Sam (not her real name) leveled her gaze and looked me directly in the eye. “I’d like to hear from Otis,” she said. She and her team had just answered four powerful questions that lead to trust via vulnerability. My colleague, Pamela, was guiding this part of the workshop and had opened up this exercise by sharing her own answer. Then the twelve people in this group followed.
Sam came to the workshop skeptical. She said this directly in the opening. So when she leveled her gaze at me and looked me dead in the eye, I knew. I could feel where she was coming from and sense what her agenda might be. Pamela said, “No, Otis doesn’t need to go… we consultants don’t go. I just did it because we didn’t ask your boss to model it… so I did.”
Sam pressed. “I’d still like to hear from Otis.” And here’s what happened…
I can’t tell you that I really knew or now know what was going on, but I can tell you this: It was one of those times where time and place seem to fall away and the present moment is all there is. That’s the way it felt to me, and probably me alone. And I always take this as a marker to be awake. The feeling I had was that this was a pivotal moment where not just Sam but eleven other people would decide whether Pamela and I were real and embodied in what we were teaching or superficial and lacking in substance.
I smiled at Sam and said, “I’d be happy to.” And I answered these four questions from Patrick Lencioni’s book on building healthy teams called The Advantage. The four questions are called the “personal histories exercise.”
- Where did you grow up?
- How many siblings did you have?
- Where were you in the birth order?
- What was uniquely challenging for you growing up?
My Personal History
- I grew up in southwest Georgia in a small city called Albany.
- I had two other siblings, a sister and a brother. But my brother died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma on the eve of this 21st birthday.
- I was the middle child — my sister two years older than me, and my brother four years younger.
- What was uniquely challenging for me growing up was that when I was around age seven my parents looked like they were headed for divorce. My father was a psychiatrist and one school of thought at the time was that there should be no secrets in a family. So my parents told us the sordid details of the situation. I didn’t have the emotional capacity to handle that. It was too much for a child of my age, and of course for my younger brother and older sister. This situation was hard for me.
I went a little farther. I had a feel to tell Sam and her team how I actually use this “negative” life experience. One I wished had never happened by is now a big part of my transformational work.
“The way I coped with it way back then was to dissociate,” I said. “That is how my brain got wired.” I shared how when things get emotionally intense in my life today, such as when Sara and I have an intense conflict, that it feels as if my internal circuit breakers start to trip… and that causes problems. I withdraw, disconnect, can’t think, and in general become the least capable when I need to be the most capable. This is a barrier in my relationships, particularly with Sara.
“Strangely, this is also a gift,” I shared. “I actively work at this. Every small stride I make in doing this differently — in stopping the circuit breakers from tripping, or slowing them down, or getting them to reset more quickly — brings more closeness and love into my relationship with Sara. I believe in myself more. I am capable of different behaviors and actions. Sara sees me struggle, and she both understands what I’m up against and challenges me to work with it. And I do. This is part of my personal transformation work. This is one of my growing edges.”
“Working on my growing edge brings tremendous meaning to my life,” I added. “So while the experience was negative and I wish it had never happened, it did. And working with it actively makes me more capable of love. So it isn’t all bad, is it?”
I was vulnerable and I guess I passed her test because she nodded affirmatively and smiled. We moved on, and I was able to use what I’d shared to add color to other points we covered during the workshop. I was now more connected to the group, and the group to me. But this isn’t the most remarkable thing that happened. Here’s what was…
Vulnerability Brings Connection
After everyone on this team had answered the four questions, something very novel occurred. One person said, “You know, I was affected by all of your honesty. I went first, and I wasn’t fully honest with you. I feel now like I can. Here’s what I left out…” Everyone was moved and humbled and touched by her additional sharing. I could feel the connections amongst these people deepen a click.
Then, someone else spoke up. He said, “You know when I answered I said I couldn’t tell you what the most challenging thing was for me growing up because it was too deep, and I told you the second most challenging thing? I’ve realized now that I can tell you the most challenging thing… and I’ve never spoken about this publicly before…”
He shared something that would open even the most closed heart. We all sat for a moment in awe of what had just happened.
This team was now connected in a much deeper way. Via a simple, 30-minute exercise. Vulnerability engenders trust. Because you connect at a human level, and the human condition is that no one escapes childhood unscathed. It doesn’t matter so much what happened to us then as the meaning that we make of it now. That, and how we work with it as the repercussions echo in our daily lives.
(By the way, if one of these early childhood issues is an issue for you like it is for me, I highly recommend an audio program that Sara recommended to me. It is by Daniel Siegel, MD, and it is called The Neurobiology of We. It is only available as an audio program and it goes into attachment theory, the brain and nervous system, and the power of narrative and integration.)
Vulnerability brings connection, but that’s not all. It is also a portal of liberation. Of cutting and casting aside the ties that bind.
Vulnerability Brings Liberation
Lily Tomlin once famously quipped, “I’ve always wanted to be somebody. But I see now that I should have been more specific.” Such it is for many of us. We aren’t focused on revealing who we are but, instead, on trying to be somebody. It’s a travesty, the cost. We are holding up a social mask, a lie, and continue feeding it with time, money, and energy.
In Bob Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Andy Flemming, and Matthew Miller’s Harvard Business Review article Making Business Personal (April 2014) they make the following statement. I happen to believe it is one of the more profound statements I’ve ever read. Because I’ve seen how true it is and the waste and suffering that arises from the dynamic they are pointing to:
“To an extent that we ourselves are only beginning to appreciate, most people at work, even in high-performing organizations, divert considerable energy every day to a second job that no one has hired them to do: preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves. We believe this is the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company today.”
