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On Vulnerability


The breaking point was here…

“I just want children to have a good life”, I wailed and started tearing up. The psychologist had a soft English accent, kind of like Andy Tagg -an audiobook narrator. I had been completing my first ever child protection notification for a parent that I thought, was too mentally unwell to care for her children.

“Erica, that’s what we all want.”

I came to realise, this had all spilt over because I was afraid to be vulnerable.

A Degree of Distance

I used to think that maybe I’d have to be like a crocodile to survive my nursing career, have a hard exterior and not let things get through my thick skin. As someone who has been in hospital too many times to count, I knew that nurses, doctors and allied health see some terrible situations and some patients’ lives are fair less than ideal.

I must be hard, I felt, in order to deal with those things.

Throughout nursing school, we were always taught that there’s a degree of distance that should be maintained between ourselves and our patients. Therapeutic relationships should develop but keep them superficial.  

But it’s not that simple, patients also need to know we’re human, and so do our colleagues.

And maybe I extended the distance too much. In 2019 I was interviewed for an as yet unpublished post-doctoral research study about nurses ‘who live with differently-abled perspectives’. I spilt my stories out to the researcher, who recorded them dutifully. Some people knew nothing about the challenges I lived with because I didn’t feel like I could tell them, I worried about what people would think of me. I worried that by being vulnerable it would set me apart, I would look less than.

Maybe it’s becoming more socially acceptable to share our struggles. From CrazySocks4Docs to other health professionals online sharing their mental and physical health concerns; maybe times are changing.

Extending Compassion to Yourself

But as I’ve headed along the path of allowing myself to feel my own vulnerability, I’ve also learnt that I need to extend the same compassion that I so freely give to my patients, to myself.

Compassion means a lot of different things depending on your school of thought. Most major religions have a concept relating to compassion and how it is needed in order to be a ‘good’ follower of the said religion. One of the major researchers in the world of compassion is Professor Paul Gilbert, a psychologist who has written about compassion, and has formed the framework behind Compassion Focused Therapy.

But as a profession, are we good at choosing self-compassion? Well, some of the research says no. In a study of Palliative Care staff, a higher score in caring for others was linked to lower scores in caring for one’s self. But maybe that was a unique situation, that area does see a lot of death. But it isn’t a unique result, several other studies have had similar findings.

How often have you been excessively hard on yourself?

Have you chided yourself for missing something at work that you wouldn’t have harassed one of your colleagues for missing?

So instead of a crocodile, maybe I should be more like a Pavlova*  

Not so raw and fragile that everything causes an assault on my very being, but with a soft and lighter side below the surface.

*For those who aren’t from Australia and New Zealand, a Pavlova dessert is made of egg whites and sugar. The best thing about the pav, is that it has a slightly crisp outer layer, but remains soft and light inside.

There is some dispute about if it’s from New Zealand or Australia or New Zealand (but that’s another story).


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