This week I was, thanks to a fortuitous blog post from a friend, reminded of some of the powerful words of Brene Brown. Her research, talks and writing on vulnerability have inspired me over the past year as I have embarked upon what has been a very painful journey to find the courage to be more vulnerable and, ultimately, find peace in my life.
My story began so many months ago after the death of my mother. She and I had been estranged for many years after a lifetime of emotional abuse that resulted in me becoming hardened, cynical and judgmental. I steeled myself with the belief that surrounding myself with love, going to therapy and practicing different behaviors would ensure that I could protect myself from the long-term effects of both the abuse from my mother and the scars left from my alcoholic father (who had also passed away just months prior to my mother). It took a while but I did, ultimately, realize that this plan was not going to work. Shoving all my feelings into a locker inside me and trying to forget the combination would not prevent the leakage of all the pain and abuse that I endured. It is insidious. It permeates our cells. It comes out in every place we least expect it to and at the times we least want it to.
On Leap Day – February 29 – I shared in a blog post that my mother had passed and it was the first time anyone, except for a very close few, had heard the news. It was not something that I shared publicly because it was only noteworthy in that I felt a bit freed from the grasp of her will. Even at her advanced age, even as she suffered from cancer, she continued to try to torment me and I continued to play into her hand, allowing myself to question everything, doubt my feelings and resort to behaving like a petulant child. Once I learned of her passing, I felt a sense of relief and, consequently, a sense of guilt at not feeling the appropriate grief that one feels when their parent dies. There was no practical way for me to explain this to most of my friends who have not previously been dragged through the muck that comprised my relationship with my mother. I simply commented on it and expected that some might take note but did not anticipate that the result would inspire a whole new level of self-examination.
Sometimes I underestimate my impact on others – both positively and negatively. I frequently find myself surprised to learn that someone is thinking about me or has been inquiring about me outside of my presence. It sounds silly but is deeply rooted in wounds from my childhood and makes perfect sense to me. Similarly, I do not always realize how widespread the impact of my negative actions can be. I assume they go unnoticed by most because who would be paying attention to me – and, of course, that is a giant underestimation of its impact. It is like the opposite of narcissism but, sometimes, equally dangerous. Despite my deep level of self-awareness resulting from careful analysis of my feelings, actions and behaviors, I have a unique ability to blindside myself with my actions and behaviors.
In my work, we use a tool called Johari Window to help people understand the concept of blind spots when giving feedback in a corporate setting. Every one of us has blind spots and they reside in the window of what people know about us but we do not know about ourselves. And, while I generally believe that is a very small window for me, I also recognize that I can be a bit more clueless than I imagine myself to me. My inability to recognize how others view me or that they even spend the time to think about me sits squarely in my blind spot. When I wrote that blog post, I was standing in my blind spot. I never anticipated that anyone would actually pay attention to the information about my mother dying and react with such support. The outpouring of love and positive messaging was unexpected and I was both grateful and uncomfortable because I had revealed something very personal and I did not appreciate or recognize its significance because of my blindness. One of the very valuable and powerful outcomes was the gift given to me by my closest friend, an expert in the field of blind spots, who utilized his craft on me to help reveal to me what I was so painfully missing. By revealing my blind spot , he helped to thrust me into a place where I needed to search for answers and my first stop on the journey was vulnerability. And so, it became a huge focus for me this year. What I knew then about vulnerability is that I dreaded it, I loathed it and, what I have come to know for certain is that it is the only pathway to freedom, love and happiness. Brene Brown says, in one of her TED talks: “And I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, and creativity, of belong, of love.”
Another valuable outcome of the revelation of my blind spot, is that I am someone who values connections. I need to feel connected – to be part of something. Growing up without a strong sense of family and no formalized religion, I found myself drifting through life, often feeling like a misfit. I never really belonged anywhere. Lots of parents of friends would take me in and care for me over small periods of time but I always knew that I did not belong. The result was that I felt even more disconnected rather than being able to accept their offer of love and belonging. I didn’t fall in love until i met my husband at the age of 24 so, until that time, I was a floater, seeking out personal and romantic connections. And even with him, it took years for me to shed my armor and truly connect. Nearly 21 years later, I am still working on being raw and honest with him and finding a way to truly trust. The wounds are deep and they show up nearly every day, with or without my notice.
The tragic reality of me is that, throughout my life, despite my desperate effort to make connections, I was always hiding. I was hiding behind my vulnerability, afraid that if anyone really saw me, they would patently reject me. I denied the fact that, in order to truly have a connection, you must be authentic. You must bring your full and real self to the table. Instead, I became masterful at matching other people’s behaviors and building artificial rapport in order to try to fit. I never had to reveal anything to anyone that I didn’t want them to know because I was so adept at becoming whomever I needed to be in order to fit in. I borrowed from other people’s personalities and adopted them as my own so I looked like I belonged. I made superficial connections which, not surprisingly, did not have much strength and could not last beyond a little wear and tear. As a result, many of my relationships were transient.
When I wrote my post in February, I truly believed that I was well on my way to becoming my authentic self. And, to a great degree, that was true. I had made some very meaningful connections and was allowing myself to be seen for who I truly was. A little more naked than ever before. But it was hard and took its toll on me. And, what is also true is that, much like maintaining our bodies, we must also maintain our minds. There is no final destination – it is always all about the journey. If we spend months or years to build and tone our muscles and then suddenly stop working at it, our bodies will soften – and rather quickly. When we are intentional about our beliefs and behaviors and feed ourselves positive thoughts and allow ourselves the time and space to accept ourselves, we tone our emotional muscles. As soon as we take our eyes off the road and put our psyches on auto-pilot, we quickly return to unconscious negative input and easily sabotage our hard-earned efforts. That is what is happening to me now. I have lost focus and am straying far away trying to find my way back to my path.
I had a laser focus on what I wanted in my life and who I wanted to be. Authenticity and vulnerability were priority #1 for me because I knew, without a doubt, that it was a passageway to freedom for me. It was the route that most certainly ended in happiness. So, how is it that I have felt so unhappy lately? I have manufactured an environment surrounded by the people who I believe bring out the best in me. I have consciously pushed away the influences that I believe are destructive and detrimental to my journey. I have set intentions to be honest, authentic, loving and vulnerable so I can allow those who I want and need to be close to me get and stay close to me. What I have not planned for is the reality of life and the bumps and hurts that come along. Those who love us most also sometimes hurt us most. And we also hurt them. I have also not accounted for the leakage of my pain locker that has yet to be emptied. Inside of it still resides years of residue that adds toxicity, even more fervently when I am in a weakened state. When this occurs, I immediately retreat to a place where I can protect myself from feeling the pain until, all at once, the earth shudders a little too hard and the cracks spread and the walls collapse and I get sucked right into the floor, crushed under a pile of bricks.
Suffice it to say, I know that everything good and bad is only temporary and, as my husband often says “the difference between your best day and your worst day is your state of mind.” I say with all authenticity and all vulnerability that I have stumbled. I tripped over myself because I lost sight of my path. I lost faith in myself and allowed the demons to take over. I wish I could just will myself back into step but I know it is part of the journey to learn how to use the tools I have to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep moving forward. Lately, I haven’t felt so motivated to move forward and thought perhaps my journey was futile. But I had a moment, in between the raindrops of tears and anguish, when I realized that perhaps I had, in fact, made a major step forward because, if nothing else, I am feeling quite vulnerable and am just sitting with those feelings no matter how painful they may be right here and now. With that, I know, at least, the road I am looking for is the right one and once I resume my journey I will do so, hopefully, without too many blind spots.