If we could actually allow ourselves to feel just how much this “keeping up appearances” and our “social mask” zaps us, we’d collapse into a heap of exhaustion at the realization. This pretending may help us survive in the world out there, but we sure can’t thrive. We can’t thrive when we aren’t being us. But who am I?
When people used to say to me, “Just be yourself,” I felt like I wanted to throw myself off a cliff. They made it sound so easy. But, firstly, I didn’t have a clue as to who — or what — I was. Secondly, I was pretty sure they didn’t know who they were either so the advice felt pretty hollow.
Being clear and honest about and owning what’s happened in my life, the meaning I’ve made of it, how it affects me now, and how I am working with it helps me reveal to myself who I am. Ceasing the game of pretending to be something we are not can start this way.
Vulnerability frees us to own the light and shadow of our personal history and to stop pretending that we haven’t been shaped and influenced and impacted by these experiences. We aren’t machines. We are humans. We have our strengths and higher potentials, and we have our wounds and our shortcomings. Healing (integrating) the wounds and transforming the shortcomings enables our purpose and unleashes our higher potentials.
Courage Powers Vulnerability
Every act of vulnerability is an act of courage. One of our deepest fears is that if others were to know us for who and what we truly are, we’d be alone. And, at a very primal level, being left alone is tantamount to dying. So we are pretty motivated to be pleasing enough that the tribe doesn’t reject us. But in this way, we can sell out our true selves: We then find ourselves in the business of bending and forcing ourselves into being someone who is at least acceptable enough that we aren’t tossed aside and left alone. All alone. Yet we are making a very huge assumption — that others will like us less and not more if we reveal our true selves.
Further, it rarely occurs to us that we ourselves are often attracted more to people who are open and vulnerable than those who act as if they are invincible and beyond reproach. It doesn’t occur to us that it just might work both ways. That others might find our flaws, struggles, foibles, wounds… and the courage we summon to work with them rather than wallow around in them… to be attractive, encouraging, and inspiring.
Turning Into the Places that Scare You
Vulnerability means turning into the places that scare you, the places you avoid. It isn’t easy. Yet doing so enables us to redirect the energy we burn in pretending to be something we are not into discovering and becoming who we truly are. We already have all the power we need for transformation. We just need to redirect it from one place to another. From pretending to transforming. From fear to love. From force to strength. From weakness to belief in ourselves.
This quotation, for me, sums it all up so well…
“Confess your hidden thoughts.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, let it go.
Go to the places that scare you.”
— Advice from her teacher to the Tibetan yogini Machik Labdrön
Hiding and Faking
How do we make this real? The four “personal histories exercise” questions are simply one way and one that isn’t always workable. So how do we cultivate vulnerability in real life? There are many ways. Here’s one.
Every human being has a common affliction: egotism. It is the universal shortcoming. My mentor once told me that all other shortcomings flow from this one, and that is is helpful to work with both the universal shortcoming afflicting us all and the shortcoming more specific to our personality type.
Egotism manifests in one of two ways:
- Self-Importance (Active, Arrogance)… leading to, among other things, faking.
- Self-Pity (Passive, Insecurity)… leading to, among other things, hiding.
Faking it means acting as if you have it all together, have all the answers, already know, are invincible, are beyond reproach. Here we avoid admitting weakness or mistakes. We avoid including the perspectives and opinions of others. We avoid being influenced. We overassess our value and diminish the value of others. This egoic contrivance is basically, “the best defense is a good offense.” And, frequently, others find us offensive.
Hiding means trying to fly beneath the radar, avoiding being called on, being called into question, having beliefs or positions challenged. We avoid being challenged or taking any real risk. We diminish and squelch our own value. This egoic contrivance is basically, “the best offense is a good defense.” And, frequently, others find us weak or simply inconsequential. Because we believe we are and we are acting as if we are.
You Can Start Here
So, which is more like you? When your ego is running the show, are your behaviors more like those of a faker or a hider? Don’t know? No problem. Simply set your intent to notice. Map this out. See all the flavors of your egoic doings. Differentiate them. Tease all the behaviors out. Start listing them. In what situations do these behaviors start to happen? What are you feeling inside when they do? What are you thinking? What are the benefits of these behaviors? And the costs… to you, to others, to the situation, to life?
Then, as you summon your courage in both hands, systematically stop doing those things. Stop faking, hiding, or both. Start small, and increase as tolerated. Know that this will be uncomfortable. Know your ego will fight back and try to cripple your efforts. Turn into the places that scare you. And, therein, bring your light.
Thus, one shortcut to unleashing the liberating power of vulnerability is to stop faking or hiding. This is the most fundamental act of personal development. And this happens to be one wonderful place to start. You may not know who you are. It doesn’t matter. Just systematically strip away all that you are not. And there you stand, over time, in your own time, revealed. And you just might find that other healthy people feel much, much more connected and attracted to this you than the you that you’ve contrived yet you are not.
We don’t know who we are until we stop pretending to being someone or something we are not. We may think we know, but we don’t. Not even we can know ourselves until the social mask drops. But then, we are free. And vulnerability is the way. This, my friend, is the liberating power of vulnerability. What would this world be like if we all tapped this power?
What would this world be like if you did? That is a question worth pondering. I know I am.