Episode 12 – Vulnerability and Sharing Family Stories


Vulnerability is a word that’s been made popular, or at least part of the conversation, by Brene Brown’s work. Turns out that being vulnerable is also a huge part of the healing process and so today we’re going to be talking about why and how vulnerability is important. And we’ll also be talking about sharing family stories with our children, what that looks like, and why it’s important. I’m Rebecca Thompson Hitt and this is the All Relationships Can Heal Podcast. Today we finish our conversation with Dr. Robert T Muller, PhD about his book, Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up.

Rebecca: So, when we talk about vulnerable feelings that arise from trauma what we’re referring to is relational vulnerability. So, you talk about in the book, feelings of rejection, loss, betrayal, all provoke a sense of vulnerability in relationships. And this comes across; especially when we’re faced with the prospect of depending on close others. And that’s from your book. So, can you talk more about how this might show up for someone in a relationship with someone that they care about? Like a child or their partner?

Dr. Robert Muller: Yeah, yeah. So, this is a place where our trauma effects and can have an impact on parenting because of course, children are very vulnerable. So, if we’ve been through a history where we have been made to feel that our vulnerabilities, our own vulnerabilities cause us to be punished, to be taken advantage of, to be betrayed, you know, you better not be vulnerable, right? That’s the message that we tell ourselves and that message may work well for a while.

If vulnerability has meant danger, has meant fear or has meant damage, then yes, put up your dukes and learn not to be vulnerable. The problem is that all that goes out the window when we have kids because you can only be so guarded when you’ve got little kids. And you have to sort of be open to the idea that little children are vulnerable and that we start to feel vulnerable in their presence because we turned to mesh with them.

So, we need to start to recognize our vulnerabilities and we start to recognize that they’re vulnerable and there is only so much message of, you need to be tough that you can convey to your kid, right, because it’s a little kid. And so we face all of these issues when we have children and as parents, if you’ve been through trauma, it’s helpful to start to recognize what your own vulnerability means to you. Did you learn in your family to tough everything out? And if that’s what you’ve learned to be tough, get over it, if you have a problem.

That’s going to be a challenge in parenting because your little three-year-old kid may not be able to do that. Kids crying, they need some affection, they need work or they need something else other than get over it. And you may recognize that as well. Or what might happen sometimes I see with parents is that they find themselves being tough on their kids. They’ve been through trauma and then they hate the part of themselves that does that. So, you sometimes see the parent who then teaches their kid, listen, I want to teach my kid not to be a wimp, not to be bullied.

So, I’m telling him that he needs to stand up for himself. Those kids are going to be mean. Listen, you got to stand up for yourself, fight back. And then I hate myself for saying that, the parent might say. Why do they hate themselves? Because there’s a part of themselves that knows deep down that their kid is just a vulnerable little kid and they know how they felt when they were told to tough it out.

When they find themselves using those same words, they feel horrible. And so we need to help them be able to recognize what vulnerability means to them and it’s painful. It’s hard for them. So yes, vulnerability really comes up in the parenting context in my work with folks. I don’t know if there are some other ways that we can think of vulnerability or that you were wondering about vulnerability.

Rebecca: Well, I was thinking you write a lot about vulnerability as part of that healing process that we need to connect with our vulnerability.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yes.

Rebecca: And that’s hard. Most of us had messages around that, that it was not safe to be vulnerable.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yes, and where we see this comes out really interestingly is in the relationship with the therapist. So, when we find sometimes clients need us, so to speak, and then they really struggle with that. So that feeling of, ‘I value my therapist, I value my therapist’s opinion. I’ve started to trust my therapist. We’ve got a really good relationship.’ And you as the therapist are empathic with the person and they feel good. ‘Hey, somebody understands me,’ but they think to themselves,’ Oh my God, I’m so vulnerable with this person, I feel exposed and so the very fact that the therapist actually says something that’s warm and caring and empathic,’ that in and of itself can be difficult for the person.

And that’s where vulnerability can be really tricky in therapy. So, we want our clients to feel, my therapist gets me, and so yes, that’s good. But then that very thing for some people can be really, really hard, so that’s a thing that we sometimes see in therapy, that kind of vulnerability. And as I mentioned in parenting also vulnerability can be hard with our vulnerability of our children. There’s another place in parenting where vulnerabilities and an interesting issue and that is in the couple relationship.

