self-love

Why vulnerability often feels impossible.

Vulnerability is a hot topic these days. It's right up there with being authentic and a spiritual gangster. 

I'll share what thoughts I have from my ever-changing and rapidly evolving life experience and those of my clients.

Vulnerability feels like a real sonofabitch paradox mostly because it is one. As Brene Brown has expounded, to be vulnerable means to open ourselves to be wounded or hurt. And who the hell wants that? When many people think of the word vulnerability, they might immediately think of a romantic relationship. They might think of opening their heart to a stranger and, hoping the lust would actually be real love, showed something tender and true about their physical or mental state and trusted it would be safe.

And then it wasn't.  

And that felt horrible so they fear being hurt again. Rejected. Humiliated. Demeaned. Disrespected. And any other similar kind of word for the experience of wanting to disappear in the hole in the floor. Let's also throw in invalidated, infantilized and invisibilized. Any of those unfamiliar? Stay with me, I'll explain. Because vulnerability extends far beyond romantic relationships. 

Who wants that experience of being hurt? Who would choose any of that on purpose? But the irony is, the more we avoid the hurt, the more hurt we become. What we seek to avoid, we experience in greater amounts. The more we try to protect ourselves, the more we bear the weight of a life half-lived. Instead of being vulnerable, or opening ourselves up to more hurt, we try more each day to cover and protect what feels ugly or uncomfortable or broken until each and every person becomes a threat. Colleagues, friends, family, strangers on the street, even trolls on social media! Even though we all know not to take trolls personally or seriously, we let them penetrate and puncture our wee hearts.

If it's something we all crave, why does it often feel so impossible to find or feel? 

The way I see it, vulnerability often feels impossible for these reasons:

1) People can't give you what they aren't giving themselves. This goes for most human beings because we can only give what we've been taught or have been given ourselves and that's all based on a limited range of what people of different identities actually need. Yes, we're all human and share the same underlying basic needs but there are also variations based on internal or external differences. Many people lack the self-awareness to know or the discipline necessary to fulfill their own needs. Don't fall for appearances of what it looks like people are doing or being or having. In fact, sometimes the flashier the show, the worse the actual conditions. The truth is, most people lack the capacity to face and deal with their own suffering and then here we come along, trying to get a little bit of airtime for our grievances. But you can't draw water from a dry well and it ends up making your thirst for validation and support even worse. You try to get support and see how everyone's clamoring for some wood to cling to, like the sinking scene in Titanic. For the most part, we're all Rose with no room for Jack. 

2) People really suck at listening. They just really do. Most conversation is two people competing to be heard so we spend more time waiting for the other person to take a breath so we can say, "yeah, and here's what's happening in my life," or "here's what I think about what you said" or "let me fix that for you" than we do listening to what's coming out of the person's mouth.

And even if we don't actually say it, we're thinking it. Often without even being AWARE of how much we're judging and assessing and filtering and wondering, we're hardly being present at all. Being a coach changed this about me over eight years, and not as quickly or as thoroughly as I'd prefer most days. But it's better than it was. 

People don't or can't listen for so many reasons so it often feels impossible to open up and share because there's no space for it. We can barely get a sentence out before someone's swooping in with some cliche bullshit or make it about them. There's relating and then there's hijacking the conversation to make it about them and the line is fine like spider twine. Most people lack the self-awareness to even know the difference. 

3) People patronize to maintain power. People seek to maintain control and have power to avoid feeling out of control. Being out of control means being vulnerable so some people determine other people to be less than to maintain a feeling of power and control. We experience this as momsplaining and mansplaining, both of which create a power differential that is neither pleasant nor supportive. Yes, women and men and folks of all genders in-between, are guilty of being patronizing to those they deem less than.

When all we need is to be heard, unsolicited advice lands as condescending and patronizing. And then, when we try to be vulnerable and express that it's occuring that way to us, those people respond with more defensiveness. Why? Because the advice is never really for us. It's to make the other person feel better. It's their need to control the conversation OR the feelings your pain is triggering within them. I didn't really experience momsplaining until I transitioned, or if I did I don't think I noticed it. My own mother didn't do it much, mostly because she hardly listens to what I say. See #1 and #2 above. And she, like most people, jumped to fixing or judging or invalidating whatever tender truth I was trying to share. So, this new experience of momsplaining feels incredibly gross to me, especially when I'm sharing from my own, fully-formed truth to inspire or encourage people as an adult and as a professional coach. When I share vulnerably from my life in my work or on social media, I'm not doing it because I seek validation or support. I'm doing it so other people don't feel alone. For so many reasons, people (mostly women) jump in and instead of sharing how they resonate with what I said or how it inspired them, like they do with male or female peers of mine, they write or say things to take care of me which would be so nice if it didn't publicly erode my credibility as a mature professional sharing vulnerably to help other people. Perhaps since vulnerability is so rare, especially coming from the mouths of men (or male-perceived individuals) women often jump in to save me from the perils of my own self-awareness. They infantilize me, projecting an image of their lost or lonely son onto me. My status of self-employed professional coach is smothered under their need to stop the bleeding, even though I'm happy to let it flow from my open heart. 

