Getting Acquainted with Vulnerability

Nov 29 / Danielle Beaudet
Art therapists aim to create a safe and non-judgmental environment where individuals can freely express their thoughts, emotions, and experiences through art. While this creative process can be immensely liberating, it also opens the door to feeling vulnerable. Moreover, individuals engaging in art therapy might inadvertently reveal more about their feelings and struggles than intended.

This vulnerability arises from the fact that artistic expression can tap into subconscious thoughts and emotions that the participants might not fully comprehend themselves. This can be particularly concerning if these hidden emotions are traumatic or distressing, potentially causing further emotional turmoil.

Navigating Vulnerability: Therapeutic Communication

Art therapists must promote clear communication with clients and manage potential emotional triggers while implementing a collaborative approach to moderate feelings of vulnerability. Likewise, we are trained as therapists to listen to our clients without interruption, notice our impulses to speak, choose to speak, and sometimes interrupt at the appropriate moment. This practice has led me to notice when vulnerability enters the room.

As a clinical practitioner, I am continuously refining the art of sensing and noticing when feelings of vulnerability arise in both me and my clients. Getting acquainted with vulnerability requires understanding my client’s emotional and physical language. As the listener, I engaged myself to be attuned and to notice slight shifts in posture, tone of voice, changes in the rhythm of speech, the clenching of jaw or hands, the tapping of feet, or the changing of focus.

Limits and Comfort Zones in Therapeutic Spaces

I remember a session when a client recalled a critical event that happened in their life. At some point, when their story started to reveal sensitive information about themselves and their partner, I noticed how their feelings of vulnerability manifested themselves as a shift in their body and focus. Since we connected through eye contact, I caught them looking away and sensing their body becoming tense. I noticed my impulse to want to speak. In the past, I would have felt compelled to intervene with words to soothe or to normalize their feelings.

Now that I have befriended vulnerability and feel more comfortable noticing these moments, I can witness in silence, just holding space and allowing vulnerability to be experienced. Tuning into my vulnerability, I showed my feelings of empathy to my client by using my gaze and my body.

This allowed my client the space to notice and feel their emotions, notice their limit and comfort zones with sharing, and for them to manage their vulnerability. They were able to name their need to stop sharing at this moment. They didn’t tell me why they decided to stop sharing. More importantly, they were able to set limits for themselves. For this client, setting limits was part of their goals. Maybe I would have acted differently with a different client.

Slowing Down and Observing

Nevertheless, I wondered if they felt too vulnerable to share the next part of their story with me at this time or maybe because we have been building our relationship of trust since we were at the beginning of our process. At another time, I may have investigated why they felt they had to stop sharing and explored the reason behind this motivation, especially having a more secure therapeutic alliance.

Another vulnerability in art therapy is related to the potential re-traumatization of participants. If not carefully guided, the act of revisiting painful memories or traumatic experiences through artwork or conversation could trigger distressing emotions or exacerbate existing psychological wounds. Art therapists must be highly attuned to participants’ emotional states and prepared to provide appropriate support when facing such challenges.

Interpreting Vulnerability

Instinctively, when I feel “vulnerability” entering the room, I tend to slow down.  Noticing vulnerability in our clients and ourselves opens options for how to respond. In a clinical setting, I follow where the client wants to go and wait to see what happens before I respond. This can give us insights and clarify our behaviour.

I sometimes ask myself, am I responding like this or behaving this way because I feel vulnerable, or is it for the client’s benefit? Is it practical to interpret vulnerability in a clinical setting or everyday life or to hold space for vulnerability to be experienced? Maybe this can allow the client to express the underlying emotions, like crying or being angry, if that is what they need to experience. Other choices are to name the vulnerability or to reflect it to the client through body language or an empathetic gaze. It depends on what is happening in the space and with the relationship. Is it feeling safe? Is there enough history and trust in the relationship, or is the subject being discussed very personal?

Expressions Through Body Language

Vulnerability expresses itself through the body.  Like feelings of fear or stress, it can sometimes trigger a fight or flight, freeze, or fawn response. I noticed different feelings and levels of vulnerability arising in myself and with my clients by looking at body posture and by observing my own. Acknowledging vulnerability in myself and others has allowed me to develop a new awareness of caring and to show more empathy and self-compassion for my clients.

Vulnerability can be associated with many fears, such as doing something wrong or feeling judged, ashamed, or excluded, to name a few. Yet holding space for the clients or friends to feel safe and emotionally connected to their needs, to be witnessed and heard in that moment of their story can be a transformative process. When sharing and disclosing personal material, whether in a clinical setting or private space, vulnerability is close by, and it needs to be noticed and addressed with words or silence by attuning through the body. While art therapy is a powerful and effective therapeutic tool, it is not immune to vulnerabilities, yet it can become our ally if harnessed.

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