The Vulnerable Researcher

by Alan Rodgers

I’m on the edge of glory, and I’m hanging on a moment of truth Out on the edge of glory, and I’m hanging on a moment with you

(Lady Gaga)

In 2011 I began a new professional adventure, and very personal journey, in the form of a research Masters at Bath Counselling and Psychotherapy Centre. It was a very exciting opportunity and a conscious challenge to face many old and neurotic fears of ‘academia’ and formal writing about the profession of psychotherapy which means so much to me. My area of interest was primarily about fear, and the very human struggle to be present or be embodied when we are afraid. This article represents a ‘taste’ of a three-year process, some 40,000 written words and much more than I can capture or feel is appropriate to reveal here. Despite this, it is my hope that it may stimulate and gently provoke the reader, using my experiences to identify with your own.

The heuristic journey
In my early research process I was instinctually drawn to the work of Clark Moustakas. He developed the methodology known as Heuristic Research – a research process designed to be captured in a six-phase model. The six stages are: “the initial engagement, immersion into the topic and question, incubation, illumination, explication, and culmination of the research in a creative synthesis” (Moustakas, 1990: 27).

Working as a humanistic psychotherapist felt important and appropriate for a methodology which emphasises “the participatory role of the researcher” and the similarities with the practices of psychotherapy. Heuristic inquiry places great emphasis on the researcher’s own personal awareness and willingness to learn through a deep involvement and conscious commitment:

…the self of the researcher is present throughout the process…[and]… from the beginning, and throughout an investigation, heuristic research involves self-search, self-dialogue, and self-discovery
(Hiles, 2008: 9)

I was excited to learn how humaneness could be included as part of research. I was increasingly drawn to the possibility of ‘the personal’ carrying an ontological weight and being substantiated by the heuristic process. The emphasis on the researcher’s self felt very important to me, just as the therapist needs to be present to their own process as they sit with a client.

However, I was also anxious or cautious about the possibility of the research feeling self-indulgent or somewhat narcissistic. As I became more familiar with Moussakas’ model of inquiry I understood that it carries with it a responsibility to communicate about a human problem or experience, capturing what is both personal and interpersonal, individual and relational. The “initial data is within me; the challenge is to discover and explicate its nature” (Moustakas, 1990: 13). I loved the idea of “creating a story that portrays the qualities, meanings, and essences of universally unique experiences” (ibid.). It supported my embryonic research themes of exploring various existential life fears, which I hoped would be relevant in my relationships and clinical practice with clients.

Aloneness and fear
Travelling back and forth to England to attend the Masters training became part of my research, part of my ‘lifeworld’. It unwittingly afforded me time and space to become aware of my ‘aloneness’ as a human being. I was becoming increasingly drawn to the relationship between experiencing aloneness and feeling fear. I was open and aware to the possible distortions with this view I had long held in my mind, and the very real fears I experience in life when I feel emotionally detached or disconnected. During this time I returned to a specific chapter by Winnicott (1958), entitled “The Capacity to be Alone.” I was profoundly struck by the learning and resonance I found.

Winnicott describes the significance of the parent/infant sharing a space together, as if separate, yet actually together through mutual presence. He termed this healthy togetherness “ego relatedness”, with the paradox being that both individuals are alone yet joined in presence (Winnicott, 1958: 30-31). Donna Orange (2011), discussing Fromm-Reichmann’s “incommunicable loneliness” further highlights the significance of this in terms of early relational experience and ongoing interpersonal and intersubjective realms: the mothers “non-intrusive presence” helps the child experience aloneness as “creative aliveness”. Without this developmental experience, the aloneness builds towards “terror and despair” (Orange, 2011: 127).