So, we see also with couples where vulnerability can be really challenging is where, one member of the couple has a really close relationship with the child, not because of anything that the other parent did wrong, but just because kids go through phases. We used to call it the ‘mommy only phase’ or the ‘daddy only phase.’ We had our kids say, “No mommy, you have to do it or mommy, daddy, like whatever.” Mommy could do no wrong, daddy could do no wrong and they just go through these phases where they’re really into one parent.

Let’s say you’re the kind of parents who then hears that as a rejection because of your own history. Not because you’ve done anything wrong, because there’s anything wrong with people because rejection is just so darn painful for you. And abandonment is so darn painful. And so you really feel that as a horrible abandonment from your partner and your child. Well, then you feel left out in the cold. And so then who sometimes find it’s very difficult and it goes into the couple relationship with a couple starts to struggle with each other.

One person feels maybe jealous of the other person and then let’s says the other person is invalidating and doesn’t understand that their partner’s a little bit hurt that the child is really having a hard time with that person. And so, and that and that member of the couple, oh, you’re so jealous and sort of isn’t very kind to their partner. And so we see then a problem in the relationship with the couple. We see this kind of vulnerability being a challenge, because in the work we then have to sort of have to help them open up as therapists.

The idea that they need to be more vulnerable with each other that the couple needs to start to open up to each other. “Hey, can I get some recognition here that our daughter prefers you all the time?” And then for the other person say, “Yes, that must be really hard for you that our daughter prefers me all the time. I think she’s going through a phase. I’m confident you were very close to her just a month or two ago. I think that she’s going to get over this, let’s work together until she gets over this phase.” And so to kind of be vulnerable with each other and supportive, wow.

That that can be tough for couples so you want to help them but if you can do that as a therapist, then that really helps them with their parenting, because then they don’t fight over the kid. They can be supportive of each other and vulnerability can kind of be a good thing. It can be sort of like, “Hey, now I recognize you’re kind of vulnerable right now, I can be supportive of you.” That’s another place where vulnerability can be really like a productive thing in therapy.

Rebecca: Right, and in parenting and as you were just describing with a couple, vulnerability is as an essential thing. You talk a lot about safety and containment in therapy and I think that as you were talking, I just was thinking about how that’s important to have that safe container for a couple to be able to say, “Hey, like, white flag here. This is really hard for me and I need you not to try to fix it, but I need you to listen to me for a few minutes.” And creating that container of safety so that there can be a vulnerability to talk about these things. And then there’s healing in that.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yes and I’m just thinking that there’s another word that I would add into that, to be able to reach that point where a couple is willing to take that risk and be a little vulnerable with each other when they’ve struggled with it takes kind of building some trust. Like, hey, I can trust that if I open up to you or if I say, hey, white flag here, I’m having a lot of difficulty with this, that you’re not going to judge me, not going to blame me or yell at me or whatever that you’re going to actually support me here. So that kind of thing is very important with couples, yes.

Rebecca: Yes, and I know a lot of people are familiar with the idea of vulnerability with Berne Brown’s work. She has definitely brought it more into the mainstream conversation, that vulnerability is really important for us.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yeah, I’m so glad she has. Like, it’s just terrific because people just hear the word. One of my earlier workshops in 2010 I think, so I guess in the earlier days of Brene Brown’s work, I’m not sure exactly when she wrote her first book, but it wasn’t super, super popular yet. I guess, maybe its 2008 or something like that. And I was doing a workshop and I used the word vulnerability and boy oh boy, there was this one therapist who had so much difficulty with it. And she came to me and she said, how can you ask that of people? And I think that it taught me something, she said that–, because it’s kind of true.

We ask a lot when we ask our clients to be vulnerable and we ask a lot when we ask people who have been through trauma to take an emotional risk and be vulnerable with their kids. As a parent, we ask a lot of them because they’ve been through a lot. So, we do need to recognize that although we say, “Hey, this is something that can be helpful,” it isn’t easy and we’re not asking you to sort of–, we’re recognized that this is a big gap and that this is challenging. So, it was something that was a good lesson for me when I did that workshop and she sort of sat down with me and said, “Hey, I’m really struggling with this word vulnerability, you’re right, yes.”

Rebecca: Right, and that goes back to that expectation that we have of ourselves, okay, all right, vulnerability, I need to get this vulnerability thing down. And then if we can’t do it right away, we judge ourselves. So, it goes back into that loop, and it’s like, no, no, no, no, no, no. You have your own pace, your own process, it’s showing up, it’s being curious, it’s seeing what’s next for you, and it’s doing the best you can.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yes, it’s interesting as you were just mentioning that I was thinking that there’s another piece that’s useful to connect here to vulnerability and that is around the issue of the therapist who does trauma work needs to be open to the idea that they’re going to feel vulnerable too. Because things that clients say can be triggering. It’s really helpful when we’re doing trauma work to recognize the concept of vicarious traumatization.

