Maria Littleton LMFT Vitality of the Mind Exposure

Exposure, this is a term that one of my good friends Cam, introduced to me when I was describing an experience where I had ventured outside of my comfort zone. I didn’t even know this term existed until the very moment he identified what I had experienced. Now it’s like a go- to because it is such a relatable term.


So, what is it???


It’s exactly what it sounds like: that zone right outside of our comfort. You know where this place is because depending on your go-to… most of us freak out in some form or fashion. Let me share a couple of examples.


My hands get clammy just talking about this because I am sharing a lived experience and I am continuing to grow from and with it. Here’s my example, then I’ll present a few others. My hope is that one of them resonates with you.


So, I rock climb…I’m more novice than expert- like WAY more novice, but I took it up because it’s something that my husband is passionate about and it interests me; and who else to learn from but an expert and his expert friends.


Back to my experience. Lol. Ok, so I’d been going to the rock climbing gym to “practice” on my own time. I thought it would prepare me for venturing outdoors onto “real rock”. Let me preface…they really are two different types of climbing. At least for me they are because I can practice all day every day at the gym, but the gym has laid out challenges or what they call “routes” for you. They are color coordinated and you’ve got this false sense of security because you’re being monitored (by the guy who checked you in at the entrance) and the floors are padded (you really don’t know how thick the padding is though) and you get into your harness (borrowed or purchased, I have my own because I got serious about making this a hobby my hubby and I share) and you get hooked up to a rope that’s connected to a Camhine, “auto-belayer”, that is programmed to tighten up the rope if you fall from the wall. Sounds terrifying right?!?!?! No…it’s exciting…and it’s at the gym!


Ok, on with it Maria! Ok, so my hubby takes me out to “real rock” for the first time. I’m nervous because I want to impress him with my SKILLS. I’m nervous because I’m always nervous when I try something new. And I’m just nervous for the sake of being nervous.


Hubby sets us up. BTW, I was terrified from the start because he told me to “hike” down the path to get to the “floor” or base of the rock wall while he repelled down the face of the rock. What!!!! Wait!!! What! Hike down while I watch you go over the edge of this cliff to the bottom of the rock that looks like it’s at least three stories tall. What!??! Oh geez…what did I get myself into?


Quick intermission: How are you feeling? Where are you at with all this? Is this relatable?


Back to story: Hubby’s reasoning for repelling down the rock face rather than hiking down the path with me was, besides wanting to impress me I’m sure, to set up the rope at the top to be able to belay me when it was my chance to USE MY SKILLS.


So, we get all set up. I’m in my harness. Got my awkward climbing shoes on. I’m full of nerves and excitement. I look up at the wall and I’m determined that I’m gonna get to the top. But wait, there aren’t any colored knobs or markings to guide me up this wall. Wait, what?!?! Um…where are the colored markings???!!!! Hubby says, “look for the chalk marks (these are chalk marks left behind by previous climbers) and that’s how you know where to grab and they’ll guide you up.”  Me: “Okaaaaaaaaay”, they didn’t say anything about that when I was practicing in the gym.


Okay…I’m good to go, so I shout out to hubby the communication standards, “belay on, on belay, climb, climb on”,  to begin the partnership in the climb. I’m good, I’m climbing up, I’m one foot off the ground, two feet, three feet; this is challenging, I’m still nervous, I’m excited, I wonder what he’s thinking about my skills, I wonder how I’m looking – do I look like I know what I’m doing? Am I graceful or clumsy and awkward? Um…awkward and clumsy of course!!!! This is my first time and I have no idea what I’m doing. But fuck it! I’m doing this. Four feet, five feet and then my foot and hand slipped at the same time and I went penduluming across that rock and my arms and legs went flailing because my mind thought I was falling not swinging and I kept bumping and scraping across that rock because I didn’t know how to stop the motion until something inside of me grabbed some sense and I was able to USE MY SKILLS to grab a hold of a part of the wall and stop my motion. At that point hubby was able to lower me to the ground five feet below me. I laugh now, but at the time it was a different experience where I wasn’t laughing. When I got to the ground I was shaking and I think I lost some color because of hubby’s response to me.


To say the least, it took me some years to find the courage to get back out on “real rock”, I had to come to terms with all that I developed from that experience. When I shared this experience years later with Cam he said to me “oh that’s exposure, when you are introduced to a point just outside of your comfort and experience something for the first time.” Oh thank goodness I’m not the only one!!!


Exposure is like being on a tall platform and going from the mark of your comfort edging your way to the edge and as your comfort leaves towards this uneasy foreign set of feelings, it’s the uneasy foreign set of feelings. It’s that zone!


In terms of feelings and talking about topics, especially ones that we feel most vulnerable about, exposure is the point just past what we are comfortable talking about. In my climbing story my point of exposure started the moment my feet left the ground. I felt uneasy and as I ascended further up my feeling of exposure increased because truth be told I have a fear of falling. I didn’t fall throughout the whole experience, but getting past my comfort zone, I was contending with being in a place that was new to me.


In my discussions with clients I am keenly aware of this happening throughout the process of my clients exploring themselves and their experiences. It is something that they are aware of because I make it a priority to make them as comfortable as they can be throughout the process from the moment we have our first contact on the phone or in a message, to our first meeting in my office, to getting to the core of things.


Exposure goes hand-in-hand with growth. As we move past the concept of our dreams and desires into taking steps to achieve them we are met with feelings of exposure, areas of the unknown. As we become comfortable in our point of exposure, it becomes the new threshold for us and it no longer is an exposure zone. As we continue further towards our goals we enter exposure points, develop confidence and move forward until this becomes habit.


Often, our fears are translated to us as walls, defense mechanisms to prevent us from entering our point of exposure. These fears or defenses keep us safe within our comfort zones. And while that serves as a very valuable tool in some circumstances, when it’s become generalized towards ALL things it can create unhappiness, anxiety, and depression.


Here are 3 tips for discovering if our defense mechanism is a barrier:


1 – What is the most common thought I have when I want to try something new?

2 – Count out of 10 times, how many times have I ignored or blew off that thought and did what I wanted to do anyways?

3 – Count out of 10 times, how many times have you held true to that thought and didn’t do what you wanted to do?


Leave a comment or DM me your counts. What are the things you most truly desire in your life? What is preventing you from getting them?

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