When I began down my career in medicine eight years ago, I was told that I needed to become aware of my feelings regarding certain patients and that I would know who those patients were when they appeared. I didn’t know what was meant by this at the time, but over the years, I’ve come across these patients- the ones who make you want to climb out of your skin and give them yours, the ones you admire, the ones you fall in love with, and yes even the ones you want to kind of strangle.
One patient specifically comes to mind- an adorable little 6-year-old girl I’ll call Abbe. Abbe was in our clinic because she has a genetic condition which alters facial bone structure and leads to facial “drooping” as well as ear abnormalities. You can imagine that her face and ears were the butt of many nasty jokes in school, but even as a 6-year-old, she was able to hold them at bay.
She wore a headband that covered her ears, but she informed me this wasn’t because she was embarrassed about their appearance. She just liked wearing headbands. Her mom wore a smile ear-to-ear and asked her daughter to describe her most recent “show-and-tell” talk to the doctor and to me. Abbe explained that she stood up in front of the whole class, took off her headband and said “Look at my ears. I’ve heard you talking about them. They are different than yours, but they’re just a part of me. My ears and my face look like this because I have a genetic condition that makes them look like this. I can’t hear as well as you because of it either. But that’s okay. I can still think like you and feel like you. If you have a question about me, ask me.” Her classmates applauded for her, and I had to stop myself from applauding right then and there in that exam room.
My husband referred to a quote recently from the Simpsons where Nelson attempts to make fun of Bart’s outfit by accusing his “mommy” of buying them for him and Bart’s response is “Of course she did. Who else would?” Nelson didn’t expect this response and says, “Alright Simpson, you win this round!” Abbe and Bart both portray what true confidence is all about, something I am still working to acquire. True confidence is knowing the truth about who you are- what you are worth, what you can accomplish, and what your limits are. True confidence can’t be destroyed by some hurtful words. Words are only hurtful if you let them carry weight, and often just by deflecting them with the truth, there is no rebuttal.
Above and beyond having confidence, I admired Abbe’s vulnerability. Ever since I watched Brene Brown’s TED talk about vulnerability being the key to happiness, I’ve considered my past history of desperately grasping for privacy and silence. I was raised in an atmosphere where I was encouraged to hide everything negative in life with a shroud of darkness so that no one could arm themselves with my weaknesses and use them against me. It was only when I made a pact with myself that I was going to share all of me with the world and force myself to be vulnerable that I realized without secrets, there is nothing for people to arm themselves with. Furthermore, the darkness loses its hold over you and its power when you share it with others. Last but not least, you find that people who love you love you *because* of your light *and* your darkness.
In addition to confidence and vulnerability, Abbe expressed something I see in most people in what could be perceived as negative situations: resilience. She, with the help of her mother, was able to accept her life and her condition as it was without sugar-coating and more than be accepting of it- she took this as a sign that she needed to be strong. People were going to make fun of her, but she was going to stand up for herself. People were going to think she was “different,” and she realized she was, and she grew love for herself in knowing that.
Abbe understood this at 6 years old, and this boggled my mind. But then I imagined myself at 6 years old and realized I had lost some of the confidence I had at that age over the years and that much of it did have to do with losing an accurate perception of what I was and wasn’t capable of. I think a lot of us lose this as we age due to peer pressure or perceived evidence that we are not capable of X, Y, or Z. At 6, most of us have not developed the fear to worry we can’t do something (unless our parents have explicitly told us we can’t), and that allows us to see the world in a much more innocent (and possibly more accurate) way. Abbe didn’t see people talking about her ears as malicious; she understood that she was different and she stated it as such. As we age, we think “different” is negative, but “different” just is. If we were all so confident and vulnerable as to be ourselves whatever the consequences like Abbe, the world would also be a much different place.
I dare you to acknowledge who you are with flaws and all to people you love, to strangers, to the world. I dare you to stop holding back and thinking that people won’t like you when you openly discuss a painful part of your past. I dare you to be vulnerable and be confident in who you are and stop letting words (especially words that you know are not true) hurt you. I dare you to remember who you were at 6 years old and imagine standing up in front of a classroom of your peers and being naked before them (metaphorically at least). And then be “naked” from here on out.
I dare you to comment below with something that you are hard-pressed to admit to anyone else.
I’ll start with me: Many years ago, I spent 3 days in a mental hospital due to suicidal thoughts. It took hitting rock bottom to begin to find reasons for living again.
I have placed a fragile part of me before you here. Will you do the same?