On Vulnerability and Courage

April 29, 2013

Julie by Moumine

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Moumine.

In my neighborhood there is a long, steep hill I avoid walking up. I strategically plan my walks so that I go down this hill. It’s long and steep. A few weeks ago I was walking for clarity, hoping that one foot in front of the other would ease an ache in my heart, and on my way down the hill I passed a young mother who was pushing two small children in a stroller. They were going up. Barely.

She wore a Boston marathon qualifier shirt, so I knew she was no lightweight, but she was several steps behind the stroller, leveraging her body, her arms fully outstretched. She was nearly parallel to the ground as she inched her way up the hill. I made a joke about how I try to avoid walking myself up the hill, and here she was, pushing two kids. Amazing! She smiled and panted, “This is harder than I thought it would be.”

I offered to help. There was room for two of us on that stroller handle. I even half-turned up the hill, sure she’d take me up on it.

Although she was clearly struggling, she declined.

I was disappointed. She needed me, and helping her would have helped me, too. We could have shared the burdens of motherhood and humanity for just a few minutes, and then we would have gone our separate ways, both a little better off.

But she declined. It only took me about two steps to start judging her. There she was, clearly in need of some help. And there I was, ready and willing to help. An offering of needed hands was right there, and she rejected it. She said no. Aren’t some people funny? I thought.

And then. A friend of mine came walking up the hill. A friend I don’t know well, but whom I already love and trust. Her kind face lit up. “Amy! How are you?” and in a split-second I considered my choices. I could tell her honestly about the sadness I was feeling, and my ready tears could spill over for a moment. I knew she’d care, and I knew I’d feel better if I let her care about me.

“I’m fine,” I lied. “How are you?” She was fine, too, and we both kept walking.


You’ve seen Dr. Brené Brown’s wonderful TED talk on vulnerability, right? If you haven’t watched it lately, it’s worth revisiting. I’ve been thinking a lot about how being vulnerable can be scary, but it’s the path to authenticity. And then this experience on my walk put this theory to the test. I know I missed out on something by not sharing honestly. Have you found that it takes courage to share your reality? Does it make you stronger or happier? How do you go about helping others or receiving help when you need it?

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{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sharon @ Discovering Blog April 29, 2013 at 9:29 am

Man, what a nice gift it is that you shared something so personal! And painful.

I find that I sometimes hold back because of my fear of burdening people. I’ll tell my husband if I’ve been up all night worrying about something at work, or I might find some bonding with other mom friends about common struggles with the kids, but I’m not sure what I’d do if I was faced with something I couldn’t go to either about. I also don’t like to feel indebted to others, so that might be why the mom didn’t take you up on the offer. I’m more than happy to help someone, but I never know if I’m supposed to tip someone or make them dinner in exchange for kindness. Even though I don’t expect that type of payment for my help!

I over think things too much, I’m afraid.


2 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 10:03 am

Sharon, thanks so much for saying it’s a gift. That’s so nice of you.

I think burdening others is a common reason we don’t share, but I find that I am rarely burdened when others share with me. I feel grateful they trust me, or glad to know I can help, even if it’s just a listening ear. I am trying to remember this when I need a friend. It’s an interesting place to figure out our feelings of indebtedness.


3 Lisette Wolter-McKinley April 29, 2013 at 9:44 am

As women we don’t like to allow others to help us or ease our burdens as often as we should. We’ve all said, ” I am fine” and kept moving through life.


4 Misty April 29, 2013 at 10:28 am

I think, too, we often project how we’re feeling on someone else – and should be just as cautious of that as the idea we must do everything alone.Is it possible this mom was going up the hill purposefully? That she thought – today I’m conquering this hill! Or maybe, she had chocolate cake for breakfast and this was her balance? Who knows why she did what she did, or why she chose to. However, I think it is important to take a step back before we throw her in the “how dare she not accept help -poor her!” category and in stead look at this story as a reminder that sometimes when people offer to help, even if we don’t need/want it, perhaps they need to help us for THEM.


