“Working under that “push through it and suck it up” mindset is vital to getting through a tough call or safely out of a firefight and back to base. But its helpfulness ends when we’re off shift or back home from a deployment.”
by John Dale
In basic training, one of the primary tenets drilled into service members is that we have to ignore physical pain in order to accomplish our mission. That mentality is also prevalent in the first responder community as well, because we’re doing things that are not only physically demanding but also downright scary at times (even though we don’t want to admit it).
Working under that “push through it and suck it up” mindset is vital to getting through a tough call or safely out of a firefight and back to base. But its helpfulness ends when we’re off shift or back home from a deployment. Since it’s tough to quickly turn off that switch in our brains, many of us stay in that place where we aren’t able to show anyone that we’re struggling — perhaps because we don’t want our teammates to think we’re weak, or we want them to know they can count on us when the time comes, or we don’t want our chain of command to think we’re unfit for duty and take us out of service.
At REBOOT, one of the topics we cover early in our courses is the necessity of humility in the trauma healing process. One of my favorite authors, Dr. Brene Brown, writes in depth about this principle in several of her books. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, she looks at three myths of vulnerability that are important for us to consider.
Myth #1 – Vulnerability is weakness.
Dr. Brown states that “vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable.” This is something that military and first responders come up against all the time – that feeling of, “If I say something, they’ll think I’m weak.” But what if we shift our perspective and instead view asking for help or sharing tough things with other people as a sign of strength?
Myth #2 – I don’t do vulnerability.
Dr. Brown: “When we pretend that we can avoid vulnerability, we engage in behaviors that are often inconsistent with who we want to be.” I’ve seen this play out in my own life and in others. We put on a mask, pretending that we’ve got it all together and even getting defensive when people call us out on the unwise choices we’re making. More often than not, this persona isn’t who we want to be, but a deeper issue is getting in the way of us opening up and showing what’s really going on.
Myth #3 – Vulnerability is letting it all hang out.
Dr Brown: “Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust-building process.” This caught my attention because she is saying that not everyone in our circle of influence is worthy of our vulnerability. We don’t have an obligation to share everything with everyone, but that doesn’t mean we put up a wall for everyone, either. It should be a one-to-one experience of trust.
In another of Dr. Brown’s books, Rising Strong, she writes, “A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance. The problem is, when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hurt by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your butt kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” This is true for me as I’ve learned to trust people more who’ve been through some tough situations, didn’t hide what they were struggling with, and weren’t afraid to ask for help themselves.
And in addition to Dr. Brown’s three myths, allow me to add my own to this list:
Myth #4 – We can go it alone.
Isolation is dangerous for military and first responders. We fight together, take tough calls together, and save lives together, so why do we think that we have to struggle alone? It is vital that we have folks walking alongside us through tough times.
It’s no exaggeration to say I nearly died in isolation. It wasn’t until I asked other men to come alongside me that my life started to change for the better. Once I gave them permission to ask hard questions and hold me accountable, I began to see for myself the healing power of humility.
Dr. Brown says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable but they’re never weakness.” Being vulnerable and asking for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness. Never forget this truth.
John Dale is a former REBOOT course leader, military veteran and first responder