“So many bad things have happened to them that they can’t trust the good things. They have to shove them away before someone can get it back.” ― Wally Lamb
One of the things I most value about my life right now is the fact that I have surrounded myself with some really deep thinkers. I have opened myself up to others who are willing to tilt their head, step back, walk around a little and dig a bit deeper to get a different perspective on themselves and others. They are bold and brave and daring enough to go below the surface, knowing that drowning is always a possibility.
One of those people is my friend Kim who I met through the coaching group I started at the beginning of the year. Kim is an outlier. She walked into the group with her hard shell firmly intact. No smiles, no warmth, no gratuitous platitudes to set the tone. She simply made her way to her chair, locked and loaded, and observed. In return, I never felt any pressure, any need to step up my game. I soaked her up and, in full consciousness, made the decision to pull her in.
I am intrigued by people like Kim. I am fascinated by those who have complexities and layers that allow me to go diving deeper and deeper. Those that require me to fill up my oxygen tank for I know I will be down for a while. The individuals who allow me to explore them in order to explore myself are the ones who catch me in their nets. They engage me, provoke me, inspire me, frustrate me, challenge me and, ultimately, move me. They change my life. Always. Unfailingly.
The first day of our coaching group chills ran up and down my spine when Kim spoke. That is not a very common experience for me but one that I know to pay attention to. It was not the sound of her voice, the cadence of her speech or, quite frankly, even the words. It was the soul behind it that I was reacting to. I implicitly understood her and my brain was sending me clear messages telling me to pay attention. And I did. And I continue to. Yesterday, Kim, a reluctant but brilliant blogger, published a post that convinced me that she has a wire tap into my brain.
For months now I have been struggling to source the root of some very destructive anxiety. It has been surfacing and meddling with my well-being. Reluctantly, I looked at it, invited it in and then, ultimately, begged for it to leave, to no avail. My recent bout with the anxiety has taken many shapes and forms. It has ranged from generalized stress, sadness, loneliness, fear, abandonment all the way to irrational conclusions about some critical aspects of my life. It has had my mind working overtime, set it into overdrive and catapulted me into the air, soaring into the darkness with no parachute, no soft landing in sight. The most frustrating aspect to this anxiety is that I have been working so hard to pull myself up and allow myself to be more open, to embrace vulnerability and experience a deeper level of intimacy with others in my life. And, in retrospect, I fear that this vulnerability that I so willfully incorporated into my life has turned on me. I suspect that allowing myself to walk around without my shield, my protective armor, I exposed myself to the elements and put myself in the direct line of fire.
It’s a complex balance for me. Vulnerability allows me to experience the fullness of my life. It allows me to feel my emotions deep in my bones. It offers me connection points with others that I so desperately crave. I feel courageous and energized by my ventures down avenues that would have previously been closed off for me. On the other hand, being vulnerable removes the safety mechanisms I have spent decades building, keeping me safe from my own feelings, my own very fractured psyche. My shell has allowed me to lock away all that is scary, hurtful, dangerous. It has given me a way to live what I believed to be a meaningful life without being constantly derailed by my own self. It has provided me with a pathway that kept the wolves at bay rather than having to run, always looking behind me to determine how far I needed to go, how fast I needed to move for safety. Well, that all seems great but, of course, all of this is smoke and mirrors.
It’s all bullshit.
At the end of the day, there is no way to straddle the fence. Either you are in or you are out. You can’t be vulnerable and hang on to your armor. You can’t really experience those emotions while quickly suppressing them, shoving them down when they disrupt your balance, sending you toppling over. Those are the moments that count. Failure is the pathway to success. Falling is the only way to learn how to get up. For me, the missing link in all of this is trust. The connective tissue between vulnerability and solace is the trust that when you do get hurt, when you stumble, when you screw up in a way that seems so fatefully unrepairable, that you will be able to pull yourself up, stand tall and all will still be intact around you. You will still be breathing, you will still be able to stand, you will still be loved.
I struggle to trust. I don’t have faith. And therein lies my battle. Trust is my demon, the monkey on my back. I can look you in the eye, hear your words, feel comforted by your love and then turn around, walk a few steps and it all slips away. Then, slowly, I implode. I begin the dreadful descent, watching helplessly as I fall, deeper and deeper, afraid to ask for help, never calling for a strong hand to pull me up. How can I? I do not have the trust that you won’t extend your arm and then pull it away just as I reach for your grasp. Contrarily, how can I expect others to dive deep with me if they do not believe that I trust them? What guarantees am I offering if I am ready to bolt at any instant, fueled by my belief that all relationships are transitory? While I do not believe that I serve up my cold, stone, hardness for most to see, the ones that matter the most get a bird’s-eye view when I am free-falling into the abyss of mistrust and anxiety.
So, I say this. I need to be vulnerable. I need to experience all that life has to offer. I need to keep my heart exposed to capture those incredible moments that come along only when you are open and willing to accept them. Sure, that is actually the easy part. I can do that. It is the moments that follow, when the after-glow begins to dim, when the darkness sets in that really matters. In those times, when there are no fireworks displays, when all I have is the distant memory of the meaningful moments, can I simply be buoyed by the trust that it was all real and not simply a shooting star to be seen just a few times in life? Can I have faith that not everyone is going to hurt me the way I was so traumatically hurt during some of the most critical years of my life? Will I be able to believe that I am worthy of being loved, consistently and completely? Am I brave enough to stare my mistrust in the face and send it away rather than welcoming it in because it is a familiar face. I know what it likes to drink and eat. It is an easy guest. Until it shows it true self. Once we move beyond the pleasantries, mistrust will decimate me. It sets out to destroy every piece of my foundation. It takes its jackhammer and loudly and painfully drills holes through my core. Its disrupts my footing and drops me into the hole. Do I have the strength and courage to look it in the eye and tell it that I need to make new friends? It is time for us to part ways? Will I be able to see the sheep in wolf’s clothing that appears before me looking like comfort and solace, familiarity and understanding? I know that is the true test of bravery and of willingness to change.
I have been walking around for months, for years, for a lifetime with a steel cage protecting me from the rest of the world. When things get tough, I pack myself up and move on. I rarely unlock the doors and let myself step outside to see what the air feels like, smells like. From my distant perch behind the bars, I assess every situation and test the water using a long stick rather than my own fleshy toe. The heat can never scald me because I will never get close enough to be damaged. Yet, I am setting fires all around me, scorching my flesh. In my locked cage, I am cutting and bleeding, safe from the danger that lies outside. When I see smoke in the distance, I know it is time to escape but somehow I seem to miss the heat that it is right under me.
I wonder what it looks like to look inside my prison. Can you see through the walls? Is there a cement enclosure or am I sitting in a glass house? Are my endeavors obvious to all who care to observe or have I discreetly masked my masochistic tendencies? When I am in full battle with the demon of mistrust, I lose all perspective. I have no idea what is obvious and what is happening so loudly inside my mind. When I am kicking and punching, struggling to stay afoot, I lose all peripheral vision.
Yesterday, when I read Kim’s post, I could feel her own battle. I heard her inner voice comforting her, telling her it was ok to be guarded, to be locked down and I felt her overwhelming desire to set herself free, to find a new pathway. That moved me. It hit me in the face like a wayward baseball, soaring at 100 miles per hour. It made contact, right between my eyes, shattering my skull and opening up a new space – a space ready to be filled with love and gratitude. A space desperate to absorb the love and support that sits waiting for me. I can see it. I can really see it. But I am afraid to touch. I am afraid to reach out and embrace it.
Because, what if….