The Power of Vulnerability

Few people are lucky enough to be completely vulnerable.

I bet you reread that sentence. Don’t feel bad; before I became a medical school student, I would have had the same confused expression on my face as you likely do right now.

As a society, we associate the word “vulnerable” with weakness, helplessness, and inadequacy. Most of us put on a façade of absolute strength every day. We hide our insecurities, struggles and stresses to a certain degree. Why?

I say few people are lucky enough to be vulnerable, because being vulnerable allows one to feel safe. It allows one to accept unconditional love. It allows us to come out of hiding and reveal the true person that lies within, below the societal cloak.

As a medical student, I have struggled greatly with showing vulnerability because of a certain image I created of how a medical student should be; molded by my upbringing and life experiences.  

The truth is, we face some high expectations. There is an underlying societal framework of how we should be and act as well as the common perfectionist attitude we have. It can be debilitating.

We fear others will judge us if they find out we are getting tutoring. Many of us would rather go uninformed than to risk asking a stupid question in class. However, vulnerability is an act of courage and sign of self-awareness which is impeded by fear and shame.

I did not know this until my own education was in jeopardy.

My own personal struggles academically stemmed back into my childhood, rooted in a lack of emotional support from my family. In the past I was able to withstand my foundation despite these ill-formed pieces; I showed no vulnerability. I never asked for help from others. I lost that ability the day I became a medical student.

Before I came to PNWU, I acted the way I was raised by my parents: don’t show emotion or vulnerability. I did not have an emotional relationship with my parents and was punished when I asked for help. Like many others, my parents view vulnerability as a sign of weakness. However, as they pushed me beyond my limits, they still expected perfection. I did not feel unconditional love and acceptance from them and felt I had to earn their love and respect. My lack of support system and fear of disappointing my parents was the root of my academic struggles.

At this time, I was forced to reach out to others for help. There was no way I could pick myself up. A friend of mine, who had a similar upbringing, suggested that I watch Brene Brown on Ted Talks. Brene Brown is a sociology professor and has several Ted Talks about her research on vulnerability. Through her words, I discovered the truth: vulnerability strengthens human connections.

For connection to occur, however, we have to be completely seen.

Being vulnerable can be a scary thing because it requires us to put ourselves into a helpless position and be completely transparent with our insecurities. Brene Brown discusses how shame and fear deconstruct human connection. For connection to occur, however, we have to be completely seen.

I have learned that vulnerability is vital in being successful in not only medical school, but also in life. We are surrounded by expectations from society. Whether it’s our professors, our families or even ourselves, the weight can be crushing. It is important that we have people in our lives to help us gather that weight; people that we feel safe to be vulnerable around through the high demands and stresses of life. Showing vulnerability around one another allows us to reach each other on a deeper level.

Vulnerability allows us to reach a higher level of self-awareness, recognizing our struggles, insecurities and fears and using that knowledge to take active measures.

As students, we should feel completely safe in our learning environment. As a medical student, the ability to isolate yourself and bury yourself in textbooks is easy, making it easy to fall into the cracks. This is exactly what happened to me.

I would often forget to call my family and friends and would not make time to have fun and socialize. I thought the only way I could get myself out of the deep hole I was in was to study more. However, I was only digging the hole deeper by cutting down on my sleep, eating less and not making time for fun or socializing. I did not realize that I was becoming actively depressed and living an unhealthy lifestyle, and those around me could not identify it either because of my fear of showing vulnerability. I was good at acting like everything was okay. I even believed that everybody in my class was doing well. As it turns out, that misconception came from the mask that medical students often put on when we go to school.

After uncovering the source of my own struggles, I began to see that my own classmates had been going through similar struggles, yet where putting on the same front as me. We were tearing ourselves down without even knowing it.

It is necessary that we develop these skills early on, especially when we become physicians. As future physicians, I must be able to recognize that I don’t always know the answer and identify times when I need help, especially when a patient’s health is involved. I must work with a team of trusted colleagues to provide the best care that I can. Vulnerability aids in our own success as well as those around us.

Nobody can go through medical school alone and be successful, and the same is true of life. We all need an emotional support system, and the faster we accept that fact, the faster we can shape our world.

Stephanie Truong

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Stephanie Truong