Vulnerability in Medical Education

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Picture of Danya Khoujah
Danya Khoujah
An emergency physician who is so fascinated by the science of teaching and learning that she completed a faculty development fellowship and a Master’s degree in Education in the Health Professions. Her interests include faculty development, mentoring, and bias in evaluation. In her free time, she loves to cook, travel, and eat.

The Pre-brief

Vulnerability is an essential trait for growing as a teacher, learner, healthcare practitioner, and leader. However, it is not emphasized as a desirable trait or even understood. This post is part of a series examining how vulnerability can be practiced, nurtured, and taught in medical education.

So let’s start with this: What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability is not weakness.

Vulnerability is taking an emotional risk by exposing yourself to people around you when you are uncertain of how they will react. 

Simply put, it is putting yourself out there with no assurance of appreciation or even acceptance.

So what does this have to do with medical education?

Vulnerability is also at the core of creativity, innovation, and change. 

If you are not vulnerable, you cannot share your creations with the world.

If you are not vulnerable, you will not have the courage to change. 

An important reason we struggle with vulnerability is that we frequently connect our self-worth with what we do, rather than who we are. For example, if our paper was not accepted, then we feel as if we were not accepted as people. However, we are much more than that. We are not just the paper that we did not publish or the diagnosis that we did not make. We are the people who are trying to publish papers, conduct studies, and make diagnoses. There are many people who will never feel this way because they simply did not have the courage to put themselves out there and try

So all this philosophizing aside, how can we take these concepts back to our lives as medical educators (our learners included)?

  • It is okay to ask for help

Delinking your self-worth from how much you know or what you are able to do makes it easier to address areas of potential growth head-on and grow into your full potential. In addition, people who attach judgment to receiving help may unconsciously attach judgment to giving out help. 

  • Disconnect academic productivity from self-worth

Along the prior lines, we are worth much more than how many papers we publish, grants we acquire, or promotions we get. Losing sight of this important fact makes it difficult to accept failures, which are bound to happen to anyone courageous enough to try.

  • Appreciate the effort and the courage (from yourself and others)

This is not to say that everyone should get a participation trophy. However, going out of your comfort zone, even by just raising your hand in the class, should be rewarded with at least a simple thank you, an “I see your courage and I appreciate it” nod. 

  • Present your work and share your ideas

When we are comfortable feeling vulnerable and exposed, we are more likely to share our ideas, even if they are different or controversial. We are not as worried about “fitting in” or being “liked”. 

  • Remember that “Perfect” is the opposite of “Done” 

A common way that we avoid being vulnerable is by waiting until something is “perfect” before we share it with the world. Needless to say, this leads to many manuscripts on our desks, innovative lecture proposals in our heads, and drafts of creative curricula, none of which has been submitted for fear of rejection. 

The Debrief

Vulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is putting yourself out there, sharing your creativity and desire for change with the world, which is essential for any medical educator. 

Recommended Reading

  1. Brown, Brene. DARING GREATLY: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. London, England: Portfolio Penguin, 2013

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