I’ve been going through a bit of a mental struggle over the past few days. I’ve been feeling vulnerable – deep inside – in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. On the outside I am seen as this strong, confident, capable woman. I am “Mommy” to my kids, I am “Doctor” to my patients, I am “Teacher” to my medical students, and I am an amalgamation of all of these things, and more, to everyone around me. Inside however, I feel like a small child, quivering in a corner somewhere, needing someone to wrap their strong, protective arms around me and offer me comfort and support.
For me, this is a primitive feeling – something that I have experienced many times before and carry somewhere deep in my psyche. It feels a little bit strange to me now because it’s been quite a while since the last time this feeling was so strong. Regardless, it feels like me. I haven’t acted on this feeling; partly because I don’t have anyone to be that person, and partly because doing anything about it would mean vulnerability. My last experience with vulnerability… well, it didn’t go so well.
It’s been two months since K stopped being my friend. It’s been even longer if you count the time that she needed space and we stopped talking. When I’m feeling this way, I miss her and I think about all the times she was that person for me. Almost a year ago now, she was the first person I went to when my world crumbled beneath me, and I cried on her shoulder. She let me cry on her shoulder. But today, there is nothing like that. I am taking a break from work because I have been balancing the taught line between “okay” and “not okay” for just a little too long – and part of that is her fault, too (or is it my fault…?). The truth is, now I am scared to let myself be vulnerable like that again.
A week ago I failed to keep myself together in front of the surgery foundations liaison. At that time I resisted being vulnerable, and when my efforts failed she was kind and compassionate and encouraged me to put myself first. That day I didn’t want to be vulnerable; but today, I imagine myself back in that office and letting that sobbing, crumpled little girl come out and be caressed. I know I can’t do that. What else do I have?
Dr. E. is one of the emergency physicians at my hospital. I see her often and she calls me frequently to see and admit patients for surgery. She is fun to joke around with, she is kind, and she has a friendly smile. Dr. E. is also the physician who leads the residency advocacy office. Just before Christmas I sat in her office and revealed all my fears, weaknesses, and struggles, and she offered me advice and suggestions. Since then we have been in touch over email, talking about my plans for a break. Behind the emergency room consults and smiles she shares, she knows the worst parts of me and she doesn’t let on. Every time I’ve seen her in the past few days, I’ve yearned to collapse in the chair beside her and be vulnerable. I know I can’t do that, either.
I want to believe in the power of vulnerability, especially in the way Brené Brown represents it. I want to open up my heart and connect with people in a way that satisfies the innermost part of my being: my inner child, who right now is struggling to stay alive. What happened with K is exactly what we risk when we open up and let ourselves be seen. I was not enough in that moment, and the reality of it has crushed me. I have been working hard to keep up the fight for myself, to stay alive, and to move forward proudly and with confidence. But right now I am failing at that. I wish I had someone to hold onto my vulnerability for a little while, to handle it gently and beautifully, and show me that it’s okay to feel this way.
I feel like I’m starting all over again – and it all starts by taking a break from everything that makes me strong.