Seven years ago, I decided to retire from nursing, at least temporarily, due to a serious medical condition. In doing that I removed the first descriptor of who I am – a nurse. I was left with an emptiness, a gaping hole that had been filled with a rewarding career built from over two decades of working in healthcare and eight years of undergrad and graduate school. Without that central core of who I was, what was left?
When you introduce yourself, what points do you lead with and what do you leave out? When someone asks you to tell them about yourself, what do you say? It seems in this western world we have developed a sense of what is culturally accepted and what is revered. Aspects like our occupation and our various roles become how we define ourselves. But can you imagine if we described ourselves by who we really are? What would we say? Without those role descriptors who are we really?
This began a new chapter in my journey of personal development – a deep dive into self-discovery. Who am I? What is important to me? What are my values, and what do I need every day to feel fulfilled? Jumping into this self-exploration is scary stuff – it would be much easier for me to pretend that I did not need anything other than being a wife and mother to feel satisfied or fulfilled. But getting honest, telling the truth to myself, well that takes courage and vulnerability. Vulnerability means allowing yourself to be you, in all your weaknesses and strengths, in all your flaws and glory, in real rawness. Vulnerability takes courage, bravery at its most true sense. Shedding the armour we have built against hurt and fear and standing there naked in the light.
For us to show up as ourselves, to be willing to tell the truth to ourselves (and eventually others) as our authentic selves, we must be willing to peel back the layers of image, of walls built up as protection from fear, past hurt, judgment – and accept ourselves with compassion and love. I think vulnerability lives on a continuum, permitting us to choose where we feel safe given the circumstance. My level of vulnerability will be different in a conversation with my best friend whom I have built trust, safety and security, versus a conversation with a new colleague who I want to impress with my confident, image-like self. But I cannot be vulnerable with others unless I am vulnerable with myself, which means unpacking some stuff, and telling my truth. Standing naked in front of others takes courage but standing naked in front of ourselves requires courage and vulnerability. As Brene Brown states, “vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage”.
Telling ourselves the truth requires acceptance, forgiveness, and vulnerability. We do not need to dig into every mistake we have made, every lie we have told, or every fault we own – that would be exhausting and more about self-flagellation than moving forward. Rather, we can accept that we did the best we could with the tools we had at the time and forgive ourselves as flawed human beings. When we do that, we are at the precipice of acceptance, forgiveness and vulnerability, and when we are vulnerable with ourselves, we can be vulnerable with others.
I am still working on how to introduce myself without relying on what I do, what hats I wear in the various roles of my life, and instead lead with who I am at my core. I am a work in progress, as we all are, and my journey in vulnerability is taking me to great places.