5 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 11:18 am

Yes, yes, Misty, she may have had a thousand good reasons for not wanting my help. I absolutely agree. It was just so ironic that I judged her for not accepting such obvious help, and then I refused help in the next breath. Much more a lesson about me than her.


6 Erin April 29, 2013 at 10:35 am

This was refreshing and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing. At the moment I have a heavy stroller load of worries I’m pushing up a hill. Having read this, I just might rethink letting someone else push alongside me for awhile, should she come my way. If she doesn’t, well, I know I’ll make it to the top okay, but probably all the more exhausted for having born the burden alone. Sometimes allowing others to help us is so much harder than offering to help others, isn’t it?


7 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 11:21 am

Erin, I hope hope hope she shows up at just the right moment. Thank you for your lovely comment.


8 Jenny D. April 29, 2013 at 10:43 am

I can relate to this story so much. After going through a very difficult trail in my life, where I could no longer say “No thanks, I’m fine” to the help people offered but so badly wanted to, I learned a profound lesson. If you see a need, don’t stop to ask!!! Because 99.999999% of the time they will turn you down. If we see someone drowning we would throw them a life preserver or jump in ourselves, we wouldn’t stop to ask if they needed help. What would the mother have done if you put your hand on the handle and made a joke about needing a good arm workout to go along with the leg workout” or simply “Let me help” while jumping in. There may have been a moment of awkwardness, but in a couple more steps that would have vanished (most likely). I also try not to ask “How are you?” anymore because I already know the answer! To show them that I am genuinely interested in knowing how they are doing I try to ask a more specific question, even if they don’t go into detail at least they know I’m aware of them. Thanks for your post, this topic is one that is near and dear to me!


9 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 11:24 am

Such great advice, Jenny, to just jump in and help. During a really busy time, a friend brought over a couple of meals that saved me, but if she’d asked me first I would have said we’d be ok without them. I love your analogy of throwing out the life preserver.


10 Jenny D. April 29, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Yes! I accepted help from many people who offered it during that particular time for me, but there were many others who didn’t stop to ask and those seemed to be the real life saving acts.


11 Angela April 29, 2013 at 10:44 am

We’re all fine. We’re very busy showing how we can do it all my ourselves and we miss out on so many chances to connect with another. To pull one another up the hill. This was lovely.


12 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 11:25 am

Angela, thanks. I think connections are what will get us through.


13 Lucy Mitchell April 29, 2013 at 11:06 am

I think we are usually way more comfortable offering help rather than accepting it. I wonder is it a modern phenomenon? It seems like previous generations seemed to take for granted that it was okay to accept help, that it was normal. I know if someone gives one of my kids a lift home from school or a party it is a little worry in the back of my mind until I have repaid the favour. Anyway, its an interesting topic, and I hope your worries are sorted out soon.


14 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 11:27 am

Thanks, Lucy. Worries are in the process of being sorted. And yes, many women I know are much more willing to offer help than receive it. I’m working on accepting–sometimes simply in the form of opening up.


15 Carter Higgins April 29, 2013 at 11:29 am

This is a lovely, lovely story. So glad you shared it, thank you.


16 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Thank you so much, Carter.


17 Lena April 29, 2013 at 11:37 am

This is so lovely written. I too have a feeling, especially here in the States, that we try to “pretend” everything is fine all the time. But it would be even so much better, if we’d uncovered the vulnerable shell and show the humanity under. That is when we connect the most. Thank you, I’ll have something to think about..


18 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 1:22 pm

It’s the humanity that means the most, isn’t it? I think those connections are what get us through. Thanks, Lena.


19 Justin April 29, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Your best post yet. Beautiful.


20 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Thanks, dear.


21 Chelle April 29, 2013 at 1:22 pm

I’m often embarrassed to share my troubles, because how could I burden friends who are going through so much more than I am? I grieved for an aunt who suddenly passed away, but my cousins had lost their mother. When I’m struggling at work, in what is otherwise a great job, should I tell my friends who struggle with unemployment? If I’m feeling lonely, should I cry on the shoulder of the friend who lost a grandchild?

I should note that each of these friends and family members did, indeed, listen and love me. And I do the same for them. Comparisons are never good. But it can be hard to burden others with our troubles.