The ‘experiential’ researcher

The dawning of awareness may be refreshing and peaceful, or it may be disturbing and even jarring.
(Moustakas, 1990: 13)

In one of many uncanny and difficult synchronistic events during my research journey, my family and I received traumatic news – my mother was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. She faced a series of setbacks and disappointments in her bid to overcome the cancer, culminating in doctors finally telling her to enjoy the last few months of her life. As a family we made tentative plans, such as a dinner out and a few trips away for my mum – a visit to the sea for the last time. None of these materialised. I believe she grew comfortable with her fate and after a brave period of engaging with medical interventions she deteriorated rapidly in body, but grew strong in spirit. I remember one day at her bedside how we both laughed because she joked that she really should be miserable or terrified. She was neither (in this moment at least). I told her there is no one way to do anything human, least of all to die. Of course I believed this but I was trying to comfort us both at the time. I imagine I was vicariously facing my fear as she experienced hers very directly and palpably.

In less than six months she was dead. Two days before she died, as I sat beside her in the hospice I wrote the following words:

Hi Mum,

Just a few thoughts as I sit beside you. It’s strange how peaceful you look, how settled you are, and yet how close to death you are too.

I am filled with admiration, I wonder could I ever navigate my way towards death the way you have? I understand all the theory, all the concepts. But you are living proof, you are my felt experience of letting go…of acceptance, and of leaving this physical world with Grace.

Even in your passing you are teaching me and all the family the importance of the lives we all have. You know I believe we cannot learn alone, we all need ‘teachers’ of various kinds throughout our lives. People to pave the way, direct us, clear a path and invite us to follow. Thank you for modelling the bravery and courage and bloody good humour needed to face what comes to us all.

Thank you for teaching me the value of relationship, of friendships and of a long-term loving bond that you and dad have never given up on, never stopped being there for each other…even now as we gather here to mourn your loss and celebrate your life.

I loved our conversations that increased in frequency and depth, especially over the last 6 months. It’s been wonderful to witness your growing ability to be cared for, to be looked after and to allow yourself ‘receive’ from those of us privileged to be with you…

This ‘embodied writing’ which I called ‘Writing from Within’ was helping me find my emotional voice and express feelings, and it gave me great solace and somehow managed to assuage the ‘aloneness’ I felt as part of this grief and loss. I consciously used these writings and words (data) as part of the main research text because of my desire to invite the reader to see the world of the writer by evoking a “sympathetic resonance” – “invite readers to encounter the narrative accounts for themselves and from within their own bodies” (Anderson, 2011: 268).

So, having begun a relatively tentative and innocent research inquiry into the human challenge of ‘being with’ or experiencing fear, I was now living my research through my mother’s death journey and its impact on me. I could not have known how prophetic my curiosity about fear and aloneness would be. Could I have known how pressing the need to negotiate their presence in my life would soon become? Perhaps, as Polanyi (1967) suggests: “we know more than we can tell” and my growing interests and hunches were beginning to take form in this experiential exploration? (Polanyi, 1967: 4).

On being vulnerable and being seen
One day, as I sat with my mother, I suddenly realised and felt the depth of my own vulnerability. It was a profound and euphoric experience, which felt time-less. I had been seeing her in her struggle, her physical fragility and her childlike vulnerability – but now I was experiencing my own struggle at a conscious and bodily level. It was strange and surreal to become so acutely and deeply aware of this thing called ‘vulnerability’. It was as if vulnerability became part of my being, as opposed to a word or a ‘thing’ I knew about conceptually or intellectually. Again, my own feelings and life experiences were literally and viscerally becoming the research. Perhaps now I understood what Robert Romanyshyn’s (2007) meant in his book The Wounded Researcher with his wonderful description of this “transient moment that can be neither willed nor repeated, when we are awakened to the soul of an occasion, when an experience is deepened” (Romanyshyn, 2007: 8).