Because many people who have been through trauma or even those who haven’t been through full blown trauma but who do the work can easily feel triggered by things that the clients say. So, this vicarious traumatization is a concept that’s very helpful. So, if you’re doing the work, it’s really helpful to have a group of people, co-therapists that you work with where you can talk about cases with.

Rebecca: Yes.

Dr. Robert Muller: The solution is not to be invulnerable. The solution rather is to recognize that in working with clients we’ll feel vulnerable and we also need to be open to the idea that clients with trauma histories might feel of us, might feel angry at us, might feel abandoned by us and that’s going to raise feelings in us. So, it’s something that I want people to think about if they’re doing trauma work, that that vulnerability is part of the work.

Rebecca: Yes, that’s really, really important. So, you talk about family storytelling and how many stories are avoided, making it difficult to make sense of one’s own story to truly know oneself and in your own family.

You shared about your family’s experience of the Holocaust and how your extended family didn’t speak of it at all, as a dramatic example of the lengths that some families will go to avoid the feelings and experiences that are really difficult. And you spoke of the healing that happened with your great aunt’s son when he heard more of the story of his family. So can we talk more about that?

Dr. Robert Muller: Sure, yeah. So, let me think back a little bit to this situation. What happened was around 2014, I was invited to a wedding in Hungary and in the course of this so this was a family wedding. It was out in a farming community and it was just phenomenal. Completely different than anything I’d ever seen kind of being an urban Toronto person. But in the course of this wedding, I ended up speaking with an uncle of mine and he shared with me a story about a cousin who was my father’s cousin.

I won’t get into the details of that, but this was somebody who I didn’t know even existed, and he was a very important person because he was the son of the woman who saved my father’s life during the Holocaust. So, my father had a very Jewish sounding last name. The last name, Muller, during occupied Hungary during World War II, was actually a very Jewish sounding name. He was a great risk that he could have been taken away if anybody would’ve seen his– if the Nazis would have asked for his papers or his documents. He was only 10 years old at the time.

So, my father’s great aunt who was not Jewish got him these papers that were a very Christian sounding last name, but they had to go to the train station where the Gestapo was in order to get the papers validated. Now, remember, these were false papers. So, they went to the train station, my father had no idea what his aunt was going to do. She was a young woman in her mid-twenties, and what she did was she flirted with the Gestapo officials and got them to sign these papers. Now they left and my dad had the papers he needed.

There were signed and he was safe and he could, he could walk around in occupied Budapest at the time and not be at risk for being taken away and that’s the story. When my father tells that story or told that story, he told it with such a sense of reverence for his aunt. He adored her, loved her and thought of her as the strongest woman he’d ever met. I was about to meet her son just after this wedding and I met him and we talked. Now, the thing that was remarkable for me, and I talk about this in the book, is that he had no clue that his mother had done this. He had grown.

He was a retired police officer. He was in his mid-sixties maybe early seventies at the time. I think it’s early seventies and he was finding out in his early seventies that his mother had risked her life for his cousin and a dramatic story. In fact, he knew almost nothing about the Holocaust. He knew some Jews were killed. He knew that once upon a time, maybe parts of his family were Jewish, but his mother wasn’t Jewish. He was raised to be non-Jewish and he knew nothing about his own past. And then we had this conversation and I told him, and God, I felt so worried about how he would react because could you imagine being the person to break it? I had no idea.

I mean I was just talking, anyway, we were talking. It turned out okay. He asked me to tell him the story again. We went through it. We actually are friends on Facebook now. We continued to talk. We ate together, we drank together and it was a very good ending to the story which could have ended, I don’t know in a lot of different ways. But I talk about it in the book because it’s an example of how two families deal with the same story in dramatically different ways. And I’m not here to judge and say, one is right, or one is wrong.

I think my father’s cousin’s mother kept this a secret because people keep things secret for good reasons. You know, sometimes there are some secrets that are just too scary to tell. And while she was this very strong, brave woman in one way and another way after the war was over, maybe this was just too scary to talk about. And you know what, that is what happens in some families. Some things are just scary to talk about. And I’m not here to judge.