22 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Chelle, me, too. My troubles are small compared to what many others face and I don’t want to seem so self-absorbed. I think it’s wise to decide what we share with whom, but I also think we’re a little harder on ourselves than we would be on our friends.


23 meg April 29, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I come here for Amy’s writing and I am edified each and every time. Thank you Design Mom for giving this amazing voice a place to shine.


24 June April 29, 2013 at 2:22 pm

me too!


25 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Yaaaay for Design Mom! Thank you, Meg. You’re the best.


26 Sara April 29, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Love this – thank you, Amy, for being vulnerable enough to share about your fear of vulnerability – I, for one, can definitely identify with this.


27 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Thanks, Sara. This makes me smile.


28 June April 29, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I needed to hear this today. I would much rather take a meal or give service to a family than admit my family was in need. What will people think of me? What if they find out I struggle? ugh…the ever present need to look the part of the women who has her stuff together.
I think most women have played each role in your story. I know I’ve smiled and said I was fine, when I was obviously in need of some help. I know I’ve been pushing my stroller thinking & judging unfairly, “there she goes, that *Amy….I’ve never seen her walk uphill….she only seems to walk downhill. It’s not fair.”
And so I wouldn’t dream of asking Amy – who always walks downhill – to help me push my cart up a hill! How embarassing!
I’ve been the one who offers to help, but is kindly turned down, and then I too was promptly offended. And to be fair, I have spent quite a few times as the kid riding in the cart, oblivious to any thing going on other than a joy ride out on a lovely day. Women going up and women going down, while I am distracted by the half eaten Oreo in my car seat. I guess I need to be more aware of the part I play each day.
Thank you so much for such a beautiful reminder that we are all much more alike than we are different. Next time someone asks me “How are you?” I may just answer, “If you really want to know, you’re going to have to sit down and get comfortable…this will take a while”. Isn’t that how we make the best friends anyway?
Thanks Amy – Lovely post – as always.
You pushed me up my hill today and you didn’t even know it.


29 Amy Hackworth April 29, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Wow, June, so many good points. It’s hard to ask someone to help who appears to have it all together when we feel like we’re falling apart. That’s why I think it’s so important that we choose honesty and vulnerability more often, because I think we’re less alone that it appears.

And yes, the kids in the stroller, totally oblivious. I’ve been there, too.

Thanks, thanks for saying that I pushed you up your hill today. That’s the nicest, June.


30 Anna April 29, 2013 at 3:17 pm

What a great piece! I think you’re right that we all probably need to allow ourselves to be more vulnerable – it’s certainly easier to be in the “strong” position of offering help than in the “weak” position of accepting it.
But at the same time, if she had let you help, she wouldn’t have felt quite the same sense of accomplishment and power when she got up the hill. And maybe you needed to act strong in order to feel strong for the moment. In that split second of deciding whether to say, “I’m fine” or “Actually, things have been tough”, you generally have to just choose the one that feels right – and hopefully when you really do need to talk, you’ll meet someone who’s willing to listen.
Thanks for the post! I’ve been accepting a lot of help recently and wanting to do more in return … but I’m going to try to let go of that feeling of indebtedness.


31 Abfab April 29, 2013 at 4:24 pm

What a nice thing you offered to do! I wonder why the mother didn’t accept your help. That puzzles me.
On the vulnerability part, I’m going through something challenging in my family right now, primarily with my daughter and I feel I have no support. I finally opened up to a few friends; I feel soooo vulnerable…less strong…and quite honestly, I’m not sure I feel better for “opening up” but I know I’d feel worse if I did not.


32 Lesley April 29, 2013 at 6:26 pm

My initial reaction was that the mom was protecting her babies. In today’s society, parents need to stay vigilant all the time, which is sad, but a fact of life in these times. I disagree with the advice to jump in and help push. That would stress a parent to a great degree. So, don’t look back on this situation and take it personally. The mom was just guarding her precious babies.