I can both appreciate their intentions and candidly name this is problematic behavior. This is one example but people of many different identities experience similar dynamics of being invalidated, infantilized or invisibilized by other people who seek to maintain some sort of power differential based on appearances, long-standing cultural norms and status. 

4) People just can't hold space. This is similar to listening, but it's what happens after we express ourselves. It's the moment when we've shared something and it isn't what people expected to hear, and what they do as a result. Holding space is about just being with whatever comes out of a person's mouth. It's a skill to develop because people often just need to say something that's true in a moment of time. It isn't an indictment of who we've always been or will forever be, but it's a realization or an epiphany or unearthed truth. And most people, because of the reasons I explained above, just can't hang for a second. The energy of such raw, honest self-awareness is rare and powerful and most people lack the capacity to hang out and be with it.

When we're vulnerable and we claim our voice and our power, it frightens people. The truth we share may be a bit more than they can bear because they rarely do this for themselves.

That's why it often feels impossible to be vulnerable. We open ourselves to be wounded and people swoop in and hurt us, unknowingly, from their own need to protect themselves. In their own attempt to hold up the dam, they attempt to slam the doors shut on our freedom and self-expression. 

These are a few reasons why it often feels impossible to be vulnerable and you can see it mostly involves coming up against the limitation of other people. It feels impossible because we have unrealistic expectations of other humans. We think they are less broken or fragile or inept than we are. We think they have it all together because they try to convince us of that or because we fantasize that they do.

It often feels impossible to be vulnerable because we measure our risk of opening up against our hopes of what people can hold and the reality of how few resources folks have hits us really hard. The hurt we feel is perhaps our realization and disappointment that none of us have as much to give as we all really need.

So we need to be vulnerable knowing this.

Being vulnerable knowing most others can't be is real freedom. When you can do it, it's pretty awe-inspiring.

It's what we all hope to feel and experience with another human being, the actual potential of vulnerability, the leaping and landing safely in the presence of another. 

And while it may feel impossible, it isn't. We just need more practice doing and being it with each other. And therein lies the rub.

Are you up to the project of learning how to be that safe place to land for yourself and others?

The reward is worth the work and heartache involved. Trust me.

What I Learned from Sara

Two years ago today, I woke up on a friend's couch in NJ and received the text that no one wants to receive. It was my friend Sara's daughter, Cami. She was telling me that Sara had passed away.

Two years later, I feel angry. I know enough from therapy to know that anger isn't a feeling, it's a response to a feeling. So what am I really feeling? I'm feeling frustrated. I'm frustrated that I didn't listen to Sara sooner. She told me that I was amazing and special and deserved a ton of love, support and acceptance and for some frustrating reason, I didn't listen to her. It might have been because it was a lesson she was teaching me, as she was learning it herself.

See, when I met Sara, she and I were in relationships with people who didn't really love us. We didn't see it at the time but we were both settling for people who were sort of along for the ride, but not really invested in the long-term--especially when our lives took a challenging turn. Her journey battling cancer was just beginning and I would soon start my gender transition process. We would spend a lot of time talking about our relationships at work, and she kept telling me that the beginning of a relationship should be fun and exciting--that I should feel chosen and wanted and cherished and loved. Those were the feelings I had at that job and around her and with other people, but not with the person I had chosen as a partner.

It frustrates me now that I that I didn't see what was so obvious. Life is like that, right?

Sara's relationship was similar. She fell for someone who was attractive to her for a few reasons, but didn't really provide what she needed. At the end of her life she woke up to this, and drew boundaries that deeply inspired me. It's like she suddenly got it, and I'm so proud of her for going out strong.

For Christmas one year, she gave me this plaque to hang on my wall. And now it's hanging right by my front door, so I'm constantly reminded not only of her love for me, but the truth of what it says.

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More than any work we do, the relationships in our lives are incredibly important. How we treat people is a mark of our character. Our ability to love, respect and support other people, especially during difficult times in their lives, is a testament to how much we love, respect and support ourselves. We may not always get it right, but the most important thing we can do is be responsible for our shortcomings and ask how to make it better. We can apologize from our heart, not from our bruised egos.

Whether it's a primary partner, a family member or a friend, this is what we can strive for in our relationships.