But when we talk about trauma, they can become secrets and secrets that get just held quiet by families because it’s just so scary. In my family, my parents did talk about the Holocaust. They did talk about what went on with them and that was another way that they dealt with it. Family secrets are a really big deal. So anyway, that’s where I talked about that and I don’t know if that answers your question, but—

Rebecca: Yes, and I think it just really illustrates for me just the–, when I was reading the story and as I’ve listened to you talk about it again, there’s this energy that comes from the seeing this empowering person and this thing that happened and this, and it’s the story. It’s this thread of hope and strength and that has been transmitted from generations because the stories were told.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yes, I think when people can find a way to share their stories, that can be really, really helpful. I think people keep stories secret, trauma stories secret because it’s a way of coping and I understand it’s a way of coping. And for some families, it’s just too hard to do anything else. But when they can find a way to come together, when that’s when they have that opportunity that can really bring strength and it can also allow siblings and family members to understand each other in new ways.

So, interestingly, I don’t know what would’ve happened if my father’s cousin would have been told that story when he was a kid, maybe it wouldn’t have been okay. I really don’t know. Maybe in communist Hungary, keeping the fact that you are Jewish and you saved somebody’s life a secret, it may very well be the case that that was a very good strategy and that that was the smart thing to do. Because it was Soviet occupied, there was anti-Semitism after World War II in Soviet Hungary and maybe telling stories and being honest about your Jewish past or parts of your past that were Jewish would have been too dangerous. And so, yes, maybe that was okay, I don’t know. I don’t know. But I do know that here now in 2014 when my father’s cousin and I were able to share and connect around our shared story it was phenomenal and just a really very growth-ful experience for both of us.

Rebecca: Yes, and I know that many of the parents that I work with want to create this space where they can talk about these things, they can share the stories, they can talk about the things that are happening now and the things that are coming up. Just like with the mom, who was being hugged around her neck, hey, this is hard for me, let’s do this instead. It’s like embracing the pieces of the story and not necessarily the whole thing. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to share the whole story of what happened with this mother, but enough that we can make sense and help our kids to make sense of what’s happening.

Dr. Robert Muller: Well, that’s a really good point. And with parents who have been through trauma, sometimes I get the question of how much is okay to share with their kids? And what I like to say to people is, well, how do you judge how much to share about lots of things? How much do you share with your kids about the birds and the bees? How you talk about it with a seven-year-old is going to be different than how you talk about with a 12-year-old and how you’re talking about it with your teenager or your young adult child.

How you talk about your trauma will be different at different times in your life depending on your child and what your child needs from you. And so, when we have parents who have been through trauma histories, I do sometimes say that, if the child doesn’t understand like with this mother with this eight-year-old child who, well, why can’t I hug you around the neck? It’s okay to say, I feel scared when that happens. But if you’re going to hug me around my tummy, I feel so good.

And so, then the child can understand that the child then goes to the next question, “Why do you feel scared?” Or if the child says; the child is 11 years old and say, “Well, do you feel scared because daddy made you–, that was really scary what daddy did?” You can say, yes, maybe you want to have a conversation. “Yes, that really was scary what daddy did, I was scared. You know we can have a conversation about it.” And how you’ll have a conversation with an 11-year-old will look different than how you’ll have a conversation with a 16-year-old and a 24-year-old child.

So yes, we want to, but I think it is important to share our feelings. And that’s part of parent vulnerability, sharing some of your past to the extent that the child can understand it and what the child needs for them to develop and grow and that can be very healing for families. So yes, I recommend people consider doing that at least.

Rebecca: Yes, I know part of my training as child-parent psychotherapy and a big premise of that is how do we talk about these stories? How do we talk about the things that happened, especially when the children were involved directly? How do we support that? How do we talk about it together? And then there’s a lot that we could say about that. But yes, you’re absolutely right, it is so different depending upon the age of the child, but the child needs that naming in some way. Yes, if you’re feeling like this, they’re going to feel that, they’re going to feel, if you’re having a reaction and you’re feeling terror when they’re touching your neck, they’re going to feel that something’s not right but not know what it is and they’re going to think it’s them.

Dr. Robert Muller: Exactly, exactly, because they’ll fill in the gaps. So, they’re not going to, I think it’s neutral. They’re going to just think, oh it’s me. I mean kids–, I mean, yes, for sure. They’re going fill in the gaps, exactly.

Rebecca: And then they create their own story of what’s happening, their own narrative and they’re making sense of it in their own way, but not necessarily in an accurate way.

Dr. Robert Muller: Yes, yes, exactly.

Rebecca: So, is there anything else that we’ve missed that feels important that you would like to share or talk about?

