When I was in the Navy, there was a part of me that felt protected and safe behind the armor of my uniform. The fabric, insignias and medals provided me an identity. I was really proud of that identity, and the higher that I went up in rank, the more protected and courageous I “unknowingly” felt.
When I retired and took my uniform off, there was a huge part of me that felt lost without the façade that had “served me” for so long.
If I wasn’t “Senior Chief,” I didn’t know who I was.
To say it was initially a shock to my system would be an understatement…I believe many of my fellow veterans can relate.
I said that I “unknowingly” felt protected and courageous. At the time, I didn’t realize the deep perception of influence and security that I experienced in my uniform. I didn’t have to say anything and people had an impression of who I was, just because of my rank. I was rarely questioned…I had gained a foundation of respect, of which I loved and was grateful for.
For over 20 years, my uniform was my armor; it was my identity, yet I now know it wasn’t all of me.
When I retired, I was still relatively young and got into the health and wellness field. I exchanged my uniform for workout clothes and tennis shoes. People called me “Karen.” It was different, exciting, fun and weird. I had to metaphorically let my hair down…truly, I had to learn how to chill out. I had trained myself to be the identity afforded to me by my uniform and I didn’t know who I was without it.
It was in those early days as a “civilian” where I first noticed that my body was in pain. I had muscle tightness and I was rigid, especially in my back, chest and neck area. I was experiencing physiological resistance and didn’t know how to soften, relax, breathe, and simply be “me” without my uniform armor. Therefore, I unconsciously stiffened in defense to my new world and my body became my armor.
I was afraid to be vulnerable and I felt unprotected. It took me some time to work through that defense…to let go, and to allow those parts of me that didn’t feel safe to resurface. I had created over two decades of blind spots…all important and a necessary part of my journey. Zero regrets.
Where and how do you armor up?
How do you protect yourself from feeling emotionally vulnerable? If you’re a high-ranking official in the military, does that mean that you don’t experience loss and pain? No, but we sometimes have an expectation that you don’t. We think you’re “tougher than nails.” Yet we see Post-Traumatic Stress in our courageous and vulnerable veterans at every level, which means they experience trauma, loss, grief and painful emotions. The armor of their uniform does not protect them from any of that.
How about other ways that we might armor-up?
You bet. Do you get extremely fit or wear trendy clothes so that others won’t see “you,” but will base their impression of you on your appearance? Are you a perfectionist…one of the most painful forms of putting on armor? Or an overachiever, highly intelligent or witty, using those assets to cover up a fear of inadequacy? Or do you swing to the other spectrum and become an underachiever to not be seen? After all, “If I don’t try, I won’t fail.”
What would happen if you showed up being your authentic, real, vulnerable, awesome self?
What would you do without your armor on? To be honest, it scared the hell out of me for some time. And then it didn’t. I had to learn (at a very deep and honest level) that I was not my uniform, or my job, or my salary. I had to breathe into my tight muscles and ask my heart to trust and relax.
Lastly, I now know that when I was in the military, I was wearing armor that worked when I didn’t know it was working. I feel tremendous pride that I was given the honor of wearing that uniform. And now that it’s in my closet, it reminds me that those were special years, and it’s with gratitude and greater understanding that I have moved on.