelt to be able to express themselves vulnerably and connect. Not everyone is up for the challenge but I can say, those that are willing, and find others that are willing, form beautiful and emotional bonds that heal wounds in a way most couldn’t even fathom.
Keep doing the beautiful work darling humans!
Kaia Livingstone is a psychotherapist who runs a private practice outside of Boulder, CO. She specializes in helping horses and humans bond in order to help them relate and connect on a deeper level as well as heal and grow.