When the student is ready,
the teacher will appear.
Dedicated to my friend who had enough faith in me
to work with me until I saw I was on the top of a flag pole
and was ready for a teacher to appear. Thank you!
I am sure you have had the experience of dealing with something in your personal life over and over and then something triggers a process that causes a solution to unfold. Sometimes all at once and sometimes as a series of steps and occasional missteps that lead inexorably forward. Often the steps are unrelated at first glance but your mind finds triggering relationships. This is a story about a recent experience of mine.
I have just finished reading a book about increasing worker productivity. One recent evening I also watched a video about joy, creativity and belonging. Here’s a quotation from one of them. Which was it?
“________ is about opening up the windows, letting in the bright sunlight and fresh air, and discovering what is going on instead of covering it up. It means aiming high and failing often, but taking responsibility for failure and addressing it. It’s about living a life where actions have consequences. It’s exciting, frightening, challenging, and thrilling. It’s about truly living.”
If you took the question at face value, you probably said the quote was from the video about joy, creativity and belonging. If you assumed that I wouldn’t have asked the question if the answer were obvious and you therefore chose the management book, you would be correct.
The point here is that if you have a question in your life and engage in it creatively or allow a trusted friend to assist you, you can prepare yourself to find the answer. And, it probably won’t look like what you expected, you probably won’t find it were you expected it to be, you may have to put the pieces together yourself, and it will probably take longer than it reasonably should.
I saw some answers in the book but also some questions that neither the author nor I had asked. Questions that helped me frame my issues regarding satisfaction and relationships and be ready for the video. The video poked at some of the issues that were keeping me stuck, some of the things I just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see about myself, and provided some new ways of looking at the advice I was getting from my friend.
The “set-up” for the start of my breakthrough was a relentless, un-ending series of why questions from my friend. Each answer simply led to another why…? Questions as fresh as: Why did I just say what I just said in the tone of voice I said it in (which was rude or impolite or …) and questions as old as why did you do xxx 42 years ago? Why are you smart enough to get a degree from Harvard and too stupid to answer a simple why question? And, why can’t you ever say thank you? Why? why? why? …
I looked everywhere. My parents. My friends as a kid and growing up. All of the places where psychologists take us. There was something of interest in most of the places I looked but no obvious answers. The items of interest usually seemed like partial answers or excuses or just something to avoid saying one more time: I don’t know! How do you test an answer about why you did something 42 years ago that you can barely remember doing? Frustration mounted for both of us. It was beginning to come down to: Maybe I just have a mean and nasty streak and won’t say thank you.
My options seemed limited. The current way I was living my life was boring and unrewarding at best. No joy, no creativity, and my primary relationship was fast approaching the bottom of a death spiral. I found myself trapped at the top of a very tall flag pole where any step in any direction looked like I would go straight down, not forward.
Something was missing. But I didn’t know what it was. How do you look for something if you don’t even know what it is? Where do you look? You will probably find something, but how do you know it is what you are looking for? What do you do with it when you find it?
As I watched the video bits and pieces from the prodding of my friend, the management book, other personal development work I am doing and multiple other places started showing up as parts of a possible answer. I also began to see some of the things I had tried didn’t work.
I often use Microsoft Word as a form of wrestling mat to bring order out of the chaos of evolving ideas. This story is the result of the wrestling match that was started by the video. Is the wrestling match complete? No. I have a sense this will be a life long process. On the other hand, telling this story now is a major step in owning and sharing the stories in my past.
The first step wasn’t planned. I was looking for a solution but in a general wandering around sort of way. Frankly, I didn’t know where to look or how else to begin.
I occasionally visit TED.com when I have a few minutes at the end of the day and want to stimulate my mind a bit. A presentation titled “The Power of Vulnerability” by Dr. Brene Brown was among the evening’s topics and I clicked it. Oh no! This is about me. I watched it twice that night and once or twice a night for the next three nights. Then I checked out her other TED presentation, blogs, etc. More about me. Got a copy of her book. More me.
Early in the video Dr. Brown says: “Lean into the discomfort.” A perfect way to set the stage when discussing love, belonging, connection, shame and fear-the core of her research.
I had seen several psychologist and we had some pleasant conversations but nothing even approaching a breakthrough. When I told a psychologist friend about the video she responded: “These areas (shame and vulnerability) are very challenging in therapy and need to be approached with some delicacy and insight. If they are approached too quickly, the patient breaks off contact as a defense against emotional pain.” Catch 22: if the patient does not have a strong commitment to change and the psychologist moves too slowly the patient decides nothing is happening and leaves; if the psychologist moves too fast the risk is too high and the patient leaves. I didn’t have the necessary commitment to change so pleasant conversations came across as nothing is happening.
Vulnerability and Numbing
“Excruciating vulnerability” was an early topic of the video that I almost managed to side-step. Then I began to see that my fear of vulnerability was central to what was keeping me on the top of the flag pole and hiding my options.
