Connecting with others

Vulnerability: The path least taken

I wanted to clarify to myself the superimposed meaning people were placing behind the word “care,” and why others can “care” for their whole lives and feel fulfillment from that while others feel the opposite.


Many people around me have warned, “Be careful of caring too much, otherwise you’ll get burnt out.”

I always listen, curious about the origin behind the words. What I have eventually come to understand is that each person shares a piece of their experience through the lens of their level of awareness and understanding of themselves when they hold space for others in their suffering.

I voyaged on a quest to understand why many people felt this way about extending care for others over some period of time. Rather, I wanted to clarify to myself the superimposed meaning people were placing behind the word “care,” and why some can “care” for their whole lives and feel fulfillment from that while others have grown to feel the opposite.

Throughout my life, as I’ve interacted with my community and with patients, I have been delving into the origins of language and how it has evolved throughout centuries. The meaning behind words evolves because of the collective and subjective experiences we feel as we express the word. Over time, it changes our stories behind the word, which can then shift our beliefs about the culture in which we live.

Connecting through vulnerability

Consider the word vulnerability. In Latin, “vulnerable” is translated into “vulnerare,” which means “to wound.” Gabor Maté, MD, a retired family medicine physician who devoted much of his work to childhood trauma, further paints it as “our susceptibility to be wounded.” Vulnerability can be described as softening our armor so that we may connect deeply with those around us. As we soften our armor, our hearts are open to others’ stories, and it leaves us more receptive to what arises within. Our experience with vulnerability comes from how willing we are to accept ourselves for who we are, which in turn affects how we receive others.

I used to volunteer as a hospice caregiver at the Zen Hospice Project (ZHP) in San Francisco. My role was to sit at bedside for actively dying patients. I had been studying Buddhist philosophy for many years prior and was captivated by ZHP’s model for bedside care. We meditated for 10 minutes before seeing patients so we could empty ourselves to be fully present for anything that was to come that day. When our shift was done, volunteers returned to a quiet room, meditated and debriefed on how the patients were doing. As I listened to the stories of many patients, often sitting for two to three hours at a time, I felt the most transformed and grateful when my heart was receptive to newer insights and stories.

Healing through stories

I met a patient in his seventies, whose name I’ve long forgotten. He had dementia and was nearing death. I asked him about war, his family, what he loved most about his children. For a brief moment, he was extremely angry with his daughter, who hadn’t visited him for years. Profanity replaced her name between pursed lips. I listened, allowing myself to feel discomfort as the caliber of his emotional valence rekindled my own pain that was prominent in my childhood.

I focused my attention on my breath, feeling my heart opening up to understand his pain. As I asked him questions about his resentment, the movement of his emotions allowed me to reach inward to touch a part of myself feeling a similar pain. Every obstacle creates an opportunity for teaching, and this created an opening for healing in myself, and perhaps in him, too.

We talked some more, and then the clock struck 12:30 p.m., so it was time for me to leave.

I drove home that day reminiscing on my childhood, the patient’s anger and how the movement of energy within my body had changed from that interaction. I felt the potential for pain through vulnerability, but I understood well that the tendency of the human heart is to alchemize pain into compassion if we welcome pain in.

Through vulnerability, I channeled my inner mother, the part of me that knew how to nurture myself exactly as I needed. As I looked with awareness within my heart for understanding, I became less afraid as I learned to see things as they were without my past narrative fabricating its meaning.

Vulnerability to me means receiving that of another without resistance. It is holding space and being a vessel for another person’s expression, while having awareness of what is happening within. Caring about another person means having compassion, but it does not require us to identify with another’s emotional valence. We need not take the gravity of their experience as our own, but only hold space for their expression.

Taking care of each other

Where I believe the misconception of caring for another creates burnout is from our unawareness of accidentally taking on another’s experience as our own. From that unawareness, we might feel an internal dissonance and mistakenly believe that it was the person we talked to instead of realizing we were unconsciously attached to their stories. Attachment limits our ability to see things as they are – we are not their stories and our reactions within are not who we are. The art of mindfulness becomes important here.

Vulnerability also means leaning into the unknown with courage. Many times, I came to hospice not knowing what happened with the patients from the time I left until that day. I came in unsure of whether I would be reminded of my unhealed pain through their end-of-life confessions. I also left not knowing if today would be our last time spent together. Through it all, I walked in with the feeling that I was capable of meeting whatever arose that day. Vulnerability is synonymous with courage. It is an understated quality of the word, which carries great meaning and allure.

Our capacity for healing within each other

One of the tenets of the osteopathic principles is that our body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing and health maintenance. Our presence and kindness have the capacity to create much healing and peace for another if we are so genuine with it. This is synergy. Similar to the concept of companion planting, in which certain herbs grow well in the presence of other species of herbs, our relation to another creates companionship and strength. Because of this, there are reasons to lead with vulnerability through the heart space.

The beauty in vulnerability is the gift we offer to ourselves and others through it. Leading with vulnerability can feel as if we are spiraling into the unknown, trusting our senses to guide us while blindfolded. Yet, with every struggle there is a tremendous transformation that arises. Obstacles create a vacuum of focus, as we are creatures equipped for survival.

The inner transformation can lead to compassion, patience or humility, among others. It is a gift we are so privileged to offer as we connect with patients throughout their toughest moments. The path least taken holds many unwritten stories, and walking it allows for the immeasurable fortune of discovering one’s ability to connect with others, which is an invaluable offering to humanity.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Becoming the medical expert in my family

How I navigated my grandfather’s death as a medical student

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