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word vulnerable comes from the Latin word vulnerare which means to wound. To be vulnerable means to be capable of being physically or emotionally wounded. Brene Brown (2012), a vulnerability researcher, academic and author, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” (Brown 2012: 34). As researcher I was now exploring the relationship between vulnerability and being seen, with my own deep fear of exposure, to myself and others, experienced in the form of feelings of fear and aloneness as my mother became sick and eventually died. Reviewing my research journal I discovered these words written spontaneously one year previous:

It’s the truth about vulnerability I’m becoming clear on, it’s a vicious or self-perpetuating cycle – because I’m vulnerable I cannot allow my vulnerability to be seen.

One of the difficult aspects of this understanding has been realising and owning the depth of my emotional hidden-ness or unavailability, as a person and as a therapist. One of the bittersweet gifts of my heuristic research journey became its calling on me to see myself beyond my primitive defences. Over time, in relationships and in my clinical practice, my changing ‘world view’ involved seeing vulnerability in the other. I termed this ‘seeing’ my ‘lens of vulnerability’ and I specifically wrote about this one day as part of an exchange with my son, at a time when he needed to be seen, beyond his own vulnerability. I wrote:

As I continue to search or research this thing called ‘vulnerability’ I see its power when respected and honoured in relationship.

My 7-year-old son came into the kitchen the other day. I was in the middle of cooking a meal, sieve in one hand, and ingredients in the other. It had been a long day and I had not been feeling well.

However, I am becoming stronger in my ability to recognise what is happening relationally in these moments; internally slowing my reactions means an increase in contact or connection. As my son began to speak I noticed his face, I saw his cheeks redden ever so slightly, his posture upright and his hands moving excitedly. I saw him. I saw that he was attempting something, pushing himself and ‘risking’. He was going to ‘tell his story’. He was vulnerable.

I instantly stopped, broadened my stance and turned to face him. I did all I could to let him know with my body that I was with him, beside him in his efforts. I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, bits of food falling from my ladle onto the floor, food bubbling to my side but I was in tune with my boy. I listened and watched as he shared his enthusiasm of a day trip to the local concert hall. It was his class trip on a ‘big bus’ to go and see an orchestra. My son has a strong interest in music, and a real love of trips and excursions to take him away from the classroom.

I am moved now as I write this and I feel proud. Proud of his enjoyment and recounting of his day so ‘publicly’ (my other son was transfixed too) and proud also of my ability to recognise the significance of this moment. It felt transforming. No stress, no defence, no ‘tell me later’ experience for either of us to carry. An experience of fusion.

Learning to value vulnerability, I realised that embodiment and experiencing of fears, meant being open to vulnerability as part of the process. I now believe that vulnerability can be a ‘gateway’ to being real as part of relationship. If we can tolerate the uncertainty, the unfavourable emotions and the feelings that can arise in the vulnerable position, it seems to me that a form of liberation or freedom can be found on the other side of this gateway. In essence I am trying to capture in words what I feel is a ‘relating from the heart’, the possibility of ego-reduced connections and being present to what we fear or have learned to avoid. In the words of Pema Chodron – “the ego doesn’t like experiencing” and so “as a species, we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort” (Chodron, 2003). The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield succinctly states: “It is a truth of the heart that what we resist makes us frightened, hard, inflexible, and what we embrace becomes transformed” (Kornfield, 2000: 138).

At my mother’s funeral I was absolutely dreading the social and formal aspects of the process, especially imagining the church and having to meet and receive other people’s grief publicly (be seen). I felt so anxious in the build-up to this process, physically struggling to ground myself as I carried her coffin, and yet when I finally surrendered in myself, and opened to the heart-warming tales about my mother each person wanted to share, I grew to love and relish this place. I was forming a relational stance of connection and emotional exchange, far beyond the narrow view from my fearful position. I could not sleep that night because of the kindness and affection I experienced coursing through my body, it was such a poignant experience emotionally as I felt I knew my mother more than ever, at a time when she was gone from me.

Trauma, fear and ‘being alone’
I feel so much clearer now on the very human challenge of being ‘in relationship’ or connected to the other when fear and anxiety have risen beyond our capacity to integrate, when we become overwhelmed. Stolorow and Atwood (2002) and Stolorow (2007) specifically refer to the damage of the “isolated mind” as part of trauma, because trauma “individualizes us”, manifesting in an “excruciating sense of singularity and solitude” (Stolorow, 2007: 41).

