Sometimes, trying to stay calm under pressure sets you up for dealing with it in isolation. It feels counterintuitive to head toward vulnerability. That was my story. I was trained not to be vulnerable.
I was born and raised in Queens, New York. In September 2001, I was 31 years old, working as a firefighter on Truck 28 in Harlem, one of the busiest trucks in the world. I’d been with the department for six years. On 9/11, when the World Trade Center was attacked, I was immediately called to assist. Normally, firefighters work a 24-hour shift; then they’re off for two or three days. But right after 9/11, there were no days off. Even if you weren’t working, you were still going down to help. I didn’t get a day off until December, and by then my day was filled with funerals.
I’d go to a funeral and see a firefighter’s son wearing his dad’s helmet. Young boys crying, holding the flag. At the time, my son was only a couple of months old, and I’d take him to the funerals in a little BabyBjörn carrier on my chest. Before he turned one, he’d gone to something like 25 funerals with me, because otherwise I’d never have seen him.
Everything felt out of control. Guys I’d worked with were missing and gone. Everybody was dealing with a nightmare, but nobody could talk about it. We became so mission focused, just going down to the site every day, compartmentalizing and grinding, trying to do the right thing. We were getting a lot of appreciation and affirmation from the public, but we had no outlet for our fears and anxieties.
I was already preparing for a career switch. I’d just finished my degree in couples counseling. After the attacks, I remember being in a room with a team of therapists who were offering to see firefighters. But when our clinical director asked for volunteers to work with couples, not a single hand went up. That’s when I thought, Damn, I don’t want to see them, but nobody else will. So I raised my hand.
When I wasn’t at Ground Zero, I was spending a day or two a week in the counseling unit. I was seeing 10 couples every Thursday. It was always the same story: the wife would come in frustrated, saying things like, “There’s no communication! There’s all this distance!” And the firefighter would just put up a wall and dismiss her. I understood why. There’s a saying in every firehouse: whatever you say here, stays here. You went to work and you took care of business. You didn’t share what you were going through. Plus, when people are in anxious places, it’s really hard to learn problem-solving or communication skills. When you’re threatened, your ability to solve problems goes offline.
All these men had the same problem I had: they didn’t know how to let their partner in. Eventually, it created distance in my own marriage. Back home, my wife wasn’t sharing any of her fears or worries about what was going to happen—about whether there’d be another attack. I wasn’t sharing my fears, either. We just didn’t want to burden each other. But the cost of that mutual silence was severe.
Finally, I reached a turning point. One night, a few weeks after the attacks, I turned to my wife and said, “I really just don’t know what to do.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t know what to do either.” It was like we’d met in a place of mutual fear and not knowing, instead of being alone in it. My wife didn’t need the gruesome details. At the end of a workday, I could just come home and tell her I’d had a tough day and just needed a hug, or to hear her say “yeah, it’s all right.” Feeling like I had permission to ask for her support was a huge relief from all the stress I’d been carrying.
But I was still struggling with helping the couples I was seeing. They’d just yell and scream, and I’d either look on helplessly or offer suggestions that fell flat. It was around this time that I reached out to couples therapist Sue Johnson. I told her about the mess I was in, and she flew out and trained me in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. After that, I started to have a little more success helping these partners do what I’d just done on my own marriage—which was to see the value of having deeper conversations, and to understand that this openness wasn’t a sign of weakness but a way of being more authentic and real.
I learned to pace treatment, too. I think many therapists push for change way too fast. They don’t appreciate the good reasons for walls and defenses. In therapy, I don’t even use the word vulnerability. Instead, I encourage my clients to be more authentic, more present, more real. When I worked with firefighters, I found that if I met them where they were, it opened up more space for vulnerability to emerge.
I know from experience that as a PTSD survivor, your whole operating system is trying to keep feelings under wraps. So I learned to honor the function of people’s defenses. I learned to say, “Hey, I get how your ability to stay calm under pressure, to turn off emotion, to be logical and rational, really works in so many settings.”
Many firefighters I worked with talked about the moments right before they’d shut down. They’d talk about feeling like a failure, as if they were letting people down, as if they should be stronger. These guys were not only alone with their sense of failure and helplessness, but beating themselves up for feeling that way. My goal became getting them to see the value of just letting me in. When they did, the changes they were able to make in their relationships were profound.
A parallel process was going on for me. Shifting away from the culture of keeping quiet wasn’t easy for me, but every time I had a successful intervention with a couple, I’d bring some of that success home and try it out with my wife. Doing this work was part of my own healing, part of recovering from my own trauma of losing people I loved, from feeling helpless, from PTSD.
I chased that healing every week with my couples. Their stories caused me to confront feelings I would’ve probably otherwise avoided. Now, I’m seeing signs of post-traumatic growth in myself. I’ve found meaning. Before 9/11, I used to be a bit of a party guy, but working with these couples made my life more intentional and purposeful. If you’d told me back then that this was going to happen, I probably would’ve punched you in the face.
I retired in 2016, after 21 years as a firefighter, because I needed two sinus surgeries—a nice gift of 9/11. But I still carry the lessons I learned with me.
Today, in my therapy work, I try to help people see what’s important for their own healing, not just for doing their jobs better. A lot of times, I’ll ask the men I work with, “What’s it like to think about your son feeling scared or helpless? What would you do as a dad?” They’ll almost always say something like, “Well, I’d get in there and pick him up and give him a hand.” So they know perfectly how to give help; they just don’t know how to ask for it, or how to receive it. It’s not their fault. It’s because they never really got it themselves. When you allow men to tap into that longing, they start to realize that asking for help isn’t a weakness, but a strength.
This is their story, and it’s my story as well. Instead of hiding my insecurities, I’ve learned to risk being vulnerable. I’ve learned to ask for help. In the arms of others, I’ve experienced the healing power of connection. I can face and soothe my fears with the reassurance of love.
George Faller, LMFT, is the founder of the New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy. He teaches at the Ackerman Institute for the Family and is the director of training at the Center for Hope and Renewal. He’s coauthor of Sacred Stress: A Radical Approach, True Connection: Using NAME IT model to Heal Relationships, and Emotionally Focused Family Therapy: Restoring Connection and Promoting Resilience.