Sharing five realizations that have made me more vulnerable (and stronger) than ever before.
In the interest of practicing what I preach about vulnerability, I’m sharing the five unfiltered realizations that have surfaced recently — in the hopes that they resonate with others struggling in similar situations, that they inspire more authentic conversation, and that they help alleviate some sense of suffering.
- I Thought My Mother Wound Was Healed, But I Was Wrong
Even after a decade and a half of therapy, I couldn’t shake the deep knowing that I was still carrying a lot of childhood trauma. My need to earn love — because I didn’t believe that I simply deserved it — presented itself in interesting ways in my work, with friends, and in relationships.
How It Played Out In My Career
In my role as former owner of a digital marketing agency, it used to arise in a perception of competence with clients. Over-delivering and responding to every email within five minutes gave clients peace of mind, and the praise I received was a secondary gain. But it wasn’t sustainable or emotionally healthy for anyone involved. Luckily, I found a behavioral therapist early on who trained me out of that habit; however, the underlying need was still omnipresent.
Just recently, I agreed to take on a consulting client that I knew was not an ideal fit for several reasons, but the need to prove my worth overrode my intuition. After just a month, I was able to part ways amicably, and I’m doubling down on a combination of checks: gut-check, prospect checklist, and saying no more often.
How It Played Out With My Friends
One of my best friends, Julie recently questioned why I pay the bill every time when we go out for drinks or dinner. It was just who I was, who I’d always been. She probed further to ask if (a) I thought it would make her like me more, even after twenty-four years of friendship, and (b) if I’d ever considered how it made her feel (i.e. that she couldn’t afford her share). It was the first time I considered that I could have subconsciously been paying in order to earn love — and no, I’d never considered that it alienated my friends or triggered their own self-worth issues! Now, I’m highly conscious of this and am trying hard to self-affirm that my friends love me for exactly who I am, not what I do for them.
How It Played Out in Love
In romantic relationships, I was the opposite of the confident persona that most perceived me to be. When it came to love, I constantly craved words of affirmation. I’d never thought of myself as emotionally co-dependent, but I was trying desperately to fill an internal void where the natural love of my biological mother should have set a solid foundation, but never existed.
My experience with early childhood into adolescence left me fractured, believing that if I worked hard at being perfect then I could be worthy of someone’s love. Conditional logic at its best.
It also left me with some coping mechanisms that were not conducive to communicating effectively with a partner, such as shutting down or freezing emotionally, and retreating into the protective space of my own mind.
The last six months of diving into a combination of mind training, Buddhist psychology and shadow work have helped me more than those fifteen years of traditional therapy combined. And that’s not a knock on therapy at all; I am only grateful because it was exactly what I needed at the time. If we’re not constantly feeling the effects of outgrowth, then we’re not evolving.
The wound is the place where the light enters you.
As opposed to avoiding the work, I’ve learned to embrace the process to the point where I now look forward to the moments where pain gives way to healing.
2. Maintaining Eye Contact Was Uncomfortable, But Why?
Active listening is a large part of what I do for a living as a transformation coach to creative agency leaders. I intuitively and effortlessly maintain eye contact the entire time anyone is sharing with me. I’m so good at it that most people feel comfortable sharing intensely personal thoughts and feelings with me.
However, whenever it comes time for me to voice a personal anecdote or share my experience, I realized that keeping eye contact is extremely difficult.
I’ve come to understand that my strength as a listener and my ability to really see others is in direct opposition to my own comfort level with being seen — which is why maintaining a connected gaze while speaking has been a challenge.
Those who know me well may have wondered why I habitually look away when we sit across the table from one another. I started to notice it too and wondered why and how it had become my default behavior.
Part of the work I’m doing now is to remain conscious of the underlying reason for not wanting to be seen — fear of exposure: that someone may not like what they see underneath and decide that I’m no longer deserving of their love. I’m also developing the innate knowing that who I am at the core is not only worthy of love, but is genuinely kind, strong, compassionate and honest.
