On Authenticity AND Vulnerability.

I wanted to talk about these two items today because I feel like a lot of people equate these to each other. As long as you’re authentic, you’re vulnerable, right? Perhaps. But to really be both of these things I do think you need to make them discrete parts. As humans, showing weakness is pretty much the opposite of what anyone is supposed to do. It’s not a survival instinct because you have to be strong to survive.

While it still holds true in some cases that the strong survive and showing weakness is…a sign of weakness — in a lot of jobs now, especially in the healthcare field, vulnerability from clinicians can be very helpful and sometimes it’s necessary. Perhaps I can only speak to the more “rehab”-based professions because I don’t know what it’s like as a physician, nurse, or dentist, but in my line of work, it’s incredibly important to have excellent communication. And that requires trust, which requires vulnerability, which then, also, requires authenticity.

So it starts with authenticity. It starts with just being ourselves. In the athletic training field it seems that having a personality is highly welcomed. This doesn’t mean we can absolutely freely speak and act, but because so much of being an athletic trainer requires building relationships with athletes and coaches, we need that personality aspect. I know who I am — I’m the person who wears really flat and thin shoes (I’ve been asked “what are THOSE??” countless times), is eating all the time in clinic (“it’s bulking season, guys!”), drinks a lot of coffee, and almost always has to crack a joke. Of course this kind of stuff shows up more so after you graduate, but I think it’s important to be our authentic selves in some way.

The only caveat is that our individual personality styles don’t always work with every coach, athlete or coworker. In that case, sure, it takes some sacrifice from both sides, but we need to take ownership of the potential mismatch. Authenticity in the workplace has to have some limits, right? We’ve got a responsibility to be the bigger person here and work on ways to connect with people who have personalities that we’re “at odds” with. So we should be authentic, but we should always be aware of any extra steps we need to take.

So, next: vulnerability. Like I said, it’s not in everyone’s nature to be vulnerable. Perhaps it’s not a part of anyone’s nature. And being vulnerable as a clinician could be any number of things — it could be the ability to admit it when we’re wrong (potentially more valuable with coworkers after an issue arises), or the ability to say, “hey, I’m not perfect but I aim to protect athletes above all else” (potentially more valuable with athletes/coaches as a sort of disclaimer). It could be sharing information about our own lives with athletes, such as our own dealings with injuries (as long as we don’t assume athletes react the same way we do and apply it to ourselves). It could be sitting down with our athletes, looking them in the eye, and being serious for once — “hey, I care about you, let’s work on this together”.

The reason vulnerability is important is that it precedes the ability to be honest with each other. When we’re vulnerable with one another, it’s usually a sign of trust or shows at least some semblance of a relationship — which then allows room for honesty. Of course, trust isn’t always established immediately, and it’s not automatically permanent — in this setting, it can be fragile, but it’s very precious. In the college and high school settings, the most you might work with an athlete is 5 years — it’s not like a relationship or marriage where you have the potential to be there for much longer. In athletics, stakes are high, tensions can be high, and it’s so very important to communicate with each other — coach to athlete, athlete to athletic trainer, athletic trainer to coach, etc. If there is no trust, or at least some semblance of vulnerability/attempt at a good relationship, then it makes everything a lot harder.

And honesty is very, very hard. There’s always a fear that you’re being too honest, or saying too much, so it’s very easy to constantly hold back out of that fear. Well I’m here to tell you — that’s a very valid fear. However, I will say, as clinicians, our entire job hinges on being honest with people, so it may not seem that difficult for us. But think about the athlete’s point of view — they may not want to disappoint us, they may not want to show their own vulnerability (I mean, we have been known to take them out of play, you know?). So we need to absolutely make sure that we are opening that line of communication by telling them over and over again. I don’t mean every single day, but every so often, they may need a reminder.

As a very action-oriented person I have always thought that actions were enough. However, the other half of my love language is that I love words. I love hearing people be more real with me, I crave that vulnerability. It’s how I find my kindred spirits (or something like that) — I love people who enjoy sarcasm and dark humor, just as much as I love people who know how to encourage and support me. But — for some reason I got it in my head that all athletes needed were fun jokes and laughter, as well as some action-oriented items such as working with them on their injuries. It didn’t click with me that I needed words until just a few years ago, so it didn’t click with me that my athletes might.

It’s so important to remind our athletes that we are there for them, that they are able to approach us with anything — but we also need to recognize that a big part of our job is looking for signs that they need our help (which is why it’s important to understand their personality types) and potentially being that first person to reach out. I know I spend a heavy part of the day in my own head. I may always be wondering what I’m doing wrong, or worrying about what’s next, or what else I need to be doing — so my challenge is to get out of my own head and think more about others. It doesn’t mean I ignore my own issues, but it means that I will use my mind and my energy more wisely.

We need to make sure we remember that we are working with humans, above all else. Humans who have emotions, thoughts, feelings, nuances, quirks just like we ourselves have. If we take that out of the picture, then yes, we have robots who we can make physically feel better with scientific and physical interventions. But we can’t take that out of the picture, and why would you want to? Where else would we use our critical thinking skills? Ha. What I love about The Level Up Initiative (which inspired this post) is that some of the coolest, most amazing clinicians out there are being vulnerable with us mentees. It inspires me to be similarly vulnerable with the people around me (I’ve already got the authenticity part in the bag, obviously…) and be the best clinician that I can be.

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