“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
My journey into the dark valley of vulnerability has been quite an interesting adventure. I certainly did not book this trip completely without apprehension and, frankly, did it despite many deep reservations about how I would be able to tolerate the trip. It has been a bit of a rough ride with some ups and downs but, I am beginning to see my way to a comfortable resting place where I can shed my cloak perhaps once and for all. I have surprised myself in many ways including the recognition that much of my apprehension around allowing myself to be vulnerable was intellectual rather than emotional. I have had a mental block masking an open heart.
All this searching I have been doing to both understand my capacity for experiencing vulnerability as well as to understand the roots of my blockages has had me winding down roads and turning corners allowing me to discover many more perspectives. I feel like a young student soaking in as much information as my brain can tolerate. I am constantly learning and this knowledge is bringing me power. Last week, my new hero, Brene Brown, gave another TED talk, this time on the subject of shame. This is a topic that interests me immensely because much of my life has been veiled by shame. Shame has served as a huge obstacle in my life and, remarkably, I have not spent much time exploring it. In her talk, Brene talked about the year following her breakthrough speech on vulnerability, which she readily admitted might have been the craziest thing she had ever done. She, in her estimation, recklessly stood before 500 people and told them how afraid she was of vulnerability and, never for a second anticipated that millions more would be catalyzed by her words once the talk hit You Tube. Her big a-ha from all this was that vulnerability is not a weakness. In fact, she suggested that when you see vulnerability up close, it actually looks like courage. Pretty powerful stuff.
Last week I was sharing with a close friend my journey with this blog and my lack of perspective on how what I write impacts other people. We all have our own lenses and sometimes it is really difficult to see the world through anyone else’s eyes – no matter how much they try to describe the picture they see. He told me that he thinks what I am doing is brave and, not surprisingly, I did not see it that way. I was extremely flattered by his comment but, in reality, I do not see courage when I feel the pain and struggle. It feels hard and feels unpleasant. It is the same way I have felt about vulnerability. It is hard work to allow yourself to feel vulnerable – to expose yourself and be open to what might be coming your way. However, to those around you, it is unbelievably courageous to watch as you open yourself up and allow yourself to feel and experience the world in a way that many choose to avoid because it is simply too risky and too painful. The ability to take an emotional risk such as saying I love you when you are not certain if the sentiment will be returned is so brave. The confidence that comes from allowing yourself to be exposed with tremendous uncertainty of how you will be received is quite an accurate measurement of courage. It is being truly honest and authentic and not fearing the consequences. That is bold. So, despite the fact that my perspective and humility refuse to allow me to see myself as courageous, I can appreciate where my friend was coming from and I acknowledge that this work is not easy.
When opening up the subject of shame in her most recent talk, Brene talked a bit more about vulnerability, crediting it as the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. For someone like me, that is pure gold. I live for innovation, creativity and change – and I struggle terribly to try to achieve any of it. I have spent so many years locked behind doors, preventing me from unleashing my creativity because I could not be honest with myself. I was always creating a false, altered story that allowed me to avoid exposing the ugly underbelly that I feared I would be rejected for. Over the past few years as I began to embrace some of my truths and become more accepting of myself, the veil began to lift and creativity started to flow. This blog is the absolute evidence of that. What I realized when listening to her talk was the role that shame has played in my inability to be open, even with myself. The reason for me being locked behind the big steel doors that I caged myself in was because I felt shame. According to Brene, shame is the ultimate focus on self and is the corollary of guilt. When we feel guilty about doing something wrong, we might say that we are sorry that we made a mistake. When we feel shame, we are thinking “I am sorry that I am a mistake.” We feel inadequate and worthless and have no ability for compassion or love for ourselves because we do not believe that we are deserving. Brene calls shame “the swampland of the soul.” Put on your galoshes, walk through and find your way around.
Thinking about shame this way has been revelatory for me. I do not think I feel shameful any longer. I cannot begin to explain how major of a statement that is for me to make. To have moved past something is seemingly impossible in my mind. It often feels like I will be burdened with my baggage until I take my last breath, focusing my energies on strategies to manage through it rather than move past it. Yet, I believe, without reservation, that shame is not part of my current story. It has been a sad truth for most of my life where I struggled to feel accepted and not feeling safe enough to admit that I was damaged and came from a very damaging place. That is not my story today. If empathy is the antidote to shame, then empathy is what I feel most of the time. I empathize with myself and others who have struggled with their demons, addictions, weaknesses. I have compassion for myself and understand that I am not defined by what has happened in my life but what I have done with it. I remember writing a blog post not that long ago where I acknowledged that I struggled with forgiving myself. I am beginning to feel that, perhaps, for the first time, I am prepared to cut myself some slack.
Last night I was talking with someone about a mutual friend who tends to complain about everything around her. She is a bit of a downer and I find it tiring to listen to her steady dialogue of discontent, finding ways to put a negative spin on even the most positive experiences. My friend and I talked about tactics for shutting down that type of behavior as opposed to indulging it or engaging it. Negativity can be contagious. In fact, it is much more easily spread than positivity because it requires a lot of work to be positive. As someone who has made more than her share of snarky, cynical remarks about people and life, in general, I recognize how easily the words slip from my mouth. I acknowledge how often I was perpetuating darkness rather than shining light to lift people up. In fact, I also know how cynical I was of people who spent their time trying to bring lightness into other’s lives. They were being brave and open and honest while I was hiding behind darkness to prevent myself from being seen and my shame being on display. During the discussion with my friend, I thought a lot about the messages I want coming from me. I thought about how I can be more intentional about being positive and trying to respond to negativity with positivity, thereby creating a force field to deflect the negativity. It seems a bit superhero-ish but I believe it is a pathway to true happiness. I knew, in that moment, that I could not change this other friend and would prefer to not harp on her unhappiness. Instead, I needed to turn inwards and understand how I could counter it with my own positivity.
For many these are lessons that may have long ago been learned. For others, like me, the doors are beginning to open and new opportunities and explorations are beginning. And still, for some, they remain locked and closed off, struggling to find the pathway to trust themselves and others enough to let go and be vulnerable. No matter where you are in this process, it is important to keep moving forward because it is worth the trip. And, now that I like to write personal notes, I’ll send a postcard from my next destination!