We CAN do this, if we CHOOSE to do it. It may require some additional outside resources and some deep digging into our own issues and blocks, but we always have the choice. And if someone isn't willing or able to give us what we want to give in return, it is better that they leave our lives.

For a long time, I felt guilty that I hid from Sara's love and didn't show up the way I could have in the last year of her life. She speaks to me through her beautiful daughter Cami, who is patient and gentle with me, just like her mother was. She absolves me of my guilt and reminds me that Sara knew how much I loved her. I feel so grateful that I get to love Sara even more now, through my relationships with her incredible family.

And while I should have listened to her sooner, I know Sara is fist-pumping for me somewhere when I summon the courage to draw a boundary like she did. I feel her on my shoulder and listen to her voice in my ear anytime I experience any less than the love she gave me and told me I deserved.

Show up fully, even if it's scary

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Last week I did something I'd been thinking about for a long, long time. I woke up and felt completely discouraged and a little bit hopeless and I posted what was really happening for me in a really long Facebook status. I put it all out there. I shared some really deep details about myself.

I was completely terrified to do this. I was afraid it would leave people with the impression that I was a failure of a human being and most definitely a failure as a health coach. I overcame the fear and was practically brought to tears as the likes and comments multiplied minute after minute. To date, it has 124 likes and over 60 comments! I overcame the fear and chose to open it up and put it out there, and people resonated very deeply with it.

I'd been carrying this fear around with me for a really long time, though. And it was bugging me to see person after person engage with my Facebook wall or blog posts and the whole time I was left feeling like they were really interacting with a cardboard cutout of me, instead of the REAL me. I know a lot of business folks, or just everyday people, who do this and are perfectly content with it.

I wasn't.

See, there's this trend that everyone's aware of but still participates in. A lot of people are going around posting the highlights of their lives and not really talking about whatever else is happening. I know this for a fact, because I know what people are going through and how it compares to what they show.

Welcome to the social media monster, right?

Wrong.

It doesn't have to be that way. In fact, the more I see people do this, the less I feel inclined to engage with them. And I was concerned people were getting that vibe from me, too. After listening to Pema Chödrön talk about "fake spiritual people" one day, I realized it was sort of my worst nightmare to be coming off as fake to anyone. I was talking about my life and the good and not-so-hot parts of it to other people but I wasn't really showing it publicly. I get the point of professionalism, really I do. But what's the point of that when I'm touting authenticity and fearlessness from one side of my face and pretending everything is fine and dandy from the other side.

I don't think I ever gave that impression but was focused on posting positive stuff to inspire and encourage people. Based on the response I received from that post the other day, people don't just want or need positive stuff. They certainly don't need more negative, cynical stuff but they want real. They want strife. They want to know how I struggle and overcome the same stuff they deal with every day.

I realized I wasn't sharing that with my folks and it wasn't serving me, personally or professionally.

I can't relate to someone who only shares smiles and sunshine. It tells me that person can't be present to the grief and darkness that is part of being human. And that isn't who I am or want to be for others.

I've gone through some very difficult times the past few months which included leaving a long-term relationship, moving all my worldly belongings twice in three months and opening a new office for my business. Not easy stuff, I tell ya.

It wasn't easy, but I did it all because I have learned how to take really good care of myself. In fact, those choices and changes are a RESULT of how well I take care of myself. It's all part of the same package. When I share that with people, it is the full picture of what's behind my healthy breakfasts, my personal-record-breaking jogs, my donut dates with good friends, the pink armchair in my new office and my selfies.

There was a time not long ago, several times in fact, where I couldn't stand my own reflection. To take a selfie and post it is a testament to how far I've come to appreciate my own likeness in the past few years.

This is what people need to see.

This is what people need to read about.

They don't need more resentment. They don't need more complaints. They don't need more advice telling them what to do or think or feel or say to be "right" or "wrong".

They don't need more pictures that highlight the good and make the pain or challenge invisible.

I don't believe it when I see it so I know people weren't believing it about me, either. People aren't stupid, they saw the void where a partnership used to be in my life. They saw a new table when I took pictures of my food.

By opening up and letting it all out, I invited them into what real transformation looks like, what real change requires and what real life is like when you're giving it all you've got to do the best you can.

I was afraid to be so real because I thought people would think I had nothing to offer them as a health coach. If my life isn't perfect, what would they have to learn from me?

I realized that wasn't true. The most valuable thing I can provide people is an example. I can show up fully and be a real example of the resilience, tenacity and self-love one needs to be your authentic self, to leave relationships that aren't supportive, respectful and loving, to pursue work that is meaningful and fulfilling and eat healthy food and exercise even when it feels like your life is falling apart.

I can show up fully, even when it's scary, to inspire other people to do the same.

 

What can YOU provide people? What would you share if you stepped into being fully authentic?