Four incidents and four courses of action to avoid excruciating vulnerability were at the heart of the damage I have done to my partner and relationship: going to sleep, going to a party, and doing nothing when she was in excruciating pain and when she was lost on a bicycle trip in France, and my choice of a career that took me away from her most of the time.
Dr. Brown’s said: “Vulnerability is the birth place of joy, creativity and love.” And, she said the most effective way to deal with vulnerability is to embrace it.
My life had no joy, no creativity and my relationship was nearing the bottom of a death spiral. Clearly I was not embracing vulnerability. When the video started I didn’t even know that vulnerability as an opportunity was missing. But when I saw that it was missing and the associated numbing of positive emotions I knew I had found a trail worth exploring.
The most common way to deal with vulnerability is numbing of emotions. The really bad news is that we cannot selectively numb just the bad emotions and still have access to the good emotions like joy, creativity and love. About six months ago, a psychologist recommended I keep a log of the emotions I was experiencing. I was so numb to my emotions that I had to go to Wikipedia to get a list of common emotions to find the words to note what I was experiencing or, more accurately, what appeared to be was missing.
This kind of numbing sometimes leads to behavior that is symptomatic of traditional addiction. In her book, Dr. Brown notes that although the symptoms are similar, this behavior is not conducive to the traditional 12 step processes. I have attended a few meetings and never found them helpful. An analogy from my experience would be receiving a glass of water when you said you were hungry. Not good or bad; just not relevant.
The road back? Lean into the discomfort. Courage, compassion and connection. I’m just starting down that road. Scary, thrilling, and becoming alive!
Embracing the vulnerability requires courage, but a classic definition of courage that refers to telling the story of who you are with a whole heart. “Heroics is often about putting your life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting your vulnerabilities on the line.”
I have a friend who is the retired president of a very successful consulting company. I have always admired his ability to tell stories on himself. When I called him on Christmas we were talking about how difficult the economy was and he said: “My wife was kidding me the other day that my underwear was fraying and I said yes and now it’s from Target, not Nordstrom’s.”
The courage to tell it like it is and, if appropriate, play with it. Now it is about an end to being solemn and overly serious about everything. It’s about being willing to have fun and share it, to say thank you and be vulnerable. I am sure that is going to be easier said than done but I am on that road.
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. … Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” My friend has an immense ability to express compassion; but can also move to healer or fixer when I or other friends are acting wounded instead of being authentic about who we really are.
“We can’t have compassion for other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.” Having done what I had done to damage my partner and the relationship-the big four mentioned above and thousands of others large and small-it looked impossible to treat myself kindly. And then: “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy.” I did the things that damaged my partner and the relationship and I now know that until I own them, they will stand in the way of changing who I am being and my ability to bring love, belonging and joy to her and our relationship. This story and sharing it is part of the process of owning my past stories. I’m now on that road.
“Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Too often relationships are subject to judgments including our judgments about whether or not we or they are worthy of the relationship. Dr. Brown’s research dealing with connection found that the only difference between people who routinely feel connected and those who do not feel connected is a belief or lack of belief in their own worthiness. Access to connections to others requires an authentic sense of one’s own worthiness. More about owning my stories.
What else was missing that I couldn’t see?
Why couldn’t I stop saying the mean and nasty things? No amount of “good intentions” has been able to last more than a few moments when the string of whys and the lack of answers start to break open vulnerability.
Integrity and “it doesn’t matter”
When I looked again at my “good intentions” I saw how worthless they were. Martin Luther King Jr. defined power as the ability to effect change. First, there is no power in not doing something; power comes from doing things to effect change. Second, my intentions had no structure of integrity. They existed as statements, not as commitments to action and promises on my part to effect change. And third, this is the nasty part, they existed in a context of: What I do won’t make any difference because, because, because. Because I will do it wrong, because I will say it wrong, because it will be too late, because it isn’t what he, she, or they want, because …
Integrity is more than just keeping my word. It also includes doing what needs to be done to deal with the possible “becauses” so they don’t get in the way of producing the intended result.
This is not the place to summarize a 20 minute video, a 130 page book, or the impact they have had on my life in a few days. It is more a story of crawling out from a hiding place under a rock and standing on top of the rock in search of aliveness, joy, sharing and “thank you.” It is part preface and part Chapter 1. It is an introduction to possibilities for action. It is the result of the first round in a wrestling match with new ideas.
The management book is The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management by Stephen Denning. The video is a TED presentation by Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability at http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html My other training in this area is that of Landmark Education. If you have 20 minutes I suggest you view the video. Brene is an interesting presenter and has some insights based on personal experience and ten years of research that will probably lead you in some new and different directions. Her book, The Gifts of Imperfections expands on the material in the video and is quoted here.
Short link: http://goo.gl/2IIhS