3. I Had Undervalued My Friendships
Throughout my entire life, I’ve attracted amazing friends. However, I kept them somewhat at a distance by developing a façade of strength, resilience and optimism. They come to me for guidance, and I thrive in that role. I wouldn’t dare let them see the cracks, so I became an expert at patching.
It wasn’t until going through the process of uncoupling that I had no choice but to surrender. I simply didn’t have the strength to keep lifting the palette knife.
I didn’t know I could show up at 6:00am at a friend’s apartment to ugly cry while she held me, wrapped me in a blanket, made me coffee and then cleared my heavy, dense energy with Palo Santo — until I did it.
None of my friends would ever question my dedication, commitment or love for them. And I’ve never once questioned theirs. Yet, I’ve never given any of them the opportunity to envelop me, to care for and nurture me in that way because I thought I could never fall apart in front of them. Doing so might change their rock-like perception of me, or create fear in them that if I couldn’t hold it together, maybe they couldn’t either.
Either way, these were false assumptions and stories I was telling myself, rooted in self-protection. Of course I could be raw and radically honest about my emotions with my friends. And of course they would welcome me with open arms, hold me as long as I needed them to, and help me to build myself back up.
Some of these bonds were formed more than twenty years ago and some are just a few years in the making, yet the last few months have not only strengthened them more so than any other period in my life, and also surfaced their profound importance. Going forward, the difference is all in how I prioritize them, regardless of my relationship status.
4. My Spirituality Lacked Depth
Three and a half years ago, I never felt as vulnerable as the day after I sold my company. At thirty-six, my ego was stripped bare. I didn’t know who I was or what I was going to do with my life.
Not surprisingly, I was drawn to the one realm I had repressed for so long: spirituality.
I became curious about mindfulness, meditation, Buddhism, shadow work, energy, intuition and the like. I dipped my toe into every corner of the pool and believed that I was forming my own brand of spiritual practice. Yet, when I was able to be the most observant and aware of my own consciousness — in times when I felt most alone — it became glaringly obvious that my approach wasn’t providing the depth that I needed at the soul level.
Wearing my mala, reading, attending guided meditations each week, journaling, visiting monasteries, and expressing gratitude for things that most people would complain about all sounded good, but it felt like surface spirituality.
I knew I needed to recommit and develop a deeper practice if I was going to discipline my mind, open my heart, liberate my soul, and live the rest of my life on purpose.
As one of my friend’s put it, “you’ve walked the buffet line and sampled everything along the way, now go get an actual plate and sit down to eat.”
It reminded me of the poem, Love After Love, by Derek Walcott:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
5. I Never Knew How Afraid I Was To Be Alone
Last and perhaps most terrifying, I discovered just how fearful I was of being solo. In the midst of this recent holiday season, I had no choice but to feel. Deep emotions of failure, guilt, shame, and loneliness overshadowed my thoughts, observations and behaviors.
The truth was, like most people, I was so afraid to really see who I was when no one else was around, that I would have done anything to avoid it — but I knew I couldn’t sidestep myself much longer.
People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
― Carl Jung
Pushing through the moments of sheer terror forced me to observe, feel, surrender and release the fears that were underpinning all of it.
While there are times when I do feel lonely, those are becoming fleeting because I am deepening the constant reminder that I am love, and I am rooted in oneness and part of something greater than myself.
I’m no longer afraid to be alone because I know that I have everything I need within myself. Relying on someone else to feel complete only indicates that those old wounds need more work. And they will. And that’s okay.
My takeaway is that the realizations, insights and a-ha moments help to form the bigger picture. They allow us to see how our past experiences have imprinted and shaped who we are. Once we’re aware, we can do the work to clear, heal, and move on to the next one. And there will always be a next one.
Embracing our raw humanness is the real work. For many, it takes a major upheaval to force us to listen to the nuanced silence within and sit with it, to look closer and become intimately familiar with ourselves, and to start to fully accept and love the darker parts we thought we could keep buried for a lifetime.
Vulnerability will show you your strength. And trust me, however strong you thought you were will pale in comparison to the resilience you will come to realize is already inside of you.