Dr. Robert Muller: Well, I guess so. The one I guess, last thing that I would like to talk briefly about is something that I talk about in the book, which is post-traumatic growth. That’s many people who have been through trauma; of course, they see and experience the pain of what they’ve been through. And a lot of work in therapy is around helping people recognize the pain. And we talk about recovering from trauma, which is very important, but when people have been through trauma and when they go through some kind of process, they don’t go back exactly to where they were as if the trauma never happened.

That can’t happen, because the story of their life is the story of their life and it has affected them. We can’t amputate our story, but what we can do is we can, as I said before, learn to live alongside our trauma. We can learn to live, we can see it as a chapter in our lives and so this is where post traumatic growth can be helpful as a concept. We can think about how trauma has affected us in ways that yes, are painful, yes have hurt us forever, but also ways that can be surprising. So, is there a way in which I learned something about myself that I didn’t know or is there a vulnerability I have that I now know I really want to understand better?

And even if it’s just to say I want to write a different future for myself or react differently to certain things. Or if it’s around how I want to be as a parent that’s different than some of the experiences I’ve seen around me, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So, post traumatic growth is the idea that as life starts to hit us with new things, new losses, our parents a parent of ours dies or a child of ours is ill and we get scared as life starts to hit us with curve balls. How do we then reinterpret our trauma story as having impacted us and our story can affect us in new ways.

Oh, my father or my mother is ill and there’s the possibility I might lose them. Now I think back to my trauma story around certain losses and in the hearing now I’m feeling things I didn’t realize I felt and that can be [inaudible 01:20:39] because we can start to learn about ourselves in new ways. So that’s an idea of post-traumatic growth, sort of a reckoning that confronts the elemental questions of life. Those are David Brooks’s words, he’s a New York Times columnist. So, yes, I just want it to sort of bring that up.

Rebecca: Yes, it’s important because I think it’s easy to focus on, oh, this bad thing happened. I had this chapter, I really hate it but there are lots of things and ways that we can grow this process of learning about ourselves and being curious about connecting different parts of ourselves that maybe we hadn’t been connected to.

Dr. Robert Muller: Apparently, writer Judith Viorst wrote a book recently about something about being in her nineties and she had a book in the eighties, in the 1980s called Necessary Losses. And it’s a beautiful book that really deals with the question of how losses help us grow. There’s a lot of loss associated with trauma and many of those losses can help us grow. One thing that we don’t want to do with post-traumatic growth is dismissive or invalidating. Oh, don’t worry, your trauma isn’t so bad, you’re growing from it. Well, yes and no. Most people who have been through trauma would rather not have experienced that trauma and growth. Thank you very much.

Rebecca: Right, right, right. Yes, I would have been fine, thank you.

Dr. Robert Muller: Without that thing that happened. But given that certain life experiences have happened, post traumatic growth is a way of understanding how people can use those experiences in new and surprising ways, so it’s an important distinction.

Rebecca: Absolutely, absolutely. So, I just want to say thank you so much. I have really enjoyed our conversation and I am sure that this will have a great impact on those listening. And if you want more information about Dr. Robert T. Muller, you can visit his website, what’s your website?

Dr. Robert Muller: Well, let’s see, what would be the best website? Well, you know what my psychology today expert blog is probably a good way and I’ll have some links to that.

Rebecca: Okay.

Dr. Robert Muller: Google Dr. Robert T Muller, M U L L E R, psychologist or Dr. Robert T Muller, amazon.com, that’s my author page.

Rebecca: Okay.

Dr. Robert Muller: That would probably be the easiest way to reach me.

Rebecca: Okay, and definitely if you are interested in the idea of trauma and want to read more on Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up: From Avoidance to Recovery and Growth is an excellent read. I haven’t had the privilege yet of reading your other book, but I also understand that. Remind us what the other title is.

Dr. Robert Muller: My first book is called Trauma and the Avoidant Client: Attachment-Based Strategies for Healing.

Rebecca: Awesome, alright. Thank you so much for the work that you do in the world. I can see the impact that you are having with your clients and with all of the people that you are teaching. I’m just grateful that you’re out there doing this work.

Dr. Robert Muller: Thank you, Rebecca. I really enjoyed this conversation and I really appreciate the chance to be here and to talk with you. Thank you again.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

You’ve been listening to the All Relationships Can Heal Podcast and an interview with Dr. Robert T Muller, author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up. We hope you’ve enjoyed our series! Do you have any questions for Rebecca or Dr. Muller about this podcast? Please email rebecca@consciouslyparenting.com and we’ll do our best to answer your questions. We’ll be back next week with more of the All Relationships Can Heal Podcast. I hope you’ll join us!

  • Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

Rebecca Thompson Hitt

Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

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