33 Joy April 29, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Amy, I loved this. Here’s why: I have two little ones that are 20 months apart. Countless times, I was the mother with the gigantic stroller, one of my babies (or often, both) crying, struggling to get through a doorway, struggling to just pick up a few things at the store, trying to load groceries in the car. I would have LOVED some help in those moments, and would have accepted the help gladly. So many times, the clerks just watched me sweat and fumble with the doors, never offering to help. I used to get frustrated and look up and send a “what-is-wrong-with-people?” God’s way.

So keep offering, because someone like me sometime will thank you profusely.


34 Candice April 29, 2013 at 6:38 pm

I think what is hard about “burdening” others with our troubles is that we feel like we’d be transferring the total weight of the situation to them even though for them the load would be lighter and manageable for a short while. We live across the country from our families so that my husband can have his dream job but it means raising babies absolutely alone. Our first had colic and just cried and cried and cried for three months. It was exhausting and soul-crushing and I can’t say that I have any great memories from that time, which in itself hangs on my heart. I never felt like I could ask a friend, of which we fortunately have many, to come over and help out for two hours to give my hearing and sanity a break, but I’d do it in an instant for someone in the same spot.


35 Katie April 29, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Thank you for this beautiful post. It comes at such an appropriate time. I lost my father four months ago, and today is his birthday. He would have been 83. There have been so many times that people have asked me ” how are you doing” and I reply “just fine” when all I really want is permission to cry and grieve. I also have two children, the double stroller and know of that hill all too well. I hate asking for help- and will keep pushing forward by myself no matter how much I would love to let it all go and release it- and cry and cry until all the tears are gone for that day. Thank you for letting me see we are all vulnerable at times- whether it be a loss or a hardship- we all need help.


36 Sarah April 30, 2013 at 12:03 am

I am quite willing to be vulnerable. I love just feeling like I can be open and transparent. I’m just struggling lately to find someone to be vulnerable to/with. It just feels like everyone is caught up in their lives. I’m trying to find interests and get all caught up in my own life, but truth be told, my favorite, favorite thing is to feel connected with other people and to have my life intersect with theirs. I feel rather not connected with some people around me, that I would very much like to be connected with. It’s a bit tricky. And painful.


37 Jillian April 30, 2013 at 8:41 am

LOVED this!


38 Kirsty April 30, 2013 at 1:18 pm

This is so beautiful. Thank you. I will be sharing it, it seems the appropriate thing to do :)


39 Joan April 30, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Thank you for your post. I had Stage IV lymphoma several years ago – primary site in the bones. A friend took me to the doctor and afterwards asked me if I would like some chicken noodle soup and chicken salad. My first thought was to say “no” but I paused and said how lovely that would be. It was in that instance that I knew that my husband and I were barely eating because of my illness. We lived I condominium and the kitchen/living area were one big space. I realized I had not been in the kitchen in weeks if not months because I was so ill (undiagnozed for years). I learned a great lesson and was, and will be, forever grateful for the little acts of kindness that come my way (cured BTW – 9 years out).


40 Emily April 30, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Amy, you are an amazing writer! I could totally relate, but even better, it made me take a moment and think. You haven’t changed from high school. I know we were never close friends, but I always thought you were one of the most kind, genuine people in our school, not to mention you have a beautiful smile. I’m so glad I came across this today.


41 marymary April 30, 2013 at 5:09 pm

What a beautifully done little piece this was. Thank you.


42 Melissa T. April 30, 2013 at 11:38 pm

I love that you are self reflecting enough to instantly realize that your “I’m good” was parallel to the mothers refusal for help.
I am sorry you were feeling down and needed a cry. I love you.
I was just given Brene Brown’s book “The Gifts of Imperfection” to read. I am excited to learn more!


43 Danyelle May 1, 2013 at 10:58 pm

It is a good day when a post written Amy Hackworth pops up on Design Mom.

This piece was so beautifully written, Amy. I can’t stop thinking of how I would have reacted as the stroller pushing mom. I would like to think that I would have accepted but really, I’m not so certain. You’ve given me much to ponder.


44 Christine May 2, 2013 at 1:09 pm

This touches on something I need to work on. It can be so hard to let people in, and I need to remind myself of all the times it’s been worthwhile.


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