Growing Veterans Peer Support Training (3)

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Blog written by: Sarah Roberts

Note: This blog is Part 3 of a 6-Part Blog Series.

Attending the Growing Veterans Peer to Peer support training was a life changing experience.  In working at Team Red, White & Blue, enrichment is an inherent part of our culture.  It’s one of the keywords in our mission that builds on the premise of social connection, engagement, and authentic relationships.  As a staff member, I’ve always felt it important to maintain certain boundaries both personally and professionally as it relates to connection and relationships in order to cultivate a sense of protection and distance from a job that often times requires a tremendous amount of empathy and emotional energy.  Much of that I attribute to my upbringing.  To be stoic is to be strong and to be positive and supportive to others without asking for help is leadership.  If I’m being honest, that’s what got me through difficult times like attending West Point, Army deployments, command, injuries, letdown, and disappointments.  Vulnerability feels like weakness.  How could I open up and let others see my imperfections and insecurities or even my dreams or aspirations.  I justified this belief saying to myself “it isn’t fair to my team or myself to be vulnerable, they’ll doubt me, lose faith in my abilities, question my leadership.”

After that weekend in the woods in Bellingham, Washington, surrounded by other leaders, veterans, peers, and supporters, that notion was flipped upside down when I was asked to come into the training.  How could I ask my team to be vulnerable if I myself wasn’t willing to be vulnerable?  Each personal story shared that day took a leap of courage, an important step in opening up to a room of strangers.  Some stories bringing tears to my eyes with admiration at the strength needed to open up.  I walked away from that weekend with a whole new appreciation for what empathy is in practice.  

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More importantly, I learned that offering empathy to others takes practice, but receiving empathy also requires practice and is a skill gained through being vulnerable.  It was not easy leaning into the discomfort of being vulnerable, but our humanness and need for connection is built through vulnerability and empathy.  How can one give empathy if one isn’t willing to receive it?  This training offered that perspective.   

I now look at the mission of Team Red, White & Blue with a different lens.  Eagle Engagement is a form of peer to peer support.  Enrichment takes many forms, but as it relates to social connection, it means to build trust and create a foundation for genuine relationships by giving and receiving empathy, listening, and making oneself vulnerable.  It’d be easy to hide behind our self imposed walls of protection, call them boundaries and keep a safe distance, but it takes true strength to deeply engage with another human being.  Would one really be living a fully present, rich, and deep life if we always played it safe on the periphery?   I argue no and the challenge I’ve set for myself is to begin the daily practice of engaging more deeply with one person one day at a time.