Disconnect, isolation and solitude can, I believe, form a core element of any trauma. Patrick Casement, psychoanalyst and author, defines trauma as “that which cannot be managed alone” (Casement, 2006: 200). I am privileged to personally know Patrick and, again in a wonderful piece of synchronicity, he happened to email me one day, to share with me his own journey with cancer. At one stage he was given a three percent chance of survival. In one particular email I felt he summarised quite brilliantly what has become such an illumination for me: the power of not being alone and how being with an- other can support in times of emotional upheaval or trauma. He said:

Upon reflection what has stood out, for me, is that I was never alone with what I was going through. However terrible some of it was, there was always someone who was open to what I was going through. So, not being emotionally alone with this, however (potentially) traumatic a lot of it might have been, NONE of it ever became trauma – for me (personal communication, 8th January, 2013)

This ‘being with’ the other was so important in terms of supporting my mother as she left this world. She regularly referred to the comfort of having all her family around. In essence she was never ‘alone’. It affirmed my belief that we often over-complicate or ‘fill’ the therapy space, when a deep and conscious ‘witnessing’ will go such a long way towards healing.

By extension I have also found this so helpful, in the clinical setting, to embody my understanding of the paradoxical struggle, when working with clients who are defensive and present as evasive – playing ‘hide and seek’. I am borrowing from Winnicott’s metaphor in discussing communication, and how he famously depicted this paradox – “it is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found” (Winnicott, 1990/1965: 187). He outlines his belief that at the core of each of us exists a “permanently isolated and secret self” (ibid: 1965: 179) which I feel is very significant when working therapeutically with clients who are relating from a ‘false-self’which is working to protect the ‘true self’ (Winnicott, 1960: 140). In essence I am becoming more compassionate and conscious of clients’ right to defend and protect themselves from being known or found, whilst holding space for the emerging ego-strengthened self that, supported and honoured in the ‘gateway of vulnerability’, can choose to be seen. In addition, I agree with Donna Orange’s assertion that, as clinicians, we need to pay attention to our own “specific personal vulnerabilities”, such as our needs and desires, especially our “mask of the expert-authority”, and embody our “intersubjective vulnerabilities” in the therapeutic space more (Orange, 2009: 242-246).

As part of returning to work after my mother’s death, I had to embody vulnerability in the therapeutic space in a way I had never done before. It was a very real challenge to share my loss with some clients and supervisees because at one level I felt forced into sharing something about my absence, and would have felt hypocritical if I emotionally distanced myself. I also felt I had an opportunity to embody what I was growing to believe in, the credence of emotional availability and vulnerability of the therapist. Again, moving though the gateway of vulnerability, it felt transforming and very challenging to allow myself be on the receiving end of the “accompanying” and “witnessing” (Orange, 2009: 238-9) of clients/supervisees as part of a deeply humbling space. Clients repeatedly thanked me for sharing my loss, communicating their ‘privilege’ and feeling ‘honoured’ by my openness and ‘trusting’ of them. At times, I felt disarmoured, de-roled and very exposed. However, experiencing these fears and the empathic responses from (long- term) clients felt very empowering. My professional ‘life-world’ was now affirming the risks required in creating a true “dialogic spirit” and “intersubjective vulnerability” (Orange, 2009: 241).

Finally, as I come close to pressing ‘send’ on this article, I’m smiling as I realise I am feeling many fears at a subtle level. As a ‘silent’ and ‘hidden’ member of IAHIP am I revealing myself too much? How will this be received?

Maybe I should have asked more people to proof-read it for reassurance? Vulnerability….it’s never far away….nor should it be.

Alan Rodgers has a full-time private practice as a psychotherapist and supervisor. He is based in Limerick city and can be contacted at 087